Melanie and I were a bit drained (in every way possible) after arriving in Hue, so we took the next day to relax, catch up on writing, and do some planning for our next leg (Thailand for me!). That evening we took the night bus to Phong Nha, which turned out to be an unexpected treat. It’s a little nothing town filled with backpackers passing through on their way to this or that city, but we loved it. Newly obsessed with scooting, we rented bikes the following day, eager to cruise and check out the various caves, which are the main reason traveler come through town.
There’s something incredible about putting in your headphones, jumping on your bike and just cruuuuiiising. I feel a calm and exhilaration at the same time that I can’t really describe. It gives me the opportunity to look around, take in the beauty of this earth and truly appreciate what it means to be alive. I think it’s what my childhood dog, Booker, must have felt when he sat in the front of our boat, riding up and down Lake Freeman with the wind in his face. I get it now, man. Phong Nha and it’s surrounding area provided some of the absolute best scenery in Vietnam (or anywhere I’ve been, for that matter), so with no lack of prime scooting roads, Melanie and I took full advantage.
The first cave we came to was basically set up for backpacking tourists. You pay one price and have a half-day adventure including a zip line across the lake, where you then swim into the cave, turn on your headlamps and hike through the massive, dark cave to the mud pit. You may be imagining a small, pond-like area of a bit of mud to paint on your skin or perhaps some muddy water. Um NO. We squeeze our bodies (in swim suits obvi) through mud crevasses, squishing our feet through muck as thick as clay, finally reaching the main attraction: A pit of mud so deep we waded in it up to our armpits. If you were ever in theatre you spent a decent amount of time perfecting slow motion movements. Why? No one knows. But it was a thing, and I received a degree for it. I now can fully understand exactly how slow mo movements should look because that it exactly what it was like to work through the thick mixture. It was so dense that you could sit in a chair-like position and be held up by the goo – like sitting in the Dead Sea. Swimming was not an option. In fact, getting your feet under you was a challenge enough, never mind trying to make headway with arm strokes. It was disgustingly awesome (and awesomely disgusting). Afterwards we slid down a natural mud slide into some chilly water to clean up, then made our way out of the cave to the lake where we kayaked and played on the swings and obstacle course. After lunch we road on and walked around the second cave, taking in its raw grandour.
The next day we planned to just ride around a bit more, which we did for a while, twisting through back roads and drawing confused stares (everyone kept pointing us towards the main road – not sure why…). But when we stopped at a cafe for iced Vietnamese coffees, I checked my Facebook and had a message from a friend. Gawel is Polish and had been an exchange student at my high school my senior year. From my pictures/posts he noticed I was in Vietnam, where he happened to be traveling as well. I asked him where he was.
“Dong Hoi,” he replied. About 45 kilometers away.
“Man, I’d really love to see him. I hope he can catch up to us,” I said to Melanie.
“Why don’t we just ride there?” she shrugged.
Praise God for Melanie and her “up for anything” attitude. So I told Gawel to stay put, we downed our coffees and jumped on our bikes. An hour or so later (after a not particularly pretty drive and a bit of dodging to avoid some cops) we were cruising into town. While Gawel and I had spent lots of time together at football games, play practice and parties, I hadn’t seen or talked to him in 13 years. 13 YEARS. But when we saw each other we embraced like old friends, laughing and telling one another that we hadn’t changed a bit (he hadn’t). We set right to work telling old stories, gossiping about classmates and catching up on what we’d been up to over the past decade. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my trip thus far – seeing my Polish friend after all these years in Vietnam of all places.
We talked and laughed over lunch, but sadly the day was slipping way and dark clouds were rolling in so Mel and I had to get on the road back to Phong Nha. Luckily the owner of the restaurant (an American from Kentucky) gave us two ponchos for our ride back, which ended up being a lifesaver as it absolutely poured. Just part of our training to become expert scooters, I suppose. This also resulted in one of Melanie’s favorite moments – my flimsy poncho had torn and was flapping behind me like a cape as I rode up next to her. She laughed so hard we had to pull over. That’s what happens with Melanie: a less-than-ideal situation turns into an adventure or favorite inside joke with one sideways glance.
After the rain the weather was turning colder. Little did we know this trend would continue for the remainder of our time in Vietnam. So the following day before our bus to Ninh Binh (Yes. ANOTHER bus), we curled up next to a fire, played speed, drank hot mulled wine and had more creative time. This relaxing day was just a tease because we were about to learn a very hard lesson: Vietnam can get COLD.