The Resurrection of Dong Hoi

Never heard of Dong Hoi? Neither had we – it was our pitstop to move on to bigger things –  some of the world’s largest caves, to be exact.   We chose to stay in Dong Hoi, which is 40 km. away from the park, for a few more amenities and access to our 5:00 am train to Hanoi.

We were very pleasantly surprised to arrive to this:

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March 31, 2017. Dong Hoi is a charming little city set on a river that spills out to the ocean, intersected by canals and lined with impeccably manicured parks and delightful French colonial homes. A broad promenade follows the curve of the river and it is actually possible to walk or ride a bicycle without fearing for our lives. Just to the north of the city are sand dunes and a 12-km. white sand beach.

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February 11, 1965. Due to its strategic location just north of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), Americans launched an intensive B-52 bombing attack that razed the city to the ground. Everything you see in these photos has been built since then – the only thing left standing after the bombing was a water tower, a citadel gate, a single palm tree, and this – the Catholic Tam Toa church, built in 1886.

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It is fenced off and stands as a reminder of the American War of Aggressors and the war crimes committed here. Signs were in Vietnamese, but for one small plaque in English and I was unable to find out numbers of casualties or many other facts about this event.  We haven’t been able to speak to many older Vietnamese because of the language barrier, but they are extremely friendly and welcoming. Evidence of the war is still everywhere in Vietnam and museums and memorials are important and eloquent reminders, but people want to look to the future. Outwardly, it seems, the war is over.

Dong Hoi was one of the poorest cities in Vietnam after the attack and the slow rebuild. Finally in 2000, the government recognized that the city needed significant financial aid and it shows in a civic pride that is not evident everywhere in SE Asia. Garbage on the street is at a minimum and tidy residents are out sweeping in front of their homes.

Boulevard plantings are inventive and precision-clipped. The boulevard leading along the riverfront is lined with shrubbery “boats.”

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The streets are cozy and filled with really pretty homes and hotels. The French colonial style found everywhere in Vietnam was not lost with the war – it has become the Vietnam style now.

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Just around the corner from our hotel:

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To appreciate the colour and life of Dong Hoi, we walked and biked in both directions along the waterfront and through the neighbourhoods. We wondered about the canals – how much they had to be rebuilt after the bombing.

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We found ourselves at the fish market, where the women were lined up to meet the boats coming in with their catches.

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We strolled unaccosted through the market until we hit a rowdy bunch of women selling produce. They called out to us and made rather cheeky suggestions about our love life;  that was the ice-breaker we needed to start kidding around with them. I have a huge soft spot in my heart for Vietnamese women. They are so hardworking and many of them have a tough life, but they’re resilient and funny and I believe their sisterhood keeps them going.

This woman was calling out to Stephen, demanding he take her photo.  (He gets the ladies wherever he goes.)

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Not to be outdone, this lady called out to me with her own duck lip pose.

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As we were walking home, Stephen noticed a photo place and we popped in to have a copy made of the photo of his new friend. We stopped by the market this morning to give it to her and the reaction was unbelievable. The women were shrieking and laughing and teasing her and she looked quite overwhelmed. For all her bravado, I’m quite sure this is the first time a foreign man has paid this much attention to her.

So…on to the caves. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site of 400-million-year-old karst topography  that contains the first and third largest caves in the world.There are not enough adjectives to adequately describe the many caves – we only saw two. They are all different, all spectacular in their own right and all worth visiting. Our next time in Vietnam, we would come back, stay for a number of days and take a more adventurous approach. Kayaking for 7 km. inside one of the caves is possible – so is zip lining and being buried up to your neck in mud in another.

For the well-heeled bucket-listers,  a 5-day trip through the world’s largest cave, Hang Son Doong, is yours for $3000 US. They only accept 500 people a year and there is a one-year waiting list. For that price, you and 9 other trekkers are accompanied by a 25-person team, including guides, a medic and 20 porters and you have the distinction of belonging to an elite group of adventurers.

The caves we saw, on our one-day outing in a minivan with 12 tourists, were quite beyond my expectations. Our guide Huong did a great job of explaining everything and also left us plenty of time to explore comfortably.

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First stop – the dock at Lipstick River to pick up our boat to Phong Nha Cave.

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We clambered into these skinny boats and settled down for a leisurely 30-minute ride down the river.  As soon as we entered the cave, the boat team removed the tarp roof, cut the engine and silently paddled into a jaw-dropping otherworld.

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Phong Nha Cave runs for 44.5 km. (but we only travel 1.5 km.), and it is 100 m. high and 150 m. wide at is largest point.  There are certain places in the world that defy description and challenge the average photographer. We all kept saying things like, “Oh my God”, “Wow”,”Surreal”, “Unbelievable”, and other pointless inanities.

The “wet” cave can only be visited in dry season and as it was, our boat barely fit under the first overhang; the water is higher than normal this year. We travelled through for about 45 minutes, trying to take it all in. Being in a massive cave can feel slightly claustrophobic, but in a strangely out-of-body way. I never felt the need to bolt to daylight, but it did alter my senses.

After we finished our ghostly boat tour, we disembarked to walk the part of the cave where supplies were hidden during the war, and where a small hospital was installed. No evidence of either these days, but here is a sample of what we saw.

After lunch, we hopped back in the van and headed to our next destination – Paradise Cave, which was only discovered in 2005. Like Phong Nha Cave, we were only able to explore a fraction of its 31 km. length – just over 1 km. and this time all on foot.

We began with a long sweaty climb up a mountainside – with some great views as an incentive to keep going.

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Once at the top, we entered the cave through this tiny entrance, and began a long climb down  and straight into very welcome natural air con.

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There is a lighted walkway through the cave, and the most notable features are backlit, but it quickly swallows you up into its own cave spell. Even with dozens of people walking through, it was silent and powerful. Although Paradise Cave is a dry cave, there are tiny fissures and water drops constantly – sometimes that drip-drip-drip is the only sound.

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and another shot…

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We came for the caves and they more than met our expectations, but our stay in Dong Hoi was a delightful bonus.

12 thoughts on “The Resurrection of Dong Hoi

  1. Linda & Gary March 31, 2017 / 9:56 am

    Love this post. So cute about the photos of the women! Neat that Dong Hoi turned out to be so much more than you expected. Those are the best surprises. The caves look wonderful. We did visit a cave at Halong Bay and you’re right each corner brings an oooh and an awww. At first I didn’t like the lighting but it quickly grew on me that it made it quite magical. Have you ever visited Carlsbad or Kartchner in the US? Totally different. When do you go to Halong Bay? Hope it’s not completely crowded. We loved our time there. Can hardly wait to see you and hear about everything. Where are you going to be? Are you going back to the rental you had?? Continue having a wonderful experience making many memories and life observations. Hugs.

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    • leavingourselvesbehind April 1, 2017 / 6:08 pm

      Hi Linda and Gary – we just arrived in Hanoi last night, and are planning our Sapa and Halong Bay trips around the weather. We may go to Sapa in two days as it looks like a break in the rain is in the forecast. As for Halong Bay – we will come back to Hanoi and do the same thing – run from the raindrops.
      Once we’re home, we will be on the move for a bit, but we’re in an Airbnb in Vancouver for the first two weeks of May – hopefully we can see you then?
      We don’t want the trip to end, but at the same time we’re ready to get back and see everyone again. You know how that goes…
      See you soon. xo

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  2. Donna March 31, 2017 / 10:06 am

    Love the story of Stephen and the photos! What a journey you’re on! Thanks for sharing. x

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    • leavingourselvesbehind April 1, 2017 / 6:10 pm

      Donna – that is one of my favourite stories as well. On the train to Hanoi, Steve met another lady – this one probably in her 80s that took a real shine to him. The Vietnamese ladies are flirts!

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  3. Danielle March 31, 2017 / 2:42 pm

    Cute and clean town, never heard of it, did it have another name before?
    Indeed the women work very hard everywhere, in Hanoi they clean the entire city every morning.
    If you are an early riser you can see them playing badmington or doing Tai Chi , round 5am!!!
    Happy travels to you both!!

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    • leavingourselvesbehind April 1, 2017 / 7:55 pm

      I don’t think Dong Hoi was ever called by another name – I think it is just off the tourist radar, except for access to the caves.

      I think we will have to get up and get to the lake to see the early walkers and Tai Chi enthusiasts. A number of people have told us about that, and the lake would be beautiful then.

      We’re going to enjoy Hanoi a lot – I can tell already. Lots to do and the people-watching alone is fantastic.

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  4. Elisabeth c. Die rucks March 31, 2017 / 4:00 pm

    These caves images, reminded me of my visit to the Cuevas de Manacor on the island of
    Mallorca, Spain …..Those were also stunning, we sailed into the caves, and around for a long time, where much was illuminated, and soft classical music was playing all the time we sailed, it was heavenly ! Never to be forgotten, an experience…..
    Be safe, happy travels! Hugs,
    Lis

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    • leavingourselvesbehind April 1, 2017 / 7:57 pm

      Thanks Lis. Your sailing trip sounds magical. There are certain memories that stay with you, and they’re precious. We’ve tried to duplicate trips in the past and it can’t be done – they are meant to be enjoyed that once and held dear.

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  5. Heather Scott April 2, 2017 / 7:23 pm

    OMG … the caves are unbelievable!! I’m not sure how I would feel once I was inside one of them, a little frightened perhaps, but maybe the beauty of what I was seeing would override any trepidation. I’m so happy you decided to make Dong Hoi your pit stop. From your pictures it looks absolutely lovely!

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    • leavingourselvesbehind April 4, 2017 / 4:10 am

      Heather, I do suffer from claustrophobia, and that is partly why we passed on visiting the Viet Cong tunnels,but the huge caverns felt different. They’re amazing – photos and videos can’t capture them (at least not ours) , so you’re right. The beauty does override any slight discomfort. Dong Hoi was a lovely discovery – hopefully it will jump onto tourist radar a bit more.

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  6. Joan Fisher April 3, 2017 / 2:41 pm

    Pictures are fabulous. Would love to see this part of the country. So clean compared to much of it. Your trip is amazing. We went for a short visit to Vietnam a few years ago but were limited to Hanoi and Halong Bay. Kayaked in caves there and it was wonderful. Are you going there? Went to the Hanoi Hilton which gave me the creeps just thinking about what happened there. Really made me squeamish.

    Hello to Stephen. Enjoy and be safe.

    Joan

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    • leavingourselvesbehind April 4, 2017 / 4:12 am

      Hi Joan! Great to hear from you. We just got back from Halong Bay – I’ll get a blog posting out by tomorrow. We love Hanoi – we’ve just been here less than two days and there is so much to see and do here – I think it is my favourite so far.

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