Our plan was to spend the day around Son Trach as it's near the Phong Na caves and Phong Na National Park, both of which we wanted to explore.
First, having realized that with our late arrival yesterday we had checked into a hotel far from the town center, we relocated to a hotel in town. Then we took a walk, had some breakfast, and on the way back stopped to interact with some American War veterans who were having some kind of reunion. They were very friendly and most welcoming to Americans. Quite a few of them had lost limbs. They were happy to pose for some photos with us:
We had been on the road for over two weeks always wearing helmets and riding gear. The weather was now hot and humid and we really wanted to enjoy the change from the cooler north. So we opted for a more relaxed riding style - no helmets and minimal clothing. Well at least I was wearing sneakers but Zach opted for thongs!
Then we rode to the caves about 6 kms from town. Apparently, we later learned, there is another recently discovered cave formation even better than the one we visited. Nonetheless we rented a kayak and the guide that came with it, and paddled in to explore the caves. The first couple hundred yards had lighting and is the area frequented by tourists who are boated in. However with our guide we paddled through far deeper into the caves, no lighting there other than that from our headlamps. The caves were really cool. After about an hour of paddling we got out of the kayaks and scrambled over rocks further into the caves. Finally back to our kayak, and we paddled back to the starting point.
We then rode off to explore the Phong Na National Park. This was the terrain as we neared the park:
We rode through the park for about 10 miles, very thick jungle with occasional views of the surrounding mountains and cliffs. Then to our surprise we stumbled upon the remote western section of the HCM Trail. My Russian friend Ilya, who I met in Hanoi, had told me about this section. He said it was very remote and a "must ride" but hard to locate. On the maps it was very confusing, but here we had found it so now we could incorporate this into our route for the next day. We decided to explore and rode north on it, the next day of course we would head south. We entered an area of very thick jungle with great views of the limestone karst hills and mountains. Totally remote, not a soul to be seen.
We explored for a few hours finding some interesting caves, rivers, and always the incredibly lush jungle. At one remote spot, nothing for miles, we were hanging out and I was really surprised to find I had 3G service on my cellphone - there was a cell tower on the hilltop near us. It was the only time I had 3G service the entire trip except in some areas of Ho Chi Minh City.
We made our way back to town and reset our route for the following day to incorporate the remote western section of the HCM Trail as we now knew where to access it.
Total distance for the day - 50 kms (30 miles)