Vietnam by Moto Days 22-24: Underground in Phong Nha with a side of chicken

Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park was put on the tourist map when it became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2003 and is one of the high-ranking candidates for the seven new world natural wonders list. The park contains forestlands, karst mountains and a spectacular array of caves, including Han Son Doong, the world’s largest cave. This place has become a big stop on the “banana pancake trail” as the SE Asia route well-trod by backpackers is known. Looking at the signage and meeting some of the children, it’s clear that tourism has left an indelible mark. The kids whip out postcards to sell you. Others just say “f*you,” or say hello but then give a hand gesture asking for money. Construction is everywhere as the tourism increase has brought money to the local economy.

 

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The old normal Vietnamese sign on top. The fancy new tourist friendly sign on bottom.

 

Since our caving tour didn’t leave for a few days, Rob and I had plenty of time to relax and enjoy the beautiful countryside. With the threat of more rain, we decided to have an easy first day in Phong Nha seeing the town and doing errands. We went for a walk to check in with Oxalis and make sure we have all the gear for the trip. As soon as we finished trying on their trekking boots, the sky opened up. By the time, we made it back to the lunch spot we had chosen, we were both thoroughly drenched. After a okay meal of bùn thit nuong (rice noodles with grilled meat) and bánh loc (clear dumpling with shrimp steamed in a banana leaf), we holed up in our room under all the blankets (no heat) for the afternoon.

 

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Trying banh loc with shrimp. This one wasn’t very good.

 

Eventually, we dragged ourselves off for dinner at a pork bbq restaurant near the market before making it to Easy Tiger for happy hour. So begins my new favorite story (in hindsight of course)…

We were having a beer with some other friendly travelers and Max and as we get to talking about happy water (a local spirit that comes in reused water bottles), I remembered that we grabbed our bottle purchased outside Hue and Rob pulled it out to share. He takes one whiff and says he doesn’t think it’s alcohol. We all take a whiff and it’s definitely something very floral. One of the other backpackers stuck a finger in to take a tiny taste and immediately grimaces in disgust. Someone else takes another whiff and says well it still could be booze. That was enough for Rob – he grabbed the bottle, took a swig and made a grotesque face almost spitting it out. I’m not sure how he kept it down but the new conclusion was definitely not alcohol.

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Rob’s “Happy water” from outside Hue

I brought the bottle over the hostel reception and asked them to translate it for me – the answer was melaleuca oil or tea tree oil. Rob just drank a swig of tea tree oil! I immediately got on to the poison control website and start looking it up. The word toxic came up several times, but another website mentioned an LD50 that was way more than Rob had, but still… I tried to talk him into throwing it up/getting as much of it out as possible. He refused and continued drinking. Fast forward to the next morning. Rob felt terrible and kept hurling while I was on email writing Steph and Cheryl, our pharmacist friends to see if there’s anything else I should have been doing to help. Turns out some kids have gone into temporary comas after ingesting and it can also cause extended stomach discomfort. Thankfully, none of the terrible effects occurred and by the afternoon Rob was feeling better and we could get some errands done and go out for food.

I went to get the oil changed after our long rides thinking it was a simple task I could get done while Rob rested. After draining the oil, they took a look at the bike and noticed a spot without paint on our gas tank.  Over the next several minutes, the staff of the bike shop made explosion noises then told me through google translate that the gas tank was leaking and the bike could explode if the gas fell on the engine. An hour and $25 later, we had a new gas tank complete with new paint job, which delayed lunch a bit.

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Our tiny leak in the gas tank.

After finding this account of Moi Moi, I really wanted to check it out. As it was too late in the day to really go out to the caves like we had planned, we decided to get lunch there. Moi Moi is located in the same valley as the legendary Pub with Cold Beer, a restaurant that serves amazing chicken with peanut sauce, where we planned to go another day. The woman at Oxalis gave us the vague directions of “Follow the signs to pub with cold beer and it should be on the road before you get to the pub with cold beer.” We followed the signs and eventually reached pub with Cold Beer. No sign of Moi Moi anywhere, but one of the other tourists eating there had been to Moi Moi and told us to follow the road as it looped back to the highway. Turns out the Moi Moi (here) is closer to the highway on the other end of the loop road and our directions were fine if we had taken the second set of signs for pub with cold beer from the highway. (Note: they close at 5 pm)

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Relaxing in a hammock at Moi Moi

Our pork in bamboo cooking at Moi Moi

Our pork in bamboo cooking at Moi Moi

Lunch/Dinner at Moi Moi

Lunch/Dinner at Moi Moi

After they ordered, they went and split a piece of bamboo, stuffed it with pork then put it in the fire. Then, they went and picked the greens we ordered. It took awhile but it was definitely worth the wait and there are hammocks to chill in.

For our final relax day, we went to the 9 am Easy Tiger talk about the area sights to join a group for the Phong Nha and Tien Son cave tour. You pay a certain amount per boat, so it’s cheaper for everyone to have a full boat. After paying for everyone at the ticket counter in town, you bring the papers to the boat kiosk and they assign your group a boat. The boat takes you through the Phong Nha cave, then drops you inside the entrance on the return so you can hike through the Tien Son Cave and/or the array of souvenir shops. Our group opted to do both caves because the second one is pretty cheap (an extra $5)  and is much less crowded.

Boat to Phong Nga Cave

Boat to Phong Nga Cave

Entrance to Phong Nga Cave

Entrance to Phong Nga Cave

Inside Phong Nga Cave

Inside Phong Nga Cave

Tien Son Cave with walkways

Tien Son Cave with walkways

Cave Jellyfish in Tien Son Cave

Cave Jellyfish in Tien Son Cave

View from the trail to Tien Son Cave.

View from the trail to Tien Son Cave.

By the time we returned from the first two caves, it was too late to make the trek out to Paradise Cave. Instead, we grabbed a snack at A Vietnam Corner trying some of the local foods and then headed out to Pub with Cold Beer. The road was muddy and rough, so Rob took it slow. At one point, the mud got deeper and he dropped the bike. We were crawling along and just got a bit dirty as a result. Finally we arrived at Pub with Cold Beer.

Pub with Cold Beer is well-known as a great place to hang out with a cold beer and have a super fresh farm-to-table chicken dinner served with peanut sauce and greens grown on-site. The chicken dinner can be as DIY as you want. We did the killing and plucking of our dinner.

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Pub with Cold Beer!

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Rob picked our chicken. 1.4 kg live weight. 200k vnd/kg

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Preparing to kill dinner.

Rob killing our chicken dinner.

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Chicken plucking is hard work. You douse the bird in hot water to help get the feathers off.

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Naked chicken after plucking.

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We let them gut the chicken for us.

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Butterflied chickens cooking on the grill. The marinade smelled amazing.

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Finally dinner time! The freshest meat dinner we’ll probably ever eat. The peanut sauce was amazing!

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Mission complete. The three British guys who prepped chickens right before us polished off their 2 chickens, too.

We returned to town fully sated and ready for an evening of packing for our caving trip the next day.

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