July 01, 2014

Conquer Son Doong the Biggest Cave in Vienam

After three hiking hours, the cavern of Son Dong cave eventually appears right in front of our eyes. Standing there, we can feel clearly how different the inside temperature from to outside is. The biggest dome cave can hold a skyscraper up to 40 storey building

The whole world was getting overwhelmed with the biggest, nature-made cave after the British Cave Research Association (BCRA) announcing their discovery. Till this time, however, Vietnamese explorers don’t have enough competence to trek into Son Doong cave; even professional trekkers showed up their discomposure. They can dive without oxygen supplying equipment into underground rivers, or drop themselves down from cliff by ropes but they are very unconfident with professional accessories.

Son Doong Cave
Son Doong Cave
Our current items included cheap, regular cameras, fabric boots and plastic water bottles in order to pass through no footprint jungles or unimaginable mountain peaks. To have amazing photo collections, BCRA and BBC news, NHK later on had to bring with hundred kilograms of equipment from electric suppliers to diving suits or professional cameras to climbing supporting items ect

The entire area is in the core of Phong Nha National Park which is already well-known for its natural beauty and server records of Phong Nha cave and Paradise cave. Son Doong cave now is the one keeping the world records of the biggest cave dome which can hold a 40 storey high building.

The story of Son Doong started since 1999. When a local man, Ho Khanh, successfully led the team of BCRA trekking to Son Doong inside. Then, the magnificent beauty of stalagmite, underground rivers and sand dunes ect were all become famous globally.

This time, on our Son Doongcave trek expedition, we met Ho Khanh again. He was taking a researching team to study Son Dong botanical system. His team was moving quickly through dirty, muddy trails and the further they go their higher the slope.

Trekking Son Doong Cave
Trekking Son Doong Cave
To reach to the cave mouth, we had to hike along shallow stream with hard rocks, then climb up to mountain slope with countless sharp stones rising up from ground like knives. Even with a small wrong step, you can fall down. The slopes continue to another seeming never ends. You will feel nearly out of breath and each foot step is a burden. If there were no fellow passengers encourage words, some might give up at half way.

After 3 hours hiking, Son Doong cave finally shown up in our eye view – mysterious and dim scenery exactly as described by The Lu writer in his book “Gold and Blood”. We had to move along inclined mountain slopes with thousands of rocky fins stacking layers to layers to reach to cave entrance. Those rocky fins may be created by natural sedimentation from rivers pouring down.

Standing at the cave mouth, we can clearly feel the temperature difference between inside and outside. According to local words, Ho Khanh, many years ago, also felt this cold air stream then followed it to discover Son Doong cave. This is strong, cold wind which is telling that they come from a deep, big air space.

The scenery when we were walking inside was not similar to things appeared on Internet. Because of just dozen meter walk, the darkness covered everything. Although the light from the touch on our forehead hats just helped to see in a few meter far, the wonder of stalagmite was stunning. In million years of time, water has made a wonder world inside Truong Son range, and this creation is still on progress.

Trekking Son Doong Cave
Trekking Son Doong Cave
At the cave base, in flat places, there were thousands of small, ball stones which were the products of calcium sedimentation around an initial core and the slow flow of water. This process is quite similar to the creation of pearl. Furthermore, there were many animal fossils close to the entrance but we did not know that was tiger or other species.

Keep our trail inside the huge cave until we reach to the abyss dividing Son Doong cave into two parts – named “Vietnam Wall”. Standing at the abyss’ edge and dropping a stone into it, we only heard the sound reflection after minutes. This is actually an 80 meter deep abyss and our journey must stop there. There were no one can across this abyss except professional caving explorers.

Truly different from visiting Phong Nha or Paradise cave which are interfered to the ground to be flatter and installed with lighting system, each step in Son dong cave is a true adventure. The high humidity in atmosphere made our eyes hardly see and our regular cameras could not take wonderful photos as in magazines. Sometime, I felt our trek to Son Dong inside was similar to playing in casino. The time was passing as quickly as we didn’t even recognize it.

After lunch, we went back in hurry. The journey was similar to the way in. The difference was we were exhausted and all wet by water and our own sweat. Hiking on the same route, we reached to Ho Chi Minh trail by the sun set its last light. The third adventure to Son Doong was completed successfully and luckily. Our Son Doong exploration was just a trial and Quang Binh province will do more research to do adventure tours to Son Doong possibly starting since mid of 2014.

Why You Need to Travel Vietnam

If you only have time to explore one country in Southeast Asia, choose VIETNAM!

Let’s admit it, when it comes to travel, Vietnam gets a bit of a bad rep. Before coming here all I heard were stories of travel scams, robberies, aggressive touts, and warnings that I’d be treated like a walking dollar sign. I was beginning to wonder whether I even wanted to spend a full month in this country, but 31 days later as my Vietnamese visa is about to expire, I am sad to leave Vietnam behind.

I’ll admit I’m relatively new to Southeast Asia, and have only covered three countries in the past three months, but Vietnam has left the strongest impression on me by far.

So what makes Vietnam so special?

Travel Vietnam
Friendly Local People
The people are warm, kind, and love to laugh and smile. It is in this country where I have met some of the most caring locals.

When I was sick in Hoi An, it was the woman who runs the Green Moss restaurant who took it upon herself to get me all better. She prepared ginger tea with honey for me, gifted me with a mint balm to rub on my neck and my chest, urged me to wear a scarf to bed, and then checked up on me daily whenever she saw me cycling around town or eating at her restaurant.

In Vietnam people have helped me when I looked lost, locals I met on a train have offered to show me around their hometowns (for free! Further proof that I’m not just a walking ATM), and business owners have been courteous to me even when I didn’t eat at their restaurant or didn’t take their tour.

Vietnam has been an explosion of flavours! Most dinners Sam and I have eaten in this country have been silent because we’ve both been gorging on local delicacies like the food in front of our plates is about to disappear. We’ve been known to order four different dishes in one go because there’s just so much new food to sample.

Whether I was learning to cook Vietnamese food in a dim lit kitchen with no ventilation (picture beads of sweat running down my back and hopefully not onto my food), or enjoying a meal at a local farm in the outskirts of Hoi An, the food was spectacular.

Some of my favourite dishes in this country have been bánh xèo (a rice flour pancake stuffed with pork, shrimp, onions and bean sprouts) and fresh spring rolls. Fresh, flavourful, healthy, filling – what else do you need in a meal?

Kayaking Halong Bay
Halong Bay
Then there is the diversity that comes with travelling in such a big country. I can guarantee that Vietnam will not bore you with its possibilities!

Want to travel down the banks of the Mekong Delta and experience the chaos of vendors at work in a floating market? Do you want to get lost in Saigon’s back alleys as you go in search of the best pho? How about getting clothes custom made in Hoi An? Or can I interest you with kayaking Ha Long Bay .You could also spend your time in Hanoi drinking bia hoi at a little street side bar equipped with plastic children’s furniture? Or if you’re feeling a bit more culturally inclined, go for a hill trekking Sapa where you can do a home stay with the ethnic tribes that call this place home?

June 30, 2014

Cycling North Vietnam

By Dan Moore
They may not capture the children who run to the roadside, posed for a high-five as we pass by. Or the old women who try to cycle faster than us, laughing and balancing small mountains of rice on their own bikes all the way. They don’t show the locals who slow their scooter-pace, only to ask where we are going and where we are from, never driving off without first volunteering to pull us the rest of the way. And of course, you can’t hear the hundreds of ‘hallos’ called out to us each day, or the fits of giggles that follow when we wave or smile back.

Unfortunately we aren’t too good at simultaneously taking photos and cycling Vietnam – we’re working on it, we promise. In the meantime, here are a few images from our first few days of biking North Vietnam. They still offer a pretty good snapshot of our surroundings in the beautiful, mountainous north.

 Cycling Vietnam
Northern Vietnam
 Cycling Vietnam 1
Northern Vietnam
 Cycling Vietnam 2
Northern Vietnam
 Cycling Vietnam 3
Northern Vietnam
 Cycling Vietnam 4
Northern Vietnam
 Cycling Vietnam 5
Northern Vietnam
 Cycling Vietnam 6
Northern Vietnam
 Cycling Vietnam 7
Biking Northern Vietnam

June 27, 2014

Active Travel Northern Vietnam

By Peter Brown 
After a painfully long flight I landed in the Hanoi airport, and immediately hopped aboard an overnight train heading north. I shared a sleeper cabin with a French couple, and a girl from Quebec. They were all very nice, and we chatted for a couple of hours before hitting the hay. But I’m a light sleeper, and falling asleep on the clanging, jostling train car proved to be impossible- CA-CLUNK, ca-clunk! CA-CLUNK, ca-clunk! CA-CLUNK, ca-clunk!

Sapa, Northern Vietnam
I woke up at the Lao Cai train station, near the border with China, and found a car to drive me an hour west, through foggy, winding roads, to the mountain town of Sapa. The town was a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns: farmer’s markets glowed green with leafy vegetables, motorbikes zigged and zagged over every paved surface, and groups of indigenous women wore their customary handmade attire and patrolled for tourists to whom they might sell embroidered bags and Technicolor scarfs.

I spent the next three days trekking Sapa. My days were spent with Sung, a wonderfully peaceful woman from the Black Hmong tribe, who spoke fine English thanks to years of guiding western tourists around those parts. Sung took me to waterfalls, jungles, terraced rice paddies, small villages, across precarious bridges and along muddy mountain trails.

My favorite moment with Sung had to be when she took me to a little lunch spot in the village of Lao Chai. She sat me down in the main dining area (which consisted of picnic benches under a wooden canopy) and then she disappeared into the kitchen. When I realized she was eating lunch with the cooks, I sheepishly poked my head around the corner and asked if I could join them. I guess most tourists prefer the picnic benches, but I was alone, and much preferred getting to know Sung and her friends. They pulled up a chair for me and the cook brought over some of the most delish sautéed greens I’ve ever had, along with some tasty spiced pork and rice, and a can of coke. While eating, I peppered them all with questions about their daily routines, and Sung translated. They laughed at how excited I was to hear about everyday activities like planting rice and raising buffalo. To top it all off, I sat beside a window with a view I won’t bother describing, just look at the glorious picture below.

After exploring the North for three days, I got back on that overnight train and returned to Hanoi. Once in Hanoi, I quickly found my way kayaking Ha Long Bay. Several hours on the bus brought us to a harbor, where our group boarded The Calypso, a worn, but pleasant boat that would take us deep into the fantastical mountain islands that have made Ha Long Bay a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Calypso was one of dozens of boats making the trip, and so a fleet of us set sail for the islands. The Calypso provided us with lovely bedrooms, and meals, and the crew even gave a nice little cooking lesson and a Tai-Chi class the next morning.

Kayaking Halong Bay
Kayaking Halong Bay
The crew must have noticed the date of birth on my passport when I checked in, because after dinner the main lights turned off, strobe lights turned on, Vietnamese techno blasted from the speakers, and a birthday cake appeared before me. It was ridiculous. But it was a fun night. The other guests were good sports to sing Happy Birthday to a guy they hardly knew.

While in Ha Long Bay we stopped off to see a giant cave, and some of us went sea kayaking through tunnels to explore a lagoon in the center of a ring shaped island crawling with monkeys. My imagination couldn’t get enough of the scenery, and so I found a little time for watercolor painting.

Before I knew it we’d landed back at the harbor, and were boarding the return bus to Hanoi. I had an amazing week of traveling around northern Vietnam.

June 26, 2014

Unforgetable homestay and trekking Sapa, Vietnam

By Anna Baldwin

My next stop after Hanoi was to jump on the night train in search of the stunning paddy fields of Sapa. As the train pulled out of the station I said goodbye to the noises, lights and smells of the bustling Hanoi streets and settled into my cosy cabin as we set off north towards China. The cabins are generally made up of four beds- 2 sets of bunk beds- but often if travellers want a bit more privacy and space we are able to book the whole cabin for them. I was lucky enough to be joined by a lovely German couple, along with their local guide, and we spent the next couple of hours talking and exchanging food as the train made its way deeper into the vast countryside.

The train soon lulled me into a deep sleep, and before I knew it we had arrived at Lao Chai station, our last stop on the train before it returned south to Hanoi.

Although it was barely dawn, the station exit was surrounded by taxi drivers, guides and hawkers ready to pounce, but I soon found my local guide, Dong, who pulled me through the crowds and into our 4X4.  Within a few minutes we were off on the hour-long drive to Sapa town. It was a stunning drive as we slowly climbed higher and higher towards Sapa, where we soon reached a height of 1,600m! Surrounded on all sides by paddy fields dotted with numerous tribal villages, Sapa is very much a mountain town, with its steep roads filled with shops selling trekking gear and rows of balconied wooden houses overlooking the dramatic landscape beyond.

Trekking Sapa 1
Impressive trekking Sapa
After some breakfast and last minute tour preparations we set off with our wonderful local porter Sing, who was to carry all our food and drinks for the next three days, and we drove to the beginning of the trek – Ta Van village.

We soon left behind the Dzay village of Ta Van and set off along the valley. This is where I truly tested my balancing skills, as we made our way along narrow paths and the edges of the paddy fields which lined the mountainside. Luckily two lovely local ladies came to my rescue; half my size and twice my age, they obviously make a habit of adopting the most hopeless-looking trekker to make sure they don’t fall face first into the flooded paddy field below.

Trekking Sapa Vietnam 1
Black H'Mong ladies
The route took us through a number of different tribal villages, from Red Dao to Black H’Mong, who wear mainly black clothing as their name suggests.  The dye in their clothing often runs and so, as a result, their hands are also stained a little black.

After a long but stunning trekking Sapa, we eventually arrived at Seo Trung Ho Village, our base for the night. Never before had I seen such a dramatic, remote location for a village. In one direction you will find a magnificent waterfall thundering away behind the village, and the other provides breathtaking views across the valley with the misty mountains in the distance. There’s not a tourist in sight…

Trekking Sapa , Vietnam 2
Terrace field , Sapa Vietnam
After an evening of rice wine and delicious home-cooked food, I went to sleep in my homestay Sapa with the sound of the waterfall and the light patter of rain.Rice wine and home-cooked food, not a bad combination after a good day's trekking Sapa tour.This light patter was hugely magnified by morning as I woke to find we’d had heavy rainstorms all night and the waterfall was twice the size!

This resulted in making our morning route a little too unpredictable with the wet conditions, so it was decided we would do that morning by motorbike. Another unforgettable experience trekking Sapa tour – driving down from the village into the valley, through the river, and up onto the other side, slowly picking our way through the roads with awesome views all the way down the valley to the distant mountains. Suddenly the sun came out and the clouds disappeared, and I could see for miles. As we drove further along the valley I looked back and was thrilled to see the magnificent ‘’Roof of Indochina,’’ Fansipan Mountain, the tallest mountain in all of Indochina. I thought – I’ll save that one for next time trekking Vietnam

June 25, 2014

Exploring Countryside Mai Chau, Vietnam by Bike

By  Tim Russell
Northern Vietnam is worth a visit for many reasons – the charming capital Hanoi, the incredible scenery of Halong Bay, the stunning landscapes of Ninh Binh – but for many visitors, the mountains and rice terraces of the northern mountains are the biggest draw.

The mountain town of Sapa and its surroundings are without doubt the best spot to enjoy Vietnam’s northern scenery at its grandest, but given that getting there & back requires two overnight train journeys, expensive helicopter flights or an epic (but spectacular) road trip, many visitors simply don’t have the time to go there, which is where Mai Chau comes in as a handy and more convenient substitute.

Spectacular Mai Chau valley 
Situated a short-ish and mostly scenic 3.5-hour drive from Hanoi, Mai Chau is comparatively accessible and can thus be done as a 1 or 2-night trip, possibly combined with Kenh Ga & Ninh Binh on the way back to the capital.

That’s exactly what I do, heading out of Hanoi early one bright morning and heading south-west through increasingly beautiful and mountainous scenery until, after heading over one last mountain pass, we drop down into Mai Chau valley, with tiny villages with smoking chimneys dotted against a background so green it is hard to believe it is actually real.

A village of traditional stilthouses
My destination? Pom Coong, a White Thai minority village where several villagers operate family homestays, allowing guests to share their charming stilthouses whilst they go about their usual business of farming, cooking and weaving. And what wonderful hosts they are – arriving just in time for lunch, I’m presented with various local dishes (the grilled pork, sourced right from the village itself, is particularly tasty) and some cold beers, before the man of the house appears with a bicycle and encourages me to follow him on a personal tour of the neighbouring villages & countryside. I quickly realize that Pom Coong is actually pretty touristy – few of the other villages have more than one or two houses offering homestays and next time I vow to pick one of those. It’s a great area for cycling though – mostly flat (though hillier routes are available for more serious cyclists than I) along narrow paths through scenic stilthouse villages inhabited by locals who are rarely exposed to foreign tourists (the advantage of using one of the villagers as a guide rather than a professional tour guide I guess).

Friendly White Thai kids
We arrive home late afternoon, just in time to watch the women of the family preparing dinner and refusing all offers of help – it seems my job is simply to sit & drink beer & watch the sun set behind the mountains, a position I am more than capable of filling. After another superb home-cooked meal, I wander to the main village square to buy a couple of woven wall hangings for my office and to watch a traditional music & dance performance which, though I’m not convinced they’d be doing it if there were no tourists here, feels a lot more authentic and heartfelt than other such performances I’ve witnessed in the past.

Then it’s time for one of the high points of the trip – bed. Why? Because I’m sleeping upstairs in a stilthouse, on a thin mattress under a mosquito net, with the cows & pigs snuffling around downstairs as a cool mountain breeze blows in through the window. I enjoy an utterly blissful night’s sleep and, were it not for the irresistible odours of fresh coffee & fried eggs drifting upstairs at 6.30am the following morning, would undoubtedly have slept a lot longer. (NB for those who really don’t feel like roughing it to this extent, more luxurious accommodation is provided by Mai Chau Lodge, a 4* property with pool, sauna and all the usual facilities.)

Locally woven fabrics are an essential purchase
Breakfast done, and it’s time to “catch” today’s lunch – one of the free range chickens that roam around the village at will. This, much to the delight of the French children staying in the house next door, is accomplished using a bow & arrow, and my host is a veritable Robin Hood when it comes to archery, dispatching his chosen target with skill & accuracy.

Whilst the unfortunate victim is prepared for the pot, I head off for more cycling & photography, returning just in time to enjoy the fruits of the morning’s hunt – food always seems to taste better if you’ve seen it alive. I then bid a sad farewell to my wonderful hosts, and head back to my car for the journey back to Hanoi, via Kenh Ga, more about which in a future post.

ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA would like to recommend Biking Hidden Paths of Mai Chau & Ninh Binh tour.This trip offers a great opportunity to see the two area of outstanding nature beauty; the North West highlands of Mai Chau and the limestone mountains of Ninh Binh. Biking is a great way to see this fascinating and visually stunning part of Vietnam, offering both physical activity and the unique opportunity to observe a way of life that has changed little over the centuries. As we ride in Mai Chau we encounter Muong and White Thai minorities and are guests in their traditional stilt houses allowing us to see firsthand how these minority peoples live. In Ninh Binh we explore the beauty of “Halong Bay on the rice fields” on bikes.

  • Awesome scenery
  • Tam Coc - the "Halong Bay on the rice fields"
  • Homestay in Thai village
  • Traditional foot massage

June 24, 2014

Trekking with Locals in Sapa, Vietnam

By Rob
I sit here totally exhausted but with a huge smile. Today I went trekking in Sapa, Vietnam with a local guide. It was a rare clear day and couldn’t of possibly had a better opportunity to venture into a world somewhat unfamiliar to myself. It was one of those cool experiences you won’t forget.

My buddies left today, alarm went at 7am, they shook my hand while I was in bed. Then like any true gentleman, I got out of bed and enjoyed coffee with them before they left, only proper thing to do. Drank a few more and did some web work before rolling out on yet another “solo adventure”.

Local village ladies in Sapa Vietnam
Hit up the local market, eat some pho with some village people and begin wandering while wondering what to do with myself. I decided “Phuket, I’m going to go visit that village”. About 20 steps later, I ask these local ladies what way it is, suddenly they are all following me and offering to come with me. I give this one lady a pinky swear that I’ll go with her and buy something, I had a cool $5us burning a hole in my pocket anyways. Slowly but surely the other 6 women taper off until it’s just “T” and myself.

Ladies relaxing in sapa vietnam
We cruise down the road and off the beaten trail, I keep thinking “ok, she must live somewhere near here, soon”. .. How mistaken I was, turns out she lives 12KM of harsh terrain away. There are a few villages in the big valley near Sapa. One is 7km, one is 10km and one is 12km. She lives on the outskirts of the 12km one, up the steepest and most erosion ridden paths one could imagine. I carried her basket most of the way, these ladies are TOUGH. T is 50 years old and walks 12km up hill to get to Sapa and then 12km back 2-3 times a week. Sometimes she takes a taxi but ONLY if it was a good day in sales and she is insanely tired.

Trekking in Sapa Vietnam with a local guide
We walk, we walk, we walk. I can’t describe the way there without doing it an injustice. It was truly a spectacular sight and sensational on the senses. We went through all the tourist hot spots and just kept going. By the end I was SERIOUSLY dragging my feet and sweating like a gorilla in full business attire on an local bus in Bali sans a/c during dry season. It is warm here in the sun and I had on my warmest clothes because I didn’t really pay attention to the weather when I left for breakfast.

Small village in Sapa Vietnam
We arrive and she actually has a pretty sick pad. I mean it’s basic but it’s quite big and she has tones of pigs, chickens and a dog. What is crazy is that 15-20 people live there, wow. She gave me the full tour and then I noticed some plants. Next thing you know I’m sitting on her front stoop high in the mountains near Sapa with massive bags at my feet. I sat there for what felt like an hour or so until my lungs officially refused to stop taking in air.

After that we eat a nice meal with her family and drank a bunch of rice wine. At this point she asks if I want to buy anything, I hand her 100,000vdn and say “I don’t need anything, this is for the experience”.

Inside villager house Sapa Vietnam
What a totally random, incredibly awesome and unique experience I had to day. This is what I love most and seriously don’t bother with a guided tour when you get to Sapa. Just meet a nice lady and “go from there”, they will all offer to take you home and many sleep the night. I could have but I was like “ok, this was cool but I already have a room.” I’m glad I did it but I’m also glad to hopefully never have to take that trek again, it’s tough.

ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA would like to recommend Sapa Trekking & Homestay tour.At an elevation of 1,600 meters, Sapa is a delightful former French hill station situated in the mountainous region of Vietnam's northwest, close to the Chinese border. The region is home to many ethnic minority groups, each wearing traditional and colorful attire. This trip includes a trek through the hills and valleys of the Sapa region, discovering several different minorities along the way. You will experience overnight accommodation in the hospitable villages of Giay and Tay ethnic minorities. The apparent hardships are worth it though as we walk through some of the most spectacular scenery that Vietnam has to offer and experience unique villages culture.

  • Awesome scenery
  • Rice terraces
  • Colorful minority groups 
  • Homestays in minority villages