Vietnam is full of surprises. Traveling in Vietnam is hard because no matter how much you have planned, you’ll always find out about one or two new places to add to your itinerary. Just a heads up, this is not a Phong Nha travel guide, but that’s not saying that you won’t learn a thing or ten from my misadventures in this rural Vietnamese paradise. I hadn’t even heard of Phong Nha until I arrived in Phong Nha. How did that happen? I hopped on my bus to Ninh Binh at around 5 PM. As expected, that bus did not leave until a few hours later, after the rest of the tourists going to other destinations joined us.
I was dead tired and fell asleep before the bus even left Hanoi. I was unconscious for the next several hours.
I woke up to the bus driver angrily screaming at me. “FANG NA! FANG NA! FANG NA!”
I was the last person on the bus. It was 5 AM. What the fuck was a fangna? The streets were desolate as all of the other backpackers had likely made their ways to their hostels by now. On the bottom shelf of the back row of sleeper seats, I was probably lucky that the bus driver even noticed me before heading to the next destination.
Phong Nha seemed small enough, so I grabbed my bags, my trusty rice hat, and started pacing around looking to get Wi-Fi and a place to stay. Where the fuck was I?
I rolled into a place called Easy Tiger and was basically just desperate for help at that point. “Sorry, we’re booked for the night.”
Alright, cool. I connected to the Wi-Fi to see where I even was. Phong Nha? Well, this definitely isn’t Ninh Binh. Like any self-respecting millennial, the next thing I did was check my Instagram.
Cue the ridiculously well-timed deus ex machina.
“Hey! I saw you were in Vietnam. If you’re ever in Phong Nha, let me know and we can arrange a homestay and a tour for you!”
Thus began the most unexpected, strange, and hilarious few days of traveling I have ever had. I agreed to do a tour the following day, which left me without any clue what to do with my current day.
“What the fuck are you doing here? I thought you were going to Ninh Binh?” A British couple that I met in Ha Long Bay appeared out of nowhere. “We’re renting bikes and just going to ride around the area. Wanna come?”
*text message chime*
“Oh, and here’s a suggestion for things to do in Phong Nha if you aren’t busy today”
And thus, a plan was set.
Phong Nha, Part 1: What the Duck?
For those familiar with Phong Nha, you probably know the route that most people take when exploring Phong Nha. For those, like me, who have never heard of Phong Nha, it is quite an eclectic mix of things to do.
Our first stop was a little bar next to a bomb crater. Sounds cool, right? To quell your expectations a little bit, it’s really just a big hole in the ground. You can walk in said hole, though. My friends had some coconuts there before we continued to the more difficult stretch of cycling. Lean off the highway and onto a dirt road and you’re at the beginning of an exciting loop full of ducks, beer, and more.
Once we got to the rocky part of the road, we decided to stop for lunch at a place where they cook pork in a bamboo shoot. The downhill stretch on our rickety bikes did not feel all too safe, but we made it in one piece. We were starving, which was perfect because the process of cooking pork inside bamboo takes… way too long. It was neat to watch, and thankfully the two girls I was with were not capable of finishing their bamboo pork so I was able to stuff my face.
Biking back up that hill with a full stomach and a little buzz was not particularly easy. Our next stop was Phong Nha’s pride and joy: The Pub With Cold Beer. Along with cold beer, you have the option of killing your own chicken for lunch. We collectively decided against it and opted to just enjoy our cold beers. It is a nice place to hang out, though. It’s got a volleyball court, plenty of beer, and two adorable little girls that will sing you a song if they like you. The older one guessed that I was about 30 years old, which I didn’t appreciate.
After hanging out at the Pub With Cold Beer for entirely too long, we decided to head on our way to The Duck Stop.
What The Duck?
Quynh’s Duck Stop is a popular hit with travelers who make their way to Phong Nha. Unlike the big cities of Vietnam, most of Phong-Nha’s attractions center around nature and the rural area. The Duck Stop is a prime example. Here, you can play with ducks. On the way here, we had an argument about whether the hostel receptionist said 100 ducks or 1000 ducks. Although 1000 ducks would have been a sight to see, it was definitely closer to just 100 ducks. We did see thousands of ducks cross the road later on in the day, though, so maybe they were headed home to Quynh’s.
Feeding the ducks was an interesting experience, but we were not prepared for what was next.
“Pick up a duck.”
“Pick up a duck.”
Okay… Maybe for a photo op? Nope. We each grabbed a duck (which is a lot harder than any of us expected) and followed the man to a small pond.
“Throw the duck. It’s good luck.”
After all the misadventures that led me to Phong Nha, I was in need of good luck, so I chucked the cluck out of that duck. No questions asked.
Next up was swimming with water buffalo in the river. We piled up in a cart pulled by the might carabao named Donald Trump. Could you believe it? A Trump I actually liked? It took us to a river where each one of us got to hop on Trump and have him swim us around for a bit. Being from the Philippines and growing up with my fair share of carabao, I opted to stay dry this time around.
After more beer, we decided to head to our final destination for the day. While I stayed at the ever popular Easy Tiger hostel, another option for those looking for a more local setting is Farmstay Village. It is outside of the small “hub” of Phong Nha, if you could even call that short stretch of businesses a hub. It’s apparently a popular spot to have some beers and watch the sunset, so for the first time on this unexpectedly busy day, we were on a time constraint.
We had to bike our butts off to make it in time for the sunset. This day has gone swimmingly well! It’d be a shame if…
My Bike Broke
What’s the likelihood that your free bike from a hostel will break at some point? Probably really high. It wasn’t a devastating break by any means, but one that was severely hindering me. My kickstand was stuck to my bike wheel, so I only had one wheel working while lugging around dead weight. Doesn’t sound that bad? When you’re slightly drunk and on a time constraint, any minor inconvenience becomes a major inconvenience.
I was pedaling five times harder than anyone else and still going at about half their speed. We made it to Farmstay Village with seconds to spare. Thankfully, the sunset sucked so it didn’t feel like we missed out on anything. In a day filled with unnecessary beers, we had more unnecessary beers there before hopping on a shuttle back to town, thankful that we didn’t have to bike back in the dark with my bum wheel.
Time to Take it Easy (Tiger)
We made it back to Easy Tiger, which thankfully has a pool, well-stocked bar, and a fun crowd of people. The night was young, but my day was long and I had to be up early the following day to actually do what tourists come to Phong Nha for: the caves and the national park.
While that day was much more structured, leaving me a lot less room to continuously screw up, I do have to say that it might not have been memorable as my accidentally great first day in Phong Nha.