Our experience from one of the great new activities in the region – Mountain biking in Phong Nha.
“Stay to the right, or you will sink.” A sound bit of advice that I was determined to follow. I pedalled furiously towards the flooded trail, aiming to the right in the hopes of avoiding a sudden disappearance into the muddy abyss.
Hugging the edge of the dirt track so closely that the overhanging shrubs scraped against my skin, all eyes were on me as I tried my hardest to reach the other side of the puddle without becoming bogged.
As my front wheel quickly sunk deeper into the water, I knew the task was almost impossible. Quickly my front hub was submersed, and my feet were soon to follow.
Resistance increased and my legs burned as I battled the slop. Only a few more rotations and I would hopefully be out of the treacherous situation…
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Mountain Biking In Phong Nha
The Quang Binh province in Central Vietnam is quickly developing the reputation as the adventure capital of Southeast Asia.
Gargantuan limestone caverns beg exploration beneath the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
Hordes of tourists are flocking to the area to venture inside these ancient caves. Now more exciting activities are available for those searching for more pursuits on the surface.
One such experience is mountain biking in Phong Nha, which offers a mix of tough off-road trails, rural surroundings, historic sights and enchanting scenery.
The man behind the Phong Nha Adventure Cycling company is Shi, a Vietnamese legend from a neighbouring village who leads the mountain bike tours in Phong Nha.
Although he is now based in Hue, he spends a great deal of time taking adventurous travellers through the best off-road terrain in the region.
I had heard a lot about his mountain bike tours, so when the opportunity came up to check out the Ho Chi Minh Trails with him, I was pumped.
Our small group met at the Easy Tiger Hostel, where Private Shi (as he is known) measured us up and matched our sizes to the correct mountain bikes.
Shi deliberately kept the briefing short, slyly mentioning that it was “only” 40km of off-roading we would have to tackle.
My legs began quivering with trepidation as I suddenly realised that the only bike I had been on in the last few months is one with a 110cc motor in it. This was going to be a long day.
Knowing that we would need some energy for the day’s undertaking, we rode out to Ho Khanh’s Homestay for one of his famous chocolate coffees.
Ho Khanh is the man who discovered Hang Son Doong – the world’s largest cave – back in 1991 while he was illegally logging in the jungle.
Now he is the lead porter for Oxalis, the company that runs tours to Hang Son Doong, while assisting the British Cave Research Association in exploring new caverns in the region.
Feeling the buzz from meeting the local legend, and the strong caffeine hit, we rode south and boarded a thin timber boat used to transport passengers, motorbikes, and this time mountain bikes, across the Son River.
Shi regaled us with anecdotes of some of the more peculiar happenings during the Vietnam/American War; some tragic, some hilarious.
Reaching the other side, we rode through a small village to a chorus of “hellos” from the scores of children playing games outside their houses.
We exited the community, rode through vacant peanut fields and merged with one of the original Ho Chi Minh Trails.
Used to transport supplies from the North to the South during the war, these trails were known as one of the greatest military engineering achievements of the 20th century.
Now they are utilised by farmers and villagers as access roads. For over 3km we pedalled our way through sludge and soil, fording large puddles and dodging jagged rocks.
Roadside craters were solemn reminders of the devastating bombings that took place here only a generation ago.
Once we emerged from the historic trails, we rode our mountain bikes through vast pastures encompassed by the typical karst scenery that Phong Nha is known for.
Local farmers and buffalo worked the fields in much the same way that they have for centuries. While the rest of the world develops rapidly, here in Quang Binh many things remain unchanged.
Eventually Shi directed us onto the famous Ho Chi Minh Highway West. We followed its (thankfully) flat surface as it ran parallel to the Chay River, past Hang Toi, or the “Dark Cave” as it is known in English.
Our lunch stop was at the Nuoc Mooc Eco Trail, where an underground river springs up to the surface. The origin of this carving waterway is unknown, but many local men believe it begins across the border in Laos.
The nature reserve is a pleasant place to kick back and relax in nature, and that is exactly what we did while our lunch was served to us right next to the river.
After we hungrily wolfed down our delicious Vietnamese spread, including freshwater shrimp caught that morning from the river, we had an hour to explore Nuoc Mooc.
Wandering along the lush jungle on two feet was a welcome respite from being on two wheels.
Stomachs filled and legs slightly recovered, we mounted the bikes and beelined our way back towards Phong Nha. The refreshing pavement wasn’t to last though, as Shi veered us back onto a dirt path weaving through another village.
The buildings suddenly vanished, as did our trail, and we ended up riding across grassed paddocks and through narrow gum trees. If it weren’t for Shi’s capable navigation skills, we surely would have believed we were lost.
Soon we pulled up next to a slit in the limestone cliffs. This was the fabled “Wine Cave”, which the locals used as a makeshift distillery to create a potent home-brew during the war.
Phong Nha continues to deliver surprising and fascinating history around every corner. We scrambled up some rocks for better vistas, before setting off again.
Daylight hours dwindling, the twilight sky transformed into a vibrant painting, sunbeams cracking through breaks in the clouds.
The barren earth’s brown shades grew deeper as the sun lowered towards the mountain peaks.
We rode our bikes through rustic hamlets, and crossed the Son and Chay Rivers once more on the way back to Phong Nha town.
Arriving in town we dismounted the mountain bikes and cheered in unison. Despite the exhausted legs, the day’s tour had been incredible.
Private Shi had done a remarkable job of imparting as much local knowledge as possible. In his own words, “More than the CIA will ever tell you.”
While the grandeur of the massive caves hiding amongst the jungles of the national park attracts thousands of visitors, the farmlands in the neighbouring area remain relatively untouched.
The mountain biking in Phong Nha took us deep into the heart of it and left us longing to venture back out on two wheels to relive the experience.
Just don’t forget to keep pedalling when you find yourself crank deep in the swallowing mud…
How To Book Your Mountain Bike Tour In Phong Nha
Tourist numbers to the Quang Binh province are booming, and as such facilities and activities are being established almost daily.
The mountain biking in Phong Nha is still relatively new, and will no doubt grow in popularity as more and more people start coming to town.
Unfortunately a lot of travellers arrive in Phong Nha with a limited amount of time, meaning by the time they hear about some of the other attractions on offer, it is too late.
Make sure you do your research before coming, have a few days up your sleeve and consider jumping on a mountain biking tour.
If you are interested in mountain biking in Phong Nha on one of Private Shi’s tours as one of your things to do in Vietnam, you can book it through his website, or by contacting him by email or phone:
- Phong Nha Adventure Cycling
Phone – +84 (0) 98 555 5827
Email – privateshi (dot) phongnhacycling (at) gmail (dot) com
Web – http://phongnhacycling.jimdo.com/
Alternatively you can book the mountain biking in Phong Nha at the following places in town:
- Bamboo Cafe
Phone – +84 (0) 52 367 8777
Email – phongnha.bamboocafe (at) gmail (dot) com
Web – http://phongnhabamboocafe.com/
- Easy Tiger
Phone – +84 (0) 52 367 7844
Email – easytigerphongnha (at) gmail (dot) com
Web – http://www.easytigerhostel.com/
- Phong Nha Farmstay
Phone – +84 (0) 52 367 5135
Email – phongnhafarmstay (at) gmail (dot) com
Web – http://phong-nha-cave.com/
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