A glorious heritage

Travel tales

A glorious heritage

Sometime in October last year, I received a call from one of my friends, floating the idea of a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. Without a second thought, I agreed and within no time, the group of travellers grew to 16 in number.

During our 10-day trip in December and January, we covered the Vietnamese capital Ho Chi Minh City, Phong Nha, the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

What connects you to these countries are the infamous Vietnam War, the diverse personalities Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot and of course, the Angkor Wat temple complex. However, the highlight of the trip was the caves in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

Dong Hoi is an hour-long flight from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) while Phong Nha town is less than an hour from the Dong Hoi airport.

This sleepy town is actually the stepping stone to one of the most wonderful natural cave networks in the world. We checked in late in the evening at a hotel in Phong Nha.

The Paradise Cave (Thien Duong Cave) and the Phong Nha Cave were on our list. These are part of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a limestone zone protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with mountains, tropical forests and underground rivers.

Half an hour by road and a short buggy ride takes you to the starting point of an enjoyable walk through pristine forests to the mouth of Paradise Cave. Once you enter the cave, it is nothing but a magical world. The interior of the cave leaves you stunned — a world of myriad stalactites and stalagmites competing with each other in shape, size and hue and on rare occasions, uniting to form pillars! And would you believe that this hidden wonder was discovered only as late as 2005?  To explore the Phong Nha cave, you need to take a boat from the town.

As you enter the cave through the underground river, the engines are switched off and the boatman takes up the oars.

 Silently moving through the river, taking in the beauty of the caves, is an experience in itself.  Phong Nha is just as mesmerising as Paradise Cave and the river flowing in the darkness makes all the difference.

Back in Ho Chi Minh City, we took day trips to Mekong Delta and the Cu Chi Tunnels. The ingenious ways devised by the Vietnamese guerrilla fighters to defeat the Americans by emerging from the vast tunnel network are mind-boggling.

The Independence Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, 19th century Saigon Central Post Office, Ben Thanh Market and War Remnants Museum are worth-seeing. The city is a great place to savour exotic street food.

Crossing over to Cambodia by road from Vietnam, Phnom Penh was our next destination where the Royal Palace, Independence Monument and Central Market are the major attractions.

A visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a grim reminder of the atrocities under Pol Pot and the details numb your senses.

We reached our final destination Siem Reap by an overnight bus from Phnom Penh.
This is the gateway to the world’s largest temple complex Angkor Wat.  Mostly in ruins, this 12th century wonder stands out for its sheer extent and huge structures.  
We returned home with beautiful memories of the trip. As it’s said, ‘Seeing is
believing’!

How to get there

Several flights are available from Bengaluru to Ho Chi Minh City. We flew Malindo Air from Trichy to Ho Chi Minh City via Kuala Lumpur. From Ho Chi Minh City to Dong Hoi and back was by Jetstar Airways and then from Siem Reap back to Trichy (via Kuala Lumpur) was by Air Asia. The total flight cost for one was Rs 32,000.

From Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh and  to Siem Reap, we travelled by road in a Giant Ibis luxury bus costing approximately Rs 1,300 per person for each leg.

Places to stay

Ho Chi Minh City — Liberty Central Saigon Centre Hotel.
Phong Nha — Midtown Hotel.
Phnom Penh — Tea House Asia Urban Hotel.
Siem Reap — Banyan Leaf Hotel.
The per night tariff was between Rs 2,500 to
Rs 4,000 for a double occupancy room.

N R Unni
(The author can be contacted at nrunni@gmail.com)

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