I decided to move off the beaten path after Hue, said goodbye (well, more like “see you later”) to my friends and headed over to Son Trach. The north central portion of Vietnam remains largely skipped over by travelers, but that will change soon enough. Enormous caves and parks have been opened to the public in the last decade, and as the infrastructure and accommodations improve, the backpacker trails will inevitably shift to Son Trach.
Still a very sleepy town, Son Trach’s major draw is its location. It’s a perfect jumping off point for day trips into the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and its many cave systems. At this point in time, the world’s largest cave system is still not open to the general public, but I was still lucky enough to spend time in Paradise Cave, a 7km cave which was used for shelter during the Vietnam war (or, as it’s referred to here, the American War). After climbing 518 steps, give or take a few, you find yourself descending into a cool, damp amphitheater, brilliantly back lit by lamps for both aesthetic and safety. Honestly, if you want to feel like you’re on a different planet, don’t bother with space tourism (yes, that’s a thing). Just head down into one of these caves, and you’re no longer on an Earth you’re familiar with. The sheer size of the place, combined with the cold, smooth surfaces and wet, sticky air, gave me the feeling I was transported to a far off world. Either that, or a movie set. I kept waiting for James Cameron to yell “Cut”, but it never happened.
After the cave I found myself eating a tasty lunch on a stilted bamboo hut with the sounds of a rushing river below me. I now consider those sounds to be an open invitation, so after tastefully shoveling my food into my mouth, I dove into the waters and was soon joined by the rest of my tour group. We spent a good hour or so rock jumping and swimming, which was a welcome reprieve from the humid weather of the region.
With Son Trach checked off my list, it was time to visit Ninh Binh. Many travelers in Son Trach had sung its praises, and as it was conveniently on the way to Hanoi, it wasn’t even an option to miss it. The journey there wasn’t easy. After one missed bus (not my fault, I swear), one overpriced motorbike ride, one 6 hour wait, and one 8 hour bus ride, I found myself in Ninh Binh. Problem was, it was 3am, my guesthouse was closed and no one was answering the front door. I looked for a comfortable bench to sleep on, but the rats had already taken all the good ones. Luckily for me, Vietnam is still a pretty busy place in the early morning. People watching and bowls of pho noodles kept me pretty entertained, and at 8am I was able to arrange a bed for some much needed sleep.
I woke up around mid-day, ate half of a duck, jumped on a bike and headed over to Tam Coc. Tam Coc, which translates to 3 caves, consists of a scenic river which runs through rice fields, karst mountains and a series of small caves. I hired a rowboat, and as my guide alternately rowed with her hands and feet, I slowly moved across the still water through rich green, rice patties and towering limestone mountains. The 2 hour trip is a unique and affordable way to get close to karst mountains and get lost in their beauty. I’m surprised there weren’t more foreigners there, but with everyone in such a hurry to get to Hanoi (only about 2 hours north of Ninh Binh), I guess it’s understandable. Still, such an opportunity lost!