Before leaving for our travels we did a bit of browsing and research to get a feel for which places we shouldn’t miss. In doing so, I came across an article – probably one called ‘Top 372 places you must visit before you die’ – and it included a place called Phong Nha in Vietnam. The article’s photo was taken from within a huge cave and it’s so spectacular I’m gonna have to share it with you.
Despite not knowing much else about this place and not really looking into it since, we decided to follow our researcher’s instinct and make it one of our stop-off points.
We arrived by bus early in the evening to a single street town with a handful of restaurants and hotels on either side. On the journey Annalie made friends with a very chatty German lad, Dennis, so we went for a meal together and played some table football before heading back to the hotel where our lovely receptionist gave us a very detailed briefing of the area.
Phong Nha and its large national park are a world-leading destination for anyone who’s interested in caves. Up to a few years ago this town was barely surviving but the gradual influx of tourism has helped it get back on its feet (we heard that in 1990 half the town’s population died from malaria or starvarion). Nature and caving is why people come here and cave fanatics certainly know of Phong Nha because the largest cave in the world sits within its park. We learned that this is the very cave that is featured in the photo we found, and also discovered that visiting it on a 6 day tour costs $3,000. Oh yes, a full 3,000 US dollars! Slightly above our daily budget, we gave it a miss in favour of 3 other caves that aren’t made of gold.
We visited Phong Nha cave and Tien Son cave on our first day, the first by boat and the second on foot. The weather was glorious and the boat ride along the river was calming and welcoming. Surrounded by waving hills covered in carpets of shades of green, we arrived at the cave’s entrance after a 30 minute ride.
The captain turned the engine off, got his oars out and gently lead us within. The sight was simply incredible, as Annalie described it: “It looks like the moon but upside down”. Stalagmites and stalactites of all sizes and shapes decorated the ceiling and walls, and were made of such odd and varied textures – smooth, rippled, rough – it was hard to keep our hands off them.
The boat ride and walk through Phong Nha cave lasted over an hour and at its exit began our upward walk toward the second cave, Tien Son. Step after step after step we eventually got to the top where we had a private tour of the cave. It’s emptiness was eery but the effect was once again spectacular. On top of that, we had the chance to enjoy the view from the top. The journey was made all the better by a Vietnamese / Australian family with whom we shared our trip and who invited us for coffee and coconut water.
Day 2 began with new friends joining us and early morning our newly formed group sped off on a scooter ride around the park en route to our next caving adventure: the dark cave. We were again blessed with good weather making the ride and day absolutely magnificent. To reach the cave we had to get into our swimming gear and zip line across a river. After a brief swim we then entered the cave which was in complete darkness. With our head torches on and after stepping on a few sharp rocks, within 15 minutes we reached its end – a natural mud bath! Nestled in between stalagmites and narrow cave walls was a pool of mud where we all bathed and floated in amazement. The density of the muddy water allowed for some pretty fun, unchoreographed synchronised swimming attempts which made our whole group laugh the whole time – happy days.
Once we were all clean from the mud (bar the poor sod who was wearing a white bikini) we walked out the cave and kayaked our way get back to the other side of the river. The cherry on the cake was our last activity – zip lining and dropping into the river! After a few dives and jumps I eventually got my leg tangled up in a net which ended play time (but I was brave and swallowed the tears).
The drive back to the hotel was gorgeous and took us right round the park and landed us by the main river just in time for sunset.
Two long and fairly expensive days (caves costing around 15 pounds each) meant our budget couldn’t go on food. We had at least one of our favourite pho noodle soups a day (price tag: £1.50) and rice or noodles for dinner (also a bargain). Simple, staple dishes but tasty and filling.
On our last day the two of us hopped on a scooter and went for a hike in the Botanical Gardens. I’m not sure the name is appropriate for the jungle-esque forest we walked through, but it was certainly beautiful. We first encountered an animal rehabilitation pod where we met a few monkeys and porcupines, then made our way through the dense forest to find a little lake and a huge waterfall. The latter was incredible and we were lucky to have it all to ourselves for half an hour before a group of tourists joined us.
By lunch time we were ready to set off and reach our group of friends – aka the Phong Nha Eagles – at a restaurant called the Pub with Cold Beer. It is famous for 2 things: the freezing beer and the fresh chicken. Unfortunately en route we found out it is also famous for another thing: the road. Bumpy, dusty and muddy, this off-road route was a mission to get through, but we survived (even with Annalie driving 😜).
Upon arrival we ordered our chicken, not in the traditional way but in a much more involved manner, by literally chasing around the garden trying to catch one (well, Annalie did while I played photographer). We got offered the choice of killing it ourselves but we didn’t have the balls, and seeing it done was pretty traumatic in itself (blood..guts..twitching..ugh). But the trauma was more or less forgotten when 45 minutes later our BBQ was ready. Delicious.
This last day couldn’t have been better – fresh air, exercise, a swim under the waterfall, and a lunch with a view with our gang. We had 3 precious days in Phong Nha and left on a high.
Now to head to the colder far north of Vietnam: Sapa.
Ciao for now xx