PHONG NHA – my kind of FANTASY LAND

PHONG NHA – my kind of FANTASY LAND

I grew up skirting the edges of Fantasy Land (now called Galaxyland) at the West Edmonton Mall (WEM) in Alberta, Canada. On my way to a shop or a movie, the vibrations of this enormous indoor amusement park pulsed through the food court and into neighbouring businesses.  Even though it’s been many years since I’ve stood under its halo, I can still hear the dull roar of the Mind-Bender, a roller-coaster, touted as the largest indoors and infamous since 1986 when three people fell to their deaths. Despite never having been a disciple of Fantasy Land, the title was part of my vernacular.

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So, I usually write my titles last, after I’ve written and re-written the body, searching for a heartbeat to whatever it is I’m working on. But I knew immediately what to call this short piece on one of our most recent journeys.  Phong Nha in Quang Binh Province is a genuine Fantasy Land. Forget that noisy atrocity in a city I so love.  That’s not it.  This is it!  And I know that not everyone will agree and that’s good too.

A fantastical place inspires awe and can be ‘other-worldly’.  I have always loved the sense of anticipation one feels when you’re in such a remarkably beautiful place, that you are overcome by the wonder of what’s around the next corner. A Fantasy Land makes the ordinary sublime.

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Phong Nha, both a village and a national park (called the Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park) is in Northern Central Vietnam less than 15 km from the coast. When I use the name, I’m referring to an a fairly large area. The fact that this place holds the world’s largest cave (discovered in 2009) and has a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation has nothing to do with my evaluation.  The reason we went was because a friend told us to.  And from now on, I will always listen to her advice._igp0465

The confluence of rice and cassava fields, tropical jungles, large limestone karsts (almost mountains), and waterways, some of which go for miles underground is at times mesmerizing.  Magic hour according to the light could have been at any number of times of the day. I wish I could have take an aerial shot of the late afternoon light reflecting off the muddy backs of tens of buffalo in bright green fields.  I just couldn’t get high up enough.

I had a sense that this was one of the few rural communities where poverty was being held at bay.  (I have tried to find statistical evidence to get at the truth – but so far nothing). I hope I am not wrong about this. The large buffalo and cow herds grazing in the fields buoyed my optimism, as did the many many large homes throughout the area. I know it’s changing rapidly as word of the ‘enchantment’ spreads and I fear for the future.

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A 70km motorbike journey around the park, twisting and turning our way on switchback roads sparked my imagination of what was in the mass of green.  And even though I felt a pit in my stomach when I saw signs announcing snakes as one of the park’s main inhabitants, I still found the place beguiling. Rumour has it that a Hollywood crew was there earlier in the year filming for the latest King Kong movie. I understand why.

Zip-lining and a foray into the ‘Dark Cave’ to float in the mud was fun and an opportunity to meet some other travellers. But this kind of activity leaves me very conflicted and since we’re talking about Fantasies, let’s move on.

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On the way to the ‘Pub with Cold Beer’

Really what I loved most was just being there, and the night we ventured out to the ‘Pub with Cold Beer’. Driving 10 km down a very bumpy dirt road, we arrived at the Pub at dusk. I was a bit panicked about the drive home, but settled in as we were handed cold beer and told to pick our chicken.  Happy that Somara was distracted by the two girls who lived there, she and I skedaddled off to play pool while Tim participated in the killing and cooking of dinner. Note that Somara cries in a zoo when she sees animals enclosed let alone slaughtered. Tim however, was in his glory.  Unquestionably the best chicken we’ve eaten in Vietnam, we were also treated to fresh pepper and fresh quava from the trees in front of the house. The magic of this evening was getting to know these two girls, both close in age to Somara, who didn’t just want to play with us, but who were interested in finding out more about Canada.  So smart and so sweet, we hugged them good-bye a mere 90 minutes after meeting them.  As we bumped and stumbled our way home in the dark on our motorbikes Tim suggested we stop and turn off our motors.  In addition to our star extravaganza was the cacophony of unknown creatures many of which must have been frogs.  I wish we had tents, but then we would have troubling getting to sleep.

I don’t want to bottle up our experience or even tell too many of you how to get there; I feel both the privilege and the burden of having been in Phong Nha.  The fantasy of this place may ultimately be fleeting, but I will hang onto it for as long as I can.

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The HUE (hway) to go

The HUE (hway) to go

One thing I’m really good at is going along for the ride.  Literally. It’s been awhile since I’ve done a lot of it, but I’m picking it up again.

What I’m talking about is tagging along with others on their travels. During my two years in Botswana, I became a pro at it, travelling anywhere with almost anyone. I like the sense of possibilities when you start out and that I’m relieved of the task of reading guidebooks, blogs and websites etc.

As soon as we arrived in Vietnam, I was back to my old ways.  Somara and I flew south to join my sister and her family, who were already mid vacation.  We just fell in beside them as they decided where to go, how to get there, and where to put our shoes at the end of the day.  It became a bit of a joke about how little I did, and the one time I booked the accommodation, let’s just say it was ‘an experience’. But we sure had a great time.

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Inside the Imperial City

Last month, we did the tagging a long thing again.  Tim had a conference in central Vietnam, in Hue, and Somara and I showed up for the fun, having done very little research.  I knew that a group of Tim’s colleagues were staying longer to visit the sites and thought, we’ll just do what they do.

On day 1 when most of the other adults were at the conference I took the lead from 7 year old Lam.  The daughter of  Tim’s colleague and now friend, Lam said she wanted to go to the beach. I have to admit I did hesitate, knowing from the little reading I had done that the beach is not the top attraction in Hue.  But it was unbelievably hot and and after a morning in the pool, and a quick lunch, we added 3 more to our posse and hopped in a van.

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Somara, Lam and Rio

Thuan An beach, 15 kms from the centre of Hue, is a gorgeous expanse of golden sand, where you can body surf, sleep under a cabana, or drink mojitos in the shade. Most of the time I hung with Marco, a three year old with the same passion for finding shells as me.  I also lost my voice that afternoon, yelling at kids to be careful, and laughing uncontrollably as we bounced between the waves.

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Dragon Boat

Significantly smaller than Hanoi, I knew Hue was going to be a break from the big city, but I couldn’t believe how much of a relief I felt being there.  Might have been the salty water, but the streets are mostly wide, as is the Perfume River that winds itself through the centre. Scattered a long its edges are dragons boats to transport tourists to Pagodas and the tombs of the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty. There’s lots of room to navigate. And in the style I so love, it was an easy place to meet up with others, and then go your own way.

The only pla_igp0210ce firmly on my list was a visit to the Imperial City. Once Vietnam’s capital, Hue’s main attraction is contained within the walls of the Citadel. Home to the ruling family, the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945, it’s a place that is as cultivated and refined as it is earthy and coarse. Decimated by the Americans in 1968, you can still imagine life as a member of the Royal Family, with a field of flowers, ponds of gold fish, court musicians, and magnificently ornate buildings. It’s serene and majestic. There’s an effort to rebuild many of the structures that were bombed, and some are already complete.  I prefer the worn, peeling facades of buildings and walls that haven’t been touched.  So many layers within them, they are both tragic and stunning.

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Toward the end of our stay, on the advice of our friends, we rode motorbikes about 15 kms from town to see Huyen Khong Son Thuong Pagoda, a much less fancy pagoda than the more famous Thien Mu.  Huyen Khong, a garden retreat is known for its orchids, flowers and ponds.  The journey there turned out to be just as spectacular (and more bumpy) as the stroll within. For the second time since being in Vietnam,  I wondered if Claude Monet, the famous French painter had ever been to Vietnam.

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Building at Thien Mu

 

Huyen Khong Pond
Huyen Khong Pond

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other highlights of Hue, with no thanks to me, were our incredible suite at the Villa Hue booked by Tim’s office.  Larger than our apartment in Hanoi, we kept marvelling at the bathtub and shower. Chi, one of Tim’s colleagues took us to two different restaurants serving the world famous Bun Bo Hue soup.  Never having appreciated the soup before, my taste buds were treated to what might have been the best possible renditions out there. Sublimely delicious.

My only rule of thumb when travelling is to talk to other travellers. It’s taken me incredible places…and added another dimension to the journey. In July at our favourite pool, Somara and I met an American man who lived in Vietnam for six years and takes any opportunity he can to come back. We talked a lot about food. Following up on our conversation he sent me an email about Hue recommending “a goat hot pot place called Dung Goat. I don’t have the address but will try to get it for you. It’s near Thien Mu Pagoda. In Vietnamese: Dê Dũng”. (In English it looks like you’re talking about poop, but the D actually has a Z sound).  I’d been thinking about the goat hot pot since I received that email. Excited that we had motorbikes to take us there, Tim, Somara and I spent the better part of an hour on our final night, driving up and down the road near the Pagoda. Most people we asked said they knew it, but precise directions were elusive. Finally 3 friendly drunks told us to follow them on our bikes. It took about two kms and a near collision to realize they didn’t have a clue, so we made a quick escape. By that time starving for dinner, we ended up eating at a Bia Hoi. The food was lousy but the evening was memorable. We’ll find that goat hot pot next time, I’m sure of it.  And if you’re interested I can recommend another restaurant, Hanh’s where we ate at 4 times during our stay. I have an address and map.  Remember to share with others  if you know ‘the Hue (hway) to go’.

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