50. Time to refresh. Tam Coc-Phong Nha

Before starting this trip I packed my stuff for at least 3 years without any idea when I would come back. I was ready and excited for a new adventure. After all my previous trips I thought this time would be as easy as before. But being a long term traveller is completely different from being on 2 weeks holiday. You start to understand it after some time and right now, after almost a year of travelling, I wish I was more prepared and aware of all things that could happen during the most important journey of my life.

During a short trip abroad you know you will be back soon and you actually HAVE something to come back to. You stay in your comfortable zone of stability, having home and plans for the future. When you quit your job and leave everything behind everything changes. You don’t know where you will sleep tomorrow, what people you will meet on your way and what you are going to eat that night. You are homeless, broke and… free. This can be exciting but, after some time it can feel pointless. You have to have some goal, be aware of why you are travelling. Most of the time you don’t even realize what you have learnt until you come back home. During 3 weeks of vacation you are full of energy, ready to travel, explore, conquer the world. In my case, after 6 months, I started to feel burned out. I lost the purpose. I was visiting beautiful places, meeting new people and I tried to enjoy it as much as I could but it didn’t feel the same like in the beginning. You need to take breaks. Finding a temporary job or volunteering are the best options but even finding a good place for chilling out can give you a taste of home that you need after a long journey. If you travel with your partner like I did, it can also become problematic after some time. Spending 24/7 with your Teddy bear, seeing them in the worst possible situations, feeling sick and fed up of everything doesn’t help create a romantic atmosphere and sometimes can be very destructive. Everyone needs their own space and you need it especially while travelling, in order to breath, put all your thoughts together and appreciate the person who helps you so much during your journey.

Unfortunately, you learn how to travel while you travel. I wasn’t actually aware of many things until the last month when I understood that we should have taken longer breaks both from travelling and from each other. And although you may think it’s too late, better now than never, right? As we had our flight home booked and we had a long way from Vietnam to Thailand we couldn’t take a longer “holiday” but we decided to slow down, choose just a few places to visit and take a break from each other, splitting at the airport in Hanoi. Don’t think it’s easy to go on your own even if you are completely fed up of your partner. You get used to having a company, someone to talk to and rely on. It wasn’t easy for me but I knew that being alone for some time would help me find peace, accumulating new energy and appreciating the wonderful companion that Callum was.

As our flight from Manila was at 10pm (with 2h delay) we got to Hanoi at 2am. After a few hours of sleep at the airport benches we got up early and split, being sure we wouldn’t see each other for a while. I found a local bus that took me to Hanoi and another bus bringing me directly to Ninh Binh, my first destination. Walking around with my map and looking for the way to get to Tam Coc I noticed a blue T-shirt. “No way”, I said under my breath when I saw Callum walking towards me with a teasing smile on his face. I was never gonna get rid of him. Callum was obviously following my guidebook so bumping into each other wasn’t difficult. But I didn’t give up. After a short talk I kissed him goodbye and tried to hitch to Tam Coc on my own. I got there by bike ready to find some homestay where I could isolate myself for a few days. I found a great spot among the rice fields, with a great ambience and not many people around. For the first time in 11 months I was alone. It felt weird but also relieving. I wasn’t bothered by anything and anyone, with no plan whatsoever. I could do whatever I wanted. During our journey we barely stayed in any hostels as hotels were always a cheaper option. That’s why I forgot that, although alone, in hostels you never feel alone. The first evening I met a great guy from US who asked me to join him for a trip to Mua cave. Happy to finally have a conversation with someone else than my own boyfriend I got on a bike but after a couple of minutes I had to get off again. Cheap Vietnamese scooters apparently weren’t prepared for stony rural roads as 1 km from our place a wheel disconnected from the frame. If we drove faster it could all have ended much worse. Fortunately we got another bike after the staff took the broken one home. Warren was a really honest person and I felt lucky I met him the very first day as I finally got a chance to speak to someone who felt exactly like me. Climbing Mua Peak we shared our travelling experience which helped me looking at everything with a different perspective. He was at the point where I was 5 months ago, he started to feel burnt out. I gave him some tips that I would definitely use if I was starting my trip again and I was hoping they would help him.

Our lovely homestay
Exploring Mua caves 😉
Tam Coc. Views from Mua viewpoint

Tam Coc is called “Halong Bay” of the land. Trying to avoid hordes of tourists in Halong Bay I chose this place hoping it would be much quieter. And it was. The landscape was similar to Vang Vieng in Laos, with karst mountains and green rice fields all over the place. Very peaceful and relaxing spot. I spent a lot of time chilling in the hammock, writing and watching films. I tried to come back to meditation which, despite my resistance, worked a few times. My laziness and lack of motivation makes any repetitive habit impossible to achieve. That’s why we signed up for Vipassana meditation retreat in Cambodia. I knew it would be hard but after my experience in Burma I felt it would be incredibly rewarding for me. If you want to get some real travelling experience and meet people who actually have something to say besides how much they drunk last night, homestays are the best option. Fortunately mine was one of them. As I got on well with one Danish girl we decided to share a boat during our ride on Ngô Đong River. The afternoon was quiet so we could enjoy the karst landscape and the caves without setting in the queue. The old Vietnamese women were the engine of every boat. Or, I’d rather say, their legs that moved the paddles up and down as if they were designed to do it.

Can you row like this? 😀
Three caves of Tam Coc
Danish-Polish team 😉

The last day I decided to rent a bicycle and go for a little trip. Getting up early saved me from the flood of tourists and in Bich Dong, a three-piece Buddhist temple I was one of the first. Obeying a little sign “Do not climb” after a few minutes I found myself on a top of the mountain where I had the best views only for myself. Cycling through endless rice fields I noticed that people in Vietnam have much better standard of life than in other Asian countries. I rarely saw bamboo huts, people had quite nice houses and rode motorbikes (which are still much more popular and affordable than cars). I’m sure that tourism and opening the country to the Western world helped a lot with that. The Bird Sanctuary was very expensive so I got home in the afternoon, right before a tremendous storm started. The rain was pouring and the wind was blowing away everything from the tables. Fortunately my night bus came on time and after saying goodbye to a lovely staff I tried to find the best position to spend my 7 hours bus ride.

Bich Dong pagoda
Climbing the top was rewarded

At 4 am I was in Phong Nha. As for my expensive bus I got a free night at Phong Nha Backpackers hostel I had a few hour sleep until a familiar British accent woke me up. That’s what I meant. Four Brit guys and a girl were maybe 18 years old and just couldn’t stop talking, mainly about bullshit. My efforts of having a normal conversation with them failed so right after I got up I booked another place to stay. In order to escape the gossips and my room that felt like oven (a little fan barely moved) I spent the day exploring the town on foot. Although famous for the biggest caves in the world, it didn’t seem very touristy. There was one road that gathered all the hotels and besides a few nice restaurants there was not much to do there. I walked around the neighbourhood where I could see a bit of local life and play with kids who were very interested in my camera. Son river was massive and sitting on its shore, observing little boats was probably the best part of that afternoon.

Phong Nha
Beautiful Son river
They love to pose 😉

The next morning I moved to Linh’s homestay that maybe wasn’t as comfortable as the one in Tam Coc but it had air condition and much nicer people than in a previous hostel. After a few days in Vietnam I noticed it’s very different from the rest of southeastern Asia and, after Thailand, it’s definitely the most touristy country of the peninsula. You don’t have to worry about the accommodation, transportation or food- everything is provided and the standard of the facilities is really good. Vietnamese people I’ve met were really nice and the service is usually very professional. It makes travelling so much easier when people speak English and you don’t have to explain for an hour that you are dying in the room of dehydration. But it also makes you lazy. As everything is really cheap I let myself to have a bit of comfort, locking myself in the room and not worrying about hitchhiking as I knew that someone would organize it for me.

Although there was many interesting options of treks most of them were extremely expensive. In Vietnam tourist services are usually counted in US dollars so it was easy to calculate that $300 for a 1-2 day tour was too much. I thanked the agencies and rented a bike instead. There were a few most popular caves but as you had to pay a fortune for each one, I had to choose one. I stopped in Dark Cave that was the most “entertaining” one. We had to get to the cave on the zip line and then wander with head torches through the cave tunnels filled with mud. It was a lot of fun, especially once the whole group got to the mud lake and after a few seconds we all looked like a herd of pigs. Together with a Dutch couple we washed ourselves in a lake that contained a mini fun park. As an adrenaline junkie I hanged on the zipline straight away, jumping to the ice cold lake. And then it happened. “Where’s my camera?”, I started to look for my GoPro that was attached to my life jacket. Swimming to the shore in panic I asked the lifeguard if it was possible to dive there. Of course the answer was no. Completely resigned I was checking underwater but the limestone made the water completely turbid. And then the guys pointed at my armpit where my GoPro was hanging. The splash made the strap move under the life jacket that’s why I didn’t notice it before. I felt like I won a million dollars and decided to stay away from water that day.

Time for ziplining!
Dark cave
Looking for a mud

The circuit around Phong Nha led mainly through the countryside, rice fields and the same old karst mountains. As I’ve heard many stories about Vietnamese “insurance rules” (whoever failed, the foreigner must pay), I was really careful on the road. There was no vehicles at all so if I died, only buffaloes would notice. I enjoyed being on my own, though. In order to have at least a little trek done I visited Botanic garden that was basically a jungle forest with a path in it. Besides a few dead birds and monkeys in a little museum and a few peacocks in the garden there was not many animals there. The trek was really pleasant, though. There was no one there and I could have a little lake only for myself. Once I got to Gio waterfall I lied down by the shore and looked up. Palm trees. How many people would like to be in my place right now?

Botanic garden
That’s what I love Vietnam for…

Although it was a paradise, there was something missing. I tried to meditate. The only thing it came to my mind was home. But will home fix all the problems and feeling lost? In the end my family and even friends will not fully understand my experience and how much I have changed. Once I read on one blog of a long term traveller: “Be prepared you will never be understood. The change you are going through will change you and there is no coming back”. Well, at least I know that I’m not weird. Sometimes I’m thinking of “coming back”, I regret opening my eyes and changing my perspectives. You feel less lonely when everyone think the same, right? But I would never give the knowledge I gained back, cuz I know there are still the people out there who have experienced things I have and who understand what’s important in life. Because travelling definitely teaches you that.


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