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.