Phong Nha Caves: the best thing we did in Vietnam!

Phong Nha National Park, Vietnam

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park has become one of the most talked about destinations in Vietnam, mostly due to the discovery of Son Doong, the world’s biggest cave and those incredible National Geographic images. Situated in the skinny central bit of Vietnam, near to the Laos border, the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is a spectacular landscape of ancient karst mountains, formed 400 million years ago, perforated with hundreds of phenomenal caves. It was given UNESCO status in 2003.

Son Doong Cave may be out of most traveller’s budgets at $3000 US for a 6 night expedition but the national park has so much more to offer and this is fast becoming a ‘must-do’ stop for any Vietnam trip. Everyone we met who’d been there raved about it, these caves are way more impressive than Surprising Cave in Halong Bay, I promise!

We hadn’t actually done that much research when we arrived into Dong Hoi train station at some god-forsaken time in the morning from the overnight train from Hanoi. The reason we’d put it on our Vietnam itinerary was to hopefully meet up with a friend from back home, one of the British cavers who surveyed Son Doong Cave and was now living in the area. He had sold us on the location months ago when we were ruminating on the trip but we weren’t sure what to expect, or whether we’d be able to track him down!

A van picked us up and transported us to Phong Nha Farmstay where a friendly welcome awaited us, and a lovely room. The Phong Nha Farmstay is surrounded by rice paddies, this is rural Vietnam as it’s best. We enquired about our friend, it turns out that in this small community, everyone knows everyone.

Phong Nha National Park, Vietnam

You may come to the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park to see the caves but one of the most joyous things you can do in the area is hop on a bicycle and ride along the lanes, through the rustic villages and luscious rice paddies. Mass tourism hasn’t reached here {yet} and you get so many ‘hello’s, waves and high-fives from the local children your cheeks will ache from grinning. A word of caution here though, dress modestly- this is real, rural Vietnam and they aren’t used to shorts and skimpy tops and they may let you know that they find it offensive, be a considerate traveller.

A delightful cycle along the river to the nearest big village, Son Trach and a few queries led us to our friend, and introductions to Howard and Deb Limbert who lead the British Cave Research Association’s expedition to first survey Son Doong Cave back in 2009. What stories they had, it was amazing to hear first hand how this tremendous cave had been discovered and explored. The conversations left us eager to see some of the other caves in the park and they gave us some recommendations.

We signed up for the Phong Nha Farmstay National Park tour, a full day packed with fun, adventure, jaw-dropping geology and history. It is a great introduction to the park, which begins on Hwy 20 and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Our excellent guide told us fascinating stories from the American War, the importance of the trails and the bravery of the locals keeping the trails accessible. Dense primary forest surrounds us, covering the karst mountains. In places though the rock is bare, patches of white amongst the green, bomb-scarred.

Hwy 20 and the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Hwy 20 and the Ho Chi Minh Trail

The road wound up deeper into the park, we arrived at a small temple, dedicated to war martyrs and the nearby 8 Ladies cave where some locals unfortunately took cover during the war and were sealed in after a bomb dropped. Today the cave is a memorial to them.

Then came glorious Paradise Cave {Thien Dong} where electric golf cart-style buggies whirred us to the cave entrance while one of our tour group whistled the Jurassic Park theme to much amusement.

Paradise Cave

Paradise Cave

A wooden staircase leads down into the belly of the cave, the vaulted ceiling soars above you seemingly held up by mighty stalagmite pillars, prepare to be astounded. The formations in Paradise Cave are spectacular and tastefully lit, this is definitely one of the most beautiful caves I’ve ever been in.

> click on a photo to open the gallery

Lunch followed the cave then we were taken to the river where we changed into swimming togs and attempted to kayak to the mouth of Dark Cave. The inflatable kayaks had us spinning in circles most of the time but we eventually managed to reach the cave. We were guided through the cave, along a narrow passage, the only light radiating from our head torches as we plodded through the muddy channel. A hilarious mud bath followed before we swam back to the cave mouth across a chilly subterranean lake.

“Turn off your head torches”.

Are you crazy? Suddenly we were swimming in complete darkness, the cool water lapping around us. It was both eerie and exhilarating, did something just brush past my legs?

After kayaking back to the shore we plunged back into the river for a refreshing swim before necking some questionable rum and warming our souls with a mug of soup. I would say this is the best cave-based experience I’ve ever had, but black water rafting through glowworm lit Waitomo cave in New Zealand narrowly beats it. Certainly this tour is one of the most fun days you can have in Vietnam.

We made some great friends on the National Park tour and the following day a few of us cycled to Son Trach to visit Phong Nha Cave, the original show cave in the park. This cave is only accessible by boat, the ticket office situated on the river near the entrance to the village. It’s a 5 km boat ride along the river to the cave and the boats can carry 14 people. We managed to join a small group of other tourists at the counter, this cut the price for us to hire the boat.

> click on a photo to open the gallery

Once the boat reached the cave, the driver rolled back the roof canopy, shut off the engine and we drifted under the low cave entrance. Again the cave was tastefully lit and we gazed in awe at the delicate stalactites above us. We passed through the cave to an underground beach where we were dropped off and a trail led back to another beach through an enigmatic landscape of surreal formations. Half way along this trail the lights cut out and we were plunged into darkness! The guard, who we’d spotted moments earlier asleep on a folding chair, must have roused and put them back on a minute or so later.

Phong Nha Cave held the title of Vietnam’s largest cave until the surveying of Son Doong revealed its mammoth size. It is still an immense cave of extraordinary formations that will leave you feeling minuscule. The cave played an interesting part during the American War, its name translates as ‘mouth of teeth’ due to the stalactites that used to hang from the low entrance, now vanished. It was used as a hiding place/store-room throughout the war as the low entrance was difficult to attack. Only one missile got through but the angle of the cave within the entrance meant it caused little damage to the inner cave.

There is a second cave up a staircase outside the entrance to Phong Nha cave, we had a look in that one too. It was less spectacular but the views across the landscape from the entrance were wonderful, as you can see on the photo at the top of this post.

I’ll end this post with another little gallery of photos from our time in Phong Nha-Ke Bang, cycling a loop long the river and back, crossing it on the  wooden ferry. We met some amazing people at the Farmstay, ending the day up on the roof terrace, supping beer winched up from the house below, and watching the sun set over the rice paddies.

Get to Phong Nha-Ke Bang as soon as you can, while the wonderful locals are still thrilled to welcome you with happy smiles and genuine hellos, before mass tourism swarms to this rural gem in the heart of Vietnam.

Keep travelling:

Historic Hoi An For Tet (Vietnamese New Year) Hoi An is even prettier at new year!

Is That A Crocodile? Cat Tien National Park. Jungle adventures in Vietnam with crocs and gibbons aplenty!

Tra Vinh: Khmer Culture In The Mekong DeltaA corner of Vietnam that feels more like Cambodia!

Riding The Rails From China to Vietnam another border crossed in the middle of the night by train!

5 Glorious Reasons To Visit Ninh Binh Fairytale scenery, ancient Vietnamese history and overnighting in the jungle.

Revisiting Hanoi Returning to one of my favourite Asian cities and remembering why it thrills me.

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By Rachel Davis

9 Responses

  1. Dave Rowley says:

    Sounds fantastic !! I will definitely have to see those caves someday, though I don’t know when. Sounds like you got there at the perfect time – the area is developed enough to be very fun but also not overtouristed yet. It must feel so amazing to be in the caves in pitch darkness!! So what about your friend and the Limberts who live there now, what are they doing there and do they live full time in the area?

  2. emmawomble says:

    I wasn’t sure whether to squeeze this into our Vietnam trip, but I think we’ll have to give these caves a visit. You’ve sold it to me. 🙂

  3. OMG I am so jealous. I told you before that I did a lot of caving and potholing in Yorkshire in my teens. I would kill to see these. Thank you for sharing your wonderful photographs. Lots of love and best wishes Emma xx

    • Oh yes, these caves were surveyed by the Yorkshire Caving Team! Get yourself on a plane (or get the train!) and see these for yourself. Although, no challenge whatsoever, no potholing involved in these three caves!
      My pleasure to share! xx

  4. cvail says:

    Rachel, Wow! I would love to do this type of caving! Swimming in the pitch dark…maybe not…I’m a total wimp!

  1. August 8, 2014

    […] Phong Nha Caves: the best thing we did in Vietnam! […]

  2. August 8, 2014

    […] Phong Nha Caves: the best thing we did in Vietnam! […]

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