Although it sounds pathetic, for me Split is the most beautiful city in the world. Or at least it was, until we came to Hoi An – a magic town in the central part of Vietnam.
Interestingly, it is on the former Spice Route for more than two thousand years, and since the nearby Da Nang became the main port, Hoi Ans’ economy collapsed. But that is the charm of this story. In fact, it has preserved its old look in very pristine condition. For centuries.
The most accurate description is if I say that it is a combination of Cuban yellow walls, Venetian canals with gondolas and Thailand during Loy Krathong festival of lamps.
When you also consider that there are people in the district who ride the huge buffalos instead of a horses, and in one village all the men have a very long beards, it is clear why Rehahn Croquevielle – according to National Geographic, fourth travelogue photographer in the world – settled here.
In the same afternoon we are of course drinking coffee with this friendly, patient and benevolent man. I was very pleased he praised my photos, and even more so when he said he will visit Split, which we praised so much.
After a couple of days of pure enjoyment in shooting, we finally headed for the village of Phon Nha, where we could not sleep of excitement, even though we were really tired. In the morning we went to the biggest attraction of the journey – expedition in Hang En – third largest cave in the world.
Interestingly, the largest one is in the vicinity of Hang En, but only professionals with a good budget or famous television crews can afford entrance. The whole area of the national park Ke Bang is under strict control of the Government of Vietnam and the armed guards of the park in order to preserve nature.
The only possibility of entering is by paying the permit to the authorized agency, and the number is so limited that the cave can only be visited by five hundred lucky ones a year.
Apart from us, these fortunes were also a dozen Americans, with whom we are joined in the expedition, plus a few domestic food and camping equipment carriers. In those two days we have twice crested the top of two thousand meters high mountain, climbing the extremely steep goat track, and to make matters worse, all this effort was in the heat of plus thirty-five degrees Celsius, with high humidity and on the muddy pitch.
The way down through the valley was also not easy. In the twenty-two kilometers of rainforest, we have had five stops, seventy-four times trampled our boots through the river, which was also drank from through the filter.
Somewhere in the middle we came across a tribe that lives in conditions as if time had stopped centuries ago. Women have worked outside the house, many children were playing with the dogs, and the chief – supposedly the father of most of these children – was smoking a cigarette in front of the hut.
He did not even look at the bunch of foreigners who rudely disturbed his peace, as well as few men who, followed a huge herd of oxen by the river.
Shortly before sunset we arrive in front of the cave whose entrance was hidden by lush vegetation, and only when we entered through a narrow passage we realized that it is actually buried and thus seemingly small from outside. Inside… it is like three football stadiums one on top one another.
It has its own river, microclimate, animal species, even vegetation, since there is plenty of light. It is connected with dozens of other caves by the dark and under-explored tunnels.
While he was wandering, Toni encountered the skeleton of a primate and together we stumbled upon a hill of dung that has accumulated under the flock of thousands of bats.
A book could be written just about this miracle. Just to mention, and Tony agreed, in a tent in the middle of the central hall, we had the best rest in our lives and even better awakening.
The man forgets where he is and when he glances through the tent and sees a hundred meters high cave – through whose enormous gap the morning sun penetrates – he realizes that he spent the night in one of the most attractive places on this planet. Memory for a lifetime.
Unfortunately, only two days can be spent in this cave, so by the next night we were, full of impressions, on the way to Halong Bay – a popular name for a group of 1960 islands and reefs in the Gulf of Tonkin, in the northeast of Vietnam, near the town of Ha Long.
It is clear that on this trip we are passing a lot of kilometers just to get to see everything that we set out. And what this journey will inevitably bring. It is the sixteenth day, and behind us was already 11 680 kilometers. In the morning we hire a boat and visit this wonder of nature, although the day to take pictures is one of the bleakest in the history of Southeast Asia.
When you also add the thousands of foreigners, especially loud Chinese, it is no wonder that the same night we already run to the far north of Vietnam. We visit the town of Sapa, known for its endless fields of rice in mountainous cascades.
And it proves to be a bingo because of rare hardened backpackers, let alone tourists. Unlike the rest of Vietnam, it is very cold and people have darker complexion and facial features like Chinese.
Since we are having bad luck with the weather, we are delaying cascade photography and we embark on a tour of the surrounding villages with ethnic groups Hmong, Dao, Tay and Lui. These are people in colorful costumes who work hard and don’t know about looking at the cell phone.
They do not live easy, but they seem happy. Thanks to rented scooters we cover almost the entire area and buy beautiful handicrafts, of which I proudly pack a sword with bamboo handle.
For the end of the day here, as well as in Ho Chi Minh City, we find another Notre Dame Catholic Church, preceded by a multitude of people who beg. The most touching scene was a girl maternally holding her newborn sister.
The next two days we were finally served by nice weather so we perpetuate dozens of rice cascades, big ethnic village Ta Van and Silver Falls. The finish of wandering around Sape is climb up the mountain Fasipan, which peaks reach a height of 3100 meters above sea level and the views are breathtaking.
On the way back we encounter a fire that overtook the construction machinery. Passing by the fire we realize that is not the situation for shooting selfies but rather stepping on the gas. Specifically, machine oil was ignited by and threatened to asperse. And when they’ve tried to put it out unprofessionally… Almost a disaster.
After three days the magical Sapa, what followed was an entry to the bus heading to Lao Luang Prabang. Forty lying seats, and nearly a hundred passengers waited on-boarding. We had twenty-five-hour drive to reach our target and kilometers, behold irony, exactly 666.
Will it really be a hell of a journey, read in the last remainder of this travelogue…