WHERE ARE THE BUFFALOES?
When I read about a trip run by Hanoi Backpackers Hostel entitled ‘The Buffalo Run’ I was intrigued. Was this the Vietnamese equivalent of La Tomatina? The Spanish festival where locals (and some stupid tourists) run with the bulls in the town of Bunol, except with buffalos involved? Or would taking the tour mean that I would be traveling the length of the skinny country on a grumpy buffalo with my backpack strapped on the back? I never did get to find out why it was called the Buffalo Run, but what I do know is that I had an awesome time during the six-day, action-packed adventure!
The tour begins from the famous Backpacker Hostel in Vietnam’s crazy, atmospheric capital, Hanoi and finishes 990km south in the charming town of Hoi An, renowned for its streets of tailors, kitting out grubby backpackers with cheap tailor-made gear for when they finally return back home to normal life and discard their beer singlets and Havianas.
CUC PHUONG NATIONAL PARK
There were 14 of us altogether on the trip, which was the perfect number to get to know everyone really well and also have enough variety within the group. At 9am, we left Hanoi’s bustling streets by bus and by 12 noon we arrived in beautfiful Cuc Phuong National Park. 120km southwest of Hanoi, the park is the oldest National Park in Vietnam. With steep limestone mountains jutting out of lush green rice terraces and a dense forest backdrop, the park is home to some of Asia’s rarest flora and fauna, such as the clouded leapord, Delacour’s langur, Owston’s civet and Asian black bear.
First, we took a trip to the Primates Endangered Rescue Centre (EPRC) to learn about the work of the organization in the process of rescuing, rehabilitation, breeding, research, and conservation of the endangered primates of Cuc Phuong into the wildlife again. The Centre is home to over 150 primates, including six species, which are kept only at the EPRC and nowhere else in the world.
After that, we jumped on motorbikes to ride deeper into the depths of the National Park. On the way we stopped at a hidden cave in the jungle. Apparently there are many caves within the park, including the ‘Cave of Prehistoric Man’, the site of one of the earliest discoveries of human habitation in Vietnam, dating back 7,500 years! It was so great to be exploring with the freedom of two wheels riding along empty roads in such beautiful surroundings.
In the evening, we had a delicious dinner altogether and afterwards took a night hike through the jungle with a local guide. Prepared with torches and sprayed head to toe with insect repellent, we saw incredibly weird looking and brightly coloured bugs. The jungle really came alive at night time with deafening sounds and movement all around – this walk is not for those with arachnophobia as we encountered poisonous spiders that were as tall as my hand!
The next day served mainly to move down further south the Ho Chi Minh Trail – a historic route, shrouded in secrecy, which allowed communists of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam during the Vietnam War to travel south to Saigon. With the exemption of some stops to take photos, have lunch and go to the restroom, we spent most of the day on the bus. So it was delightful to arrive at a really nice hotel the same evening.
PHONG NHA KE BANG NATIONAL PARK
The spectacular Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park was our destination for our third day. The Park lies in the Quanh Binh province of north-central Vietnam and is rich with natural wonders, most of which have only recently been discovered. Phong Nha Ke Bang has only very recently gained international acclaim as home to the most majestic cave systems in the world – some over four million years old – that have been formed due to the purity of the limestone here, and the multitude of rivers flowing throughout its karst mountains. Over 170 new caves have been discovered by two British cavers Debbie and Howard Limbert since 1990. It was only in 2003 that the Park was listed as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.
We took a day-trip to what is now known as the world’s largest cave (Paradise Cave – Thien Duong), which was amazingly only discovered, (by the Limberts) in 2005! The scenery was epic. This cave has a length of 31km and the height can reach to 100m with a wide of 150m. Only parts of it can be visited at the moment, as the process of exploration is still ongoing. Our group of young backpackers jointly agreed, that this would be a great place to enjoy an electronic underground party (an unlikely future for the newly-discovered natural phenomena).
That same afternoon, we enjoyed another delicious Vietnamese lunch in the jungle and took an afternoon dip in a hidden river. At this time of year, in July, the current of the water was strong and the temperature was rather chilly, so the swim was definitely refreshing to say the least! The scenery of the park was breathtaking and definitely some of the most amazing scenery I’ve seen in Vietnam, or even South East Asia so far! Everything felt so undiscovered and wild…
THE DMZ – A HISTORY LESSON
After a day in nature, the following day, the Hanoi Backpackers crew mixed things up a little with a little history lesson, all about the Vietnam War, or American War as they call it in this country. We drove to the DMZ, the former Demilitarized Zone – which was the dividing territory between North and South Vietnam. The narrow battleground terrain strip is just few kilometers deep and runs a hundred kilometers east to west across the country. The area saw some serious war action during 1954 – 1975 and ruins of old American military bases still exist.
One of the most interesting experiences was to walk through the underground tunnel complex of Vinh Moc. These tunnels sheltered more than 600 people between 1965 and 1972 and were originally built by the local villagers to protect themselves from intense bombing by the Americans. The villagers of Vinh Moc were accused of supplying food and armaments to the North Vietnamese communists and so the American forces designed bombs that burrowed down 10 metres into the tunnels. Incredibly, and testament to the resilience of the Vietnamese people, the villagers dug the caves to a depth of 30 metres. With wells, kitchens and family rooms, the cave was literally an underground village where 60 families lived and as many as 17 children were born within the tunnel walls! The way these people continued to make the most of their lives in the face of such adversity was inspiring.
After exploring the tunnels, that evening, we arrived in the city of Hue. Hue is a really beautiful town with a river, The Perfume River, floating through the city centre. The next morning we took moto-taxis to ride to a temple outside of town and explore the most famous landmark, Hue Citadel, dating back to 1805, it was the home of the Nguyen Dynasty.
BEACH CHILL OUT
That afternoon, after taking in all the nature, adventure, history and culture of the past few days, it was time to just kick back and relax! And where better to do it than the beach? Yes it really does seem like Vietnam has it all with so much diversity cram-packed into this thin country. The beach was pretty remote and the Hanoi Backpackers crew wasted no time in setting up camp and making a delicious BBQ for us all! Most of the guys played soccer on the beach with some local Vietnamese kids. Although they did not speak any English, and we didn’t speak a word of Vietnamese, communication worked out well and we had serious fun!
THE BEST RIDE OF MY LIFE
If the previous five days seemed hard to match, the final day was undoubtedly my favourite of the entire trip! All 14 of us were given motorbikes and helmets (of course!) and drove an epic six hours from Hue to Hoi An. (There was an option for those who didn’t feel comfortable riding to take the bus, or take a motorbike with a driver). The road hugged the ocean all of the way and we made sure to take plenty of photo-stops, as well as stopping for lunch right on a deserted beach.
The second part of the ride in the afternoon brought us through epic scenery of mountains, ocean and up close and personal with nature. The famous ride is known as the Hai Van Pass and for those of you who are Top Gear fans may have seen it on the program, where it was described by Jeremy Clarkson as one of the most beautiful rides in the world! For sure, this was one of the most beautiful driving experiences I ever had.
At 10pm we reached our final destination, the Sunflower Hotel in Hoi An. Of course, as this was the last evening of our trip, we went out for a finale dinner and hit several (I forgot to count!) of the quirky bars in the city – as some of us would be going our separate ways in the morning.
STILL NO BUFFALOES
All in all, (even though I didn’t get to actually run with the buffaloes in the end) the trip was an amazing experience – with a great mix of learning about the history and culture of Vietnam, which I think is essential for anyone to gain an understanding of this country, as well as the incredible natural scenery and biodiversity for which Vietnam is blessed. Unlike many tours I have experienced in Asia, I really don’t think I could have done the trip independently and got so much out of it! Plus the guys at Hanoi Backpackers made sure the whole trip was non-stop fun from start to finish. I would highly recommend the trip to any backpacker looking to cram as much as possible into their Vietnam adventure – and it’s great value for money, six days with accommodation and food included for only $350 USD.
So what next for me in Vietnam? After chilling out in the cafes and getting myself some tailor-made shorts in this beautiful town, I’ll travel further down the coast to the coastal resort of Mui Ne. If the wind conditions stay like they are at the moment, I can enjoy some great days kite-surfing there!