"I just feel like everyone tries to do something different, but you always wind up doing the same damn thing" Leonardo di Caprio, The Beach
Many years have passed since the infamous war that divided Vietnam, but the scars are still evident: for the variety of food, busy cities, and rolling landscapes are a distinct contrast to dark times in Vietnam such as the Chu Chi tunnels or the War Remnant Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. At the same time, while the tragic past and history in this part of the world are often the attraction for visitors to South East Asia, there is much more to Vietnam than meets the eye and it is still just as easy to venture off the beaten track if you know where to go. Take Halong Bay, for example, Sapa or the isolated town of Phong Nha; you can arrive in each of these destinations with a mass of tourists or alternatively, you can seek a unique experience away from the crowds and deep within the essence of the local culture.
Traveling to Phong Nha National Park
Traveling to Vietnam has always been high on my bucket list of exotic destinations, and in truth, it was the ost famous landmarks or attractions which brought me here. Hoi An evoked imagery of small eateries in side alleyways and local artists resting by the river, while the previously mentioned Sapa and Halong Bay were unforgettable in every way. However, it was a completely unexpected encounter in a quiet part of the Vietnamese countryside that would transpire as the most memorable and exciting adventure.
Phong Nha is a small town located within the interior of Vietnam and best known for Phong Nha National Park, home to the largest caves in the world. Quiet and relatively isolated, the town is perfect for escaping the vibrant cities in Vietnam while also offering an interesting range of experiences in the locals caves, names Paradise Cave and Hang Son Doong.
"Searching outside the box"
I had arrived here with every intention of visiting the most popular of these caves, Paradise Cave and it was every bit as impressive as I had imagined. Except back at the hostel, a feeling remained that I had yet to experience "real Vietnam" and life away from the hordes of people who come to enjoy the surroundings. Although there is absolutely nothing wrong with traveling to the most popular sites and destinations, the experience of going somewhere new has a unique way of encouraging the intrepid traveler to think (and look) outside the box; for this reason, I ventured back outside the hostel.
Sitting quietly next to a motorbike at the opposite side of the road, I noticed a local driver sipping on a cup of tea. With no plan and no real information on the area, I approached an asked this driver if he was busy. Finishing his cup of tea, the driver jumped up with a smile an onto his bike before motioning me to join him. "Where do you want to go?" he asked. "Take me somewhere I will never forget" I replied. It was spontaneous and slightly scary, but the ensuing adventure was simply put; y favorite travel experience in South East Asia.
Local experiences and unexpected encounters
Down dirt roads and winding our way through towering Kart Limestone rock formations, we proceeded past the entrance to the caves from which I had come and motoring for the horizon. Across rolling hills, along cliff tops and surrounded by rice paddy fields, the colors were spellbinding and the smell of fresh produce was enticing.
Minutes later, we were stopped outside the house of a local farmer who greeted us with a handshake and a smile. The driver explained how I was interested in meeting some locals and experiencing their lifestyle so before I knew what was happening, an entire family was providing me with a custom tour of the farm. Far from the crowds and noise, this rare encounter felt genuine in the face of more "popular attractions" and left me grateful for having sought such an experience in the first place.
Having spent some time playing with the children and exploring the confines of their home, we returned to the bike and continued onward toward the horizon. Few moments can compare to a true discovery when you travel, and this primitive meeting had more than justified the small fare I had paid to the driver. At a nearby waterfall, we enjoyed the coolness of water as the sun went own and by nightfall, we were back at the hostel.
Doing something different in Vietnam
I would find out the next day that this driver was, in fact, a member of Phong Nha Riders, who operate tours throughout the local area but mostly to the caves or popular viewpoints in the park. Of course, these tours are also worth the effort and popular for a good reason, but I can't help but wonder why we all end up doing the same damn thing when we travel. Unexpected, uncertain, unforgettable; it was my motorbike ride into the countryside which offered me an authentic glimpse of Vietnam and the most beautiful cultural encounter in what was once a very troubled part of the world.