We almost missed it, Phong Nha national park that is. Home to Hang Son Doong the world’s largest cave and a number of other caves that are a little more accessible (only 10 people a week are allowed to venture into the big one, at a cost of US$3000). 5 months in and our planning is a little bit less detailed than it was earlier in the trip. Not helped by the fact that the park only opened up to tourists around 2010, so it isn’t mentioned in some of the older guide books that we had used. Having arrived in Hue (way south of the park) from Hanoi (way north of the park) we thought we might have blown our chances of exploring the caves and karst mountains. Instead we did what we normally avoid and backtracked. Pinion sensibly left her big pack in Hue, this was definitely so that we had to return to the super cute Grace hotel that she had fallen for. I couldn’t decide what to pack so took everything. This was probably not the best move for our first encounter with the sleeper bus (they deserve their own post). I will just say that the journey was slightly cramped and made me feel like a giant. We were glad that it wasn’t an overnight journey and instead we arrived in the small town late that night.
Our first start in Phong Nha wasn’t great. The hotel insisted on us paying straight away, not normally something I mind but I’m not a fan when they keep your passport as well. We then realised that our bathroom and next doors were connected by a large gap in the wall. This wouldn’t be so bad if our neighbour didn’t huck up his lungs from 5am. We were grumpy and in a perfect state to hire a scooter. Lucky it was nothing that a good breakfast and finding a better hotel across the road couldn’t solve.
I had a moped when I was 16, yes I was that cool kid. Then I fell off it, got ignored by a number of passing cars and generally avoided it ever since. It still lives in my dad’s garage and is high on the list of things I need to sort out when I get back! The tours to the two caves we wanted to explore were beyond our price range, they weren’t even any cheaper than the ones starting in Hue. The fear of being ripped off surpassed my fear of scooters and so we decided to go it alone.
Faking confidence (photo by Pinion):
The scenery on the drive was fantastic, Pinion captured some great shots once she built up enough confidence to not need to cling on for dear life. She has let me borrow some for here:
We passed through a few little villages and were happy that the roads seemed well paved and there was little traffic. I would have killed us if we had attempted this in Hanoi.
Feeling safe with my helmet that kept blowing off:
The first cave we visited is known as Paradise cave, you can walk about 1km into the cave on a normal visit (there are more expensive options that allow you to explore further). We got there at a great time (about 11am), all the tour buses were leaving and we were able to explore the cave pretty much by ourselves. You have to walk up to the cave or you can take a golf cart. We chose to walk and were rewarded by seeing so many butterflies.
Pinion in Paradise cave:
Me at the end of the walkway:
Moving on we ventured to the Dark cave, this cave caters to those who want to explore a little further and get muddy and wet at the same time. You zip-line across the river, swim into the cave, fall over in deep mud, kayak out and then zip-line into the river at the end. All whilst wearing an over-sized life jacket and a builders hat for a helmet. It was great fun!
Pinion was not excited about zip-lining:
One of the last clear photos I managed:
Things got a bit muddy:
On our last day we went to the botanical gardens, there was a waterfall to explore and an alarmingly large display of pickled animals. It was worth a couple of hours and would have been a lot better if we had bought our swim stuff.
Views from the gardens:
These were some of my favourite days of the trip so far, definitely would advise adding Phong Nha onto any itinerary of Vietnam. It is a bit out of the way but most of the open bus companies stop there, there are plenty of hostels and hotels to choose from and it has some of the most stunning scenery in the whole country.
Costs of DIY tour to both caves (in Dong):
- Scooter rental for 1 day 100000
- Fuel 60000
- Paradise cave entry 250000
- Dark cave entry 300000
- Botanical garden entry 40000