Heading inland towards the hills is not only about climbing. Sometimes you have to descend. One way of doing this is to find some caves but heading this way is also giving me an opportunity to find out if the Ho Chi Minh highway is really as good for cycling as everyone says it is. Leaving Dong Hoi I never expected such a major difference in the highways but the traffic level dropped to almost nothing and the scenery became forest and mountains instead of buildings and rice paddies. I covered the 55 kilometres to Son Trach in what seemed like no time at all as I was enjoying it so much. I got passed by a couple of Basques on scooters that I had met the evening before in Dong Hoi. The shopkeeper probably couldn’t believe he had three westerners in his shop at the same time. We ate lunch at the ticket area of the cave system and were then joined by three Spaniards, two Americans and two Danes. As the conversation carried on through lunch I realised that I had better get onto a boat and head up to the cave soon or it would be too late. I joined a group of Vietnamese in the boat and had to endure the usual photography barrage. Now I know how the people dressed as the characters such as Mickey Mouse feel like in Disneyland. People (especially young girls) thrust their cameras into someones hands and tell them to take a picture of them with the westerner. Not asking if I mind at all they just jump into the space next to me and put their arms around me or make a peace sign and have a picture taken. An then they tell their friends to do the same. Although it can be amusing it’s also quite strange at times.
All except the first of these photographs are courtesy of Google
The cave at Phong Nha itself was amazing. The cave system is about 7.5 kilometres long although tourists are only allowed within the first 1500 metres of it. The boat passes through an immense entrance and winds through the most amazing collection of stalagmites and stalactites. A few coloured lights here and there add to the display. The boat pulls up on an inner beach where we were able to walk up a bank of sand and stone that rises about 30 metres above the water but still doesn’t come within 50 metres of the roof. A short walk around and back to the boat for the return journey. As the boats within the cave are manouvered  without engines the whole experience is quite eerie despite having about 30 or 40 boats within the cave at any time. I have to admit that the cave is an amazing display of natural engineering. The other system called Paradise cave is about 20 kilometres further on up the road so that was the destination for the next day. It’s just a shame that the other cave system in the region, which is confirmed as the largest cave system in the world, is not open to the public.
The following photographs are courtesy of Google
Setting off early to arrive about the same time as a Canadian and a Spaniard that I had met the evening before who were riding scooters to the cave I was passed by so many coaches that I thought the cave would be full before we got there. We arrived at 8 o’clock and found the car park about half full. The Vietnamese like to get things done early and are usually up with the sun about 5 or 5.30. It’s not surprising then to find them queuing up for tickets before the ticket office is open. We needn’t have worried though. Paradise cave is immense. The entrance cavern drops sharply into the biggest cave I have seen.  The walkway that has been built for visitors is 1.5 kilometres long and was almost full for its whole length with sightseers making the journey there and back. The stalagmites and stalactites in this cave made the previous days display look tame by comparison. Unfortunately my camera is not up to the task of capturing decent images in the dark so once again we thank Google for supplying us with the opportunity of stealing some.
The following images were all borrowed from Google. Don't worry though, I'll put them back again later.
Completely awed by another natural phenomenon I set off again to enjoy the rest of the days ride on the Ho Chi Minh highway. But first I had to ride another 12kms to get to it. Not wanting to rush things I decided to take a dip in the river. I found a spot where a pool had formed and jumped in. As it was nearly 2 o'clock the sun was fierce but luckily the pool had a shady side so I spent the next hour or so chilling out with a soak and a swim. Back on the bike again and down the valley to the Ho Chi Minh highway. What a road. Winding its way up a valley towards a stiff climb that then drops down into another valley, the scenery is fantastic. A beautiful road surface with almost no traffic but lots to see. How much better can it get ?
The one thing that is lacking along this road though is accommodation. Where highway one is a full on urbanised spread, the HCM highway is the complete opposite. With so few people living along this stretch of road there will always be a shortage of available rooms. There are still places to eat and drink but finding a town with a bed is not easy. I was lucky to find a place in a small village with no more than about thirty buildings. As it was dusk I asked a few people and eventually one decided to guide me there on his scooter. Basic but clean and tidy, it would be good for the night. As I had a shower I heard some scooters pulling up outside and saw half a dozen people turn up for a drink. Unfortunately they also decided to turn on the karaoke machine. What a racket. The Vietnamese must be the worst singers in the world, especially when drinking. Luckily for me they were only there for an after work drink and left within the hour. The rest of the evening was spent on the balcony eating iced lollies and gazing at the stars listening to my ipod. As I normally do when listening to my ipod I sang too, but at least I had the courtesy not to amplify it for others to hear.
It was a late start the next morning. 10.30 in fact due to a thunder storm. Every storm that I have experienced so far has been in the afternoon with a warning darkness descending well before time as the clouds thicken. When the wind picks up and a couple of spots of rain are felt there is time to find shelter before all hell breaks loose. The rain comes down in bucketfuls. Usually it lasts about 30 minutes and clears up very quickly with the sun coming out and drying the ground. This storm was the same but arrived in the morning. As soon as it cleared up I was on the road and grinning again due to the awesome beauty that surrounded me. Someone asked whether it really was this quiet or did I choose my time for the photos. Well, if choosing my time means riding on Monday then I chose my time. It really was this quiet.
It's so hard to believe that highway one is only about 30 kms away and running almost in the same direction.
The day was spent rolling along a gently undulating road that wound its way between Karst formations and along lush valleys. It felt just like a low alpine valley but with lush green semi-jungle around me most of the time. It's a spectacular road made even more so by the contrast with highway 1. The problem with accommodation didn't seem so bad today though when I stopped at a town and immediately saw the sign for a hotel. Just my luck that it was closed for renovation. I then had to continue for another hour to the next town and reached it just as it was getting dark. Son Pho is built around a crossroads and seems to provide everything that a town needs as long as it doesn't get too picky. Unfortunately the mangos weren't up to much at the market, a fact that has been repeated to me by Grace and David who are now in Hanoi. This is the end of the growing season for mangos so I hope that they have not all been taken away for export just yet. Bananas are few and far between also. I haven't even seen any for sale today. Not good at all especially when these two fruits are a part of my staple diet. I shall have to keep my eagle eyes open tomorrow while on the bike.
Maybe I will get lucky, but then again, being here would be lucky enough according to many people and I would have to agree with them. A case of having your mango and eating it, to paraphrase an old wives tale.

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