The stillness inside this cave is one that I do not take for granted.
The road to Central Vietnam wasn’t exactly a smooth one. 9 adults and almost 10 pieces of luggage squeezed into a small minivan definitely doesn’t scream “comfort”. We made several stops along the 16 hour drive, snacking our way through all the little towns and cities. I’m not providing any names since these are usually nameless restaurants along the road of National Route 1A (Quốc Lộ 1A). National Route 1A is a highway that runs directly from northern to southern Vietnam, crossing all the major cities and provinces along the way. We drove nonstop and the lack of legroom took a toll on everyone. We also drove through the night, which I don’t recommend because you’ll miss out on opportunities to sightsee along the way. Take the plane or the train, unless you’re driving with a smaller group of people and aren’t pressed for time. Anyway, despite the apparent tired looks on our faces, everyone was in good spirits as we trekked homeward.
When we finally arrived, my mom came rushing out from the kitchen, arms open wide, her smile bright enough to light up the entire town. As she wraps herself around me I can feel her warmth enveloping me, holding onto me, and making me feel like I’ll be protected forever. The naturally sweet scent of her makes me feel the most at home. It’s hard to fully describe the love I feel from my mother’s embrace. It can only really be experienced, kept internally and held onto forever. Nothing was said, but so much was said in the way her eyes met mine. A million questions were asked, a million were answered. A long time seems to have passed when she finally gently let go. We need to take care of our guests.
Now, my parents are the most hospitable people I know. No one ever leaves our house without being properly fed and, of course, that was the first thing my mother did for the tired bunch. An array of traditional New Years food such as Bánh Chưng (rice cake stuffed with marinated ground mung bean and pork belly), Thịt Muối (salted pork belly) and Củ Kiệu (pickled Chinese onion) were served. These are dishes only served during the New Year so I haven’t seen these in years! They were just as flavorful and delicious as I remember.
The next 2 days were spent preparing for Tết, visiting the local marketplace, attending our siblings’ engagement party and basking in all the festivities. Check out our New Year’s preparation and the first day of Tết videos below!
There are certain places that you don’t forget after the first visit. Phong Nha was that to me and I promised to show Billy this beautiful historical landmark. So, on the 3rd day of New Years, we left town and headed north.
Located in central Quảng Bình Province in the North Central Coast region, Phong Nha cave is about 500 km south of Hà Nội (2 hours from Huế and 6 hours north of Đà Nẵng). This remarkable cave was formed approximately 400 million years ago and contains the oldest karst mountain in Asia.
There are 2 entrances to enter the cave, either by the underground river or through the top of the mountain. We decided to do both and opted for the water route first. Riddled with hundreds of cave systems, this magnificent landmark is home to some of the most spectacular stalagmites and stalactites you will ever see. Some so huge that they connect from the top to the bottom of the cave.
The cave is about 8,000 meters long but the tour only allowed us to go 1,500 meters in. Once inside the cave, you’ll have the opportunity to get off the boat and explore. The entrance through the top of the mountain is not for those not well versed in cardio. Prepare to have a serious workout. However, by the time we reached this entrance, I realized that this was not the same one I took a decade ago. It seems that the officials have carved out a shortcut, about ⅓ the length and closed the original one permanently. I’m going to assume that there were too many complaints about the old, steep, vertical steps that went on for miles.
The air inside the cave was so crisp, borderline chilly a huge a contrast to the hot and humid air that’s just on the other side of the cave entrance. The stillness inside this cave is one that I do not take for granted. I felt so small in its stern presence. I found my mind wandering off in a meditative state, searching for the ancient stories that this place has, for the many wars it’s endured, and shelters that it has provided. Faintly in the background, I heard our tour guide rowing gently and I want to know her stories too…
If Phong Nha is on your agenda, you will also pass by Huế and I recommend eating at the following places.
Right outside of Phong Nha cave entrances are vendors who sell fresh boiled chicken eggs. These eggs are much smaller than usual and probably just a tad bigger than quail eggs. But they are the most creamy, buttery, yolky eggs I've ever tried.
Bún Bò Huế
In Huế, obviously. The restaurant we stopped by unfortunately is not listed on Trip Advisor but I think most restaurants in Huế serving its dish of origin is a pretty safe bet. Here are some local favorites according to my dad: Lạc Thiên Restaurant and Ngự Uyên Restaurant.
Another Huế specialty. Mini, stackable rice cakes topped with ground dried shrimp and pork rinds, dip with fish sauce. Such a simple, yet beautiful and delicious dish.