Monday, 12 November 2012

Caves, Chickens and More Cramped Travelling

Well. The sleeper train was quite the experience. After the nearly-missing-the-bus incident we made sure to get to the right train station in plenty of time. Our taxi this time was a chevrolet swift - possibly the only car smaller than a kia picante but we are pretty used to a snug journey these days. It was a lovely place to spend an hour - sweaty, busy and full of people staring at us (and we were sitting next to a man with a lot of pig feed). We had booked our tickets to stay in a four person cabin and keeping our fingers crossed we weren't joined by anyone too strange/anyone at all. That illusion lasted until we got in the train and tried to work out which six person cabin we were in. Not the same one as it turns out. We sat in the same one foolishly thinking it wouldn't be full, but this is 'nam (man) and a favourite pastime seems to be ramming people into small spaces like battery hens. Bryony and Lauren drew the short straw and although together were in a cabin with two families. Two men, two women and two children. I know what you're thinking, you've counted 6 already. But what's another two people in such spacious accommodation? I was in a room with two couples (one European, the girl of which was far from happy) and a Vietnamese lurch look alike. I'm not sure why but the people of 'nam love to hock/grunt and it is rancid. (The guys also have hideously long nails but apparently this is a status thing to show you don't have to work with your hands). As far as room mates go they were fine, but I wouldn't say we were fresh and well rested by the time we arrived in Dong Hoi. And don't even ask about the toilet (or the man I walked in on at 3.30am).
Not in view: another two bunks
Roomy - you couldn't sit up straight
This is genuine joy - 2 seconds earlier all the power had gone off

Thankfully our transfer to the Farm Stay was an absolute breeze: we left the station and a man with a 4x4 (that actually felt safe) and a sign was there to meet us and ferry us there. Novel!

Toenail Update: (consider yourself warned before reading this next bit)
We arrived, chowed down breakfast and checked into the dorm where I felt strong enough to tend to my feet. Armed with my nail scissors and Lauren's manicure kit I set about attempting to trim/file whilst muttering 'I'm a surgeons daughter' under my breath when things made me feel faint (one really shouldn't ever have to cut the bottom of one's toenail). One of the guys running it had spotted my rank toes and just after I had made them look almost normal and strapped them into place he arrived with a Vietnamese lady who happened to be a nurse. She removed my carefully applied tape, said 'OH', ferreted about in my first aid kit and started snipping. No chat, no nothing. Just straight in there. Obviously I couldn't look but Lauren's face, Bryony's gasps and the sound of the scissors gave me a pretty good idea of what was going on down there. And just like that my toenail was gone. Gone! 10 had become 9. She swabbed with iodine, covered it up and was on her way leaving me in a small state of shock. I'm doing my best not to think about the nailess stump that is now my big toe.
Taking a break from toenail tending (they were still both there at this point)

Anyhoo we had a lovely day in the rural countryside (including a rare spot of sun) and spent our Saturday evening drinking tea, eating peanut m&ms and playing scrabble...and were still the last ones to bed. Rock and Roll.

Phong Nha Ke Bang is a national park in central 'nam with huge limestone karsts and is known for its amazing caves. We visited a selection of them and thanks to our informative guides we learned a lot about how the caves were formed (very pure limestone eroded away by water) and how the area was used during the war. It was all very interesting and has sparked an interest in the war which is good considering there is more to do the further down we go (saying that I still have no idea why America and 'nam were at war but my friend google will hopefully help). It was also really fun learning about sink holes and how they're trying to find out where they come from. There is one that always rises 4 days after it rains in Laos so they think it's fed from a cave there. It was also odd being on a touristy tour, but being the only westerners there. It felt very quiet and we are in a lot of local's photographs! We saw a selection of caves - the 8 ladies cave (v. sad back story involving 8 people being stuck in a cave), paradise cave (which is huge and pretty (and up a lot of steps)) and the dark cave (more on that in a moment). After lunch we were taken to a river, led over some very precarious bamboo bridges and rocks to a lovely (and COLD) spot for swimming and chilling (quite literally) We then headed to another river spot where we were given headtorches (fetching and smelled like badger) hopped into kayaks (unexpected) and paddled to another cave (doubly unexpected). All 3 of us hopped in, with two half paddles (Lauren lording it up in the middle with a 'sore wrist'). After about 5 full revolutions we put the paddles together and I paddled us to catch up with the others (Bryony and I were not a winning team). They took us to a cave, which we walked into an promptly started swimming through. Before long it was ever so dark and we were floating into the unknown (bats and all). We hit a point where we couldn't go any further (well not in bare feet and a life jacket) and all turned our torches off and this is when our guide chose to tell us about the cave's wildlife. I can confirm that there is nothing quite like the feel of gravel on top of your newly naked toe. Ugh. On the kayak back we couldn't break our circular trajectory (poor team work and a small kayak) and were toed back in by a canoe. Excellent. Apparently that kayak trip broke up a couple once - when they got back to the farm they got on buses in the opposite directions.

There's a story about rockets being launched at this wall and people hiding in tunnels but I can't remember exact details

The jurrasic park-esque golf cart up to the cave steps

A very small portion of Paradise Cave
The River we Swam in
swimming in the lake (including flattering waterlines)

Lauren personifying beauty and grace (we did have to go under the water at this point)


Shortly before the rescue

excellent framing

our rescue team

We had an early start this morning to catch the public bus to Hue. As is fast becoming standard this was a far from pleasant experience! The mini'bus' arrived shortly after 5 and was completely empty but we were ordered into the back row (we'd picked up Australian Patrick so we were 4 at this point). So far, ok. 4 of us in 4 small seats. The driver had thoughtfully left the lights on and the windows open so the biting life was there like a welcoming committee for us and proceeded to feast on any exposed skin. The next pick up more people farmed in an there was much rummaging going in behind us. We turned round to see that they were putting a motor bike in the boot. Yes, a motor bike in the back of a minivan. Why not? We were distracted from the fact our bags were on the road in the rain by our chair backs being thrust forward leaving us sitting at a very strange angle. It was then we realised the plastic bag on the bike was flapping and clucking. A live chicken, in a plastic bag, on a motorbike, in the boot of a minibus. How on earth do you even get a live chicken in a plastic bag? Our bags were then rammed back in and as Lauren's was thrown in top of the bike the chicken bag became very silent.(I should mention it was centimeters from our seats, we were practically sitting on top of it. On we went, picking up more people along the way. As the only white faces we were quite the focal point and I think it's safe to say we were almost definitely being laughed at. The driver also mentioned that yes there were 4 seats but in Vietnam that means 5 people. Which I imagine is fine if you are Vietnamese sized. Again, the seat to seat length was exactly the same as my thigh length so it was a very cosy journey indeed. For 5 hours. 5 HOURS jammed into a very small space knowing there was a chicken corpse right there. I should also mention there was also no suspension so it was ever so bumpy. However, just when it seemed it would never end we were ejected in Hue (pronounced like a combination of Juan and Wahey) and as luck would have it we were but meters away from our Hotel. Every cloud and all that.

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