20 January 2019
On our first full day in Phong Nha we meet up with our friend Maeve and a new friend, Helena. It’s raining out but as it looks like this will be our only day together, we decide to go exploring anyway. The plan? A cave and a place called “duck stop.” The result? One of my favorite days in Vietnam.
We pile onto the bikes, put our ponchos on and head to one of Phong Nha’s many caves, Paradise Cave. The ride there goes through another part of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park and is, of course, stunning. It is also an adventure to say the least. It is riddled with steep inclines, which, let’s just say, our bikes are not excellent at. Elektra is slow and she quite literally sounds as though she may explode. I see Paul and Helena up ahead, Paul rocking Tangerine Dream back and forth to keep her moving. I guess I’m not the only one struggling. I give Elektra pats of encouragement, I talk her through it. Come on girl, you’ve got this.
Eventually, we make it. I am happy to turn the key and give Elektra a break. I am even happier to hear the guys‘ own stories of struggling up the hills. This motorbiking thing? We’re excellent at it.
We hike up to the cave and though it is beautiful, it’s really the company that I’m enjoying most of all. We continue to giggle about our uphill struggles, we look for shapes in the rock formations, Clay plays his ukulele.
Once we’re done we trek back to the bikes and go in search of the infamous duck stop.
Now, here’s a little bit of context for you. From the moment we arrived in Phong Nha, we began to hear about this one thing you absolutely-positively-one-hundred-percent must do. It’s called duck stop. That’s right, duck stop. Two words not regularly strung together, but intriguing, right? So we made a deal. None of us were allowed to find out what actually happens at duck stop. We would all go in unknowing and be surprised.
We’re well into the afternoon at this point, having gotten started too late (of course). It is also still raining, but that’s doesn’t stop this team. We continue on and as we get closer to the spot on the map, the road turns off onto a dirt road. Well not dirt, actually. Mud.
Deep, squelchy, wet, mucky mud. There’s a moment of hesitation, but is is very brief. We said we’d go to duck stop, so we are going to duck stop. The only way is forward.
We’re slipping and sliding through the mud and I am laughing my head off. Between our plastic ponchos, the mud and the randomness of this mission, it’s just entirely too much. I’m sliding my canvas sneakers along through the mud, moving Elektra along slowly as I cackle like a hyena.
We pass a small dirt patch with a sign that says “park here.” It has a phone number and below it something along the lines of “call and we will send the ox.” Yes, you read that correctly. An ox. Someone says “should we do it?” But someone else says “I don’t know, seems like a scam.” We continue on.
Then the mud gets deeper. We look on the map and see that we have another 800 meters to go. But seriously, this mud is deep. All of a sudden, our “just power through” mentality begins to seem a little flawed.
To our left is a dried up rice field. If we can ride across that, we will cut maybe 50 meters out of our ride. We decide to do it. Maeve and Helena dismount and we ride the bikes down the mud into the field and across to the other side. That’s when this plan also begins to fall apart. The ridge on this side of the rice field is roughly one meter. There’s a little path in between the weeds. It’s fairly steep and it is very muddy. To get back up to the road, this is the path we need to get the bikes up over.
Do you see where I am going with this? Okay, great.
Clay is at the head and is the first to try it. I hear him revving his engine and I see him bouncing up the ridge and slipping back down. Legs splayed, mud everywhere. He turns around and says “guys I don’t think this is gonna work.”
I laugh again, looking around as I think: great. Now we are stuck in a rice field. A group of locals up on the road looks on, laughing at us.
Ok, plan B. I suppose by now it’s really a plan C, but who’s counting? We will head back the way we came, jumping the ridge on the other side. That one is lower (maybe 50 cm?) and should be a bit more doable. Then we will park the bikes and go on foot.
Duck stop or bust.
I turn Elektra around and head towards the other side of the field. The closer I get, the higher this ridge looks. “Can’t one of you guys do this for me?”
“Nope! Gotta do it yourself!”
Paul goes first and though he makes it look easy, I do not feel equipped to do this. I swallow hard, position myself straight in front of the little path in the weeds, turn the throttle hard and go.
As I hit the incline and go flying, I close my eyes.
Then, squelch. Elektra and I unceremoniously drop into the mud on the other side. Holy shit, I did it. Didn’t fall, didn’t even die. I’m grinning and Paul is in front of me, going “shit dude!” Apparently I really flew.
Soon enough we are all out of the field and we have parked our bikes. Now to trek on in the mud.
It is slow, slippery, wet, stinky and altogether unpleasant, but it is my favorite thing. Together with four people I am on the most ridiculous adventure through ankle deep mud to go to a place where I may or may not see a duck.
By the time we make it to duck stop, it has gotten dark. One of the workers spots us and says hello. “Duck stop?” we ask. “Yes! We are closed, but come.”
We enter and start “the duck stop experience.” Now, for as difficult as this wonderful mess of a day already is to describe, the events at duck stop are even more difficult. It is impossible, really, to tell you what a bizarre and gut wrenchingly hilarious experience it was.
What I will say is this. At duck stop, you are made to put on a Vietnamese hat and sandals. You are brought into an enclosure that is filled, quite literally, with hundreds of ducks. And you feed these ducks. But this is no ordinary feeding. No, the full experience includes the proprietor yelling at you and commanding you to quack like a duck. He instructs you to run whilst all the ducks chase you, claiming you a place as “duck leader.” You are treated to a “duck pedicure.” You are told to hold a duck as though it were a machine gun.
I couldn’t make it up if I tried. He is yelling at us to “just hold the fucking duck,” we are a flurry of confusion and excitement and I am laughing so hysterically that I can no longer formulate words.
We finish our experience and have some food and a beer. The proprietor is beside himself with laughter when we tell him of the ordeal we went through to come here. He asks us why we didn’t call for the ox. Oh yea, let’s not get into that.
He calls us crazy and as he laughs his head off he says: “You white people are so stupid! You come here through the rain and the mud to pay the little man big money for you to do his job feeding the ducks.”
I nearly piss myself laughing. Oh, how right you are.
After our food we decide it really is time to get moving. This time, however, the ox will take us. See? We do learn.
“We will take you to the bikes. Just give us the keys to the other bike, and we’ll take the ladies to the end of the muddy road,” he says to the guys.
“No, that’s my bike. I’ll take it myself,” I chime in.
They go to collect the ox and set about attaching a cart to her. He tries a few more times to convince me to hand over my bike keys, but I won’t budge. If we can jump out of rice fields together, we can handle mud. No one left behind.
Finally, the ox is ready. “This is Donald Trump. She will take you.”
“She?” I ask.
“Yes, yes, she is a female. She’s very strong.”
So our day in Phong Nha comes to an end. In a wooden cart, under a pitch black sky, bouncing along a muddy road behind a female ox named Donald Trump.
It was wonderful, it was weird, it was special.
Really, Paul put it perfectly a few days later when he said:
“You could be in the garden of Eden with champagne flowing out of Jennifer Lopez’s asshole but you’re with a load of gobshites and it would be terrible. But you could be in the rain, covered in duck shit and keep going. That’s us.”
And we are by far my favorite thing.