I had been thinking of visiting Vietnam for some three years already, and when I was finally planning my trip last year, somewhere on the internet an article about Vietnam’s Son Doong, the world’s biggest cave, caught my eye. I’ve never heard of it before, but having consulted a map, saw that location wise the cave fit into my draft itinerary well. The info was a bit confusing, but as I read up on it, I learned that Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in the central Annamite Mountains is home to many caves, with total explored cave space of about 200 km, so I had a lot of options to choose from. I also found out that Phong Nha – Ke Bang has won UNESCO heritage recognition in 2003 thanks to its system of 300 different caves and grottos which date back some 400 million years.phong nha kebang sign vietnam www.thesanetravel.com

Popular caves for everyday traveler

The most popular caves in the area for the everyday traveller are Paradise Cave, the Dark Cave and Phong Nha Cave. No special tours are required; you just buy the entrance ticket. So for my first time, having little previous experience of cave visits, I decided to stick to those everyday traveller caves.

I got to Phongh Nha from Hue by a Camel tour operator bus. The place is also called Son Trach, Google tells me, but I never actually saw this name in use in the village. I travelled for a total of 4 hours, arriving at about 10 p.m., quite late, taking at least half an hour more to check into my Mountain View Hotel. I had some plans but no tour bookings for my Phong Nha visit, so I decided to get up early enough to be ready for the opportunities that might present themselves.
The opportunities found me directly at the breakfast table next morning: a lady from the reception brought me a folder with descriptions of tours in the area. After some consideration (the tours were not cheap by Vietnamese standards), I chose one that included a visit to the Paradise Cave for 1 350 000 dongs or 60 USD. I had done my homework and knew it was 14 km away and I needed some kind of transportation to reach it anyway. The tour started at 8.30 a.m., and it was already past 8 a.m. when I was reading that! I asked if I could still go, and the answer was yes. I was happy about this chance to make good use of the limited time of my stay, not having to bother about making my own arrangements.

Three caves tour

Half an hour later a minibus arrived at the hotel, and the tour began. Altogether we were a small group of six, me and five young tourists from Germany. The first stop was Botanical Gardens, followed by a walk to the waterfall nearby. The herbarium displays were not very impressive, to be honest; the waterfall was nice but not so full of water due to the dry season. Our next stop was the 8 Ladies Cave, a small memorial to 8 people who lost their lives because of big stone was blocking the cave’s entrance while they were hiding there from American bombs during the war in 1972. Now the entrance of the cave is opened again and there is a memorial temple next to it.8 ladies cave vietnam www.thesanetravel.com

Paradise cave

Then we moved to the Paradise Cave. It is like a massive underground cathedral adorned with glittering formations. A boardwalk leads through the first kilometre of this giant, 31 kilometre long grotto discovered in 2005. The access road and the internal road of the cave were built by a local company, and it has been open for tourist visits since September 2010. We had to walk about 2 kilometres from the entrance to the cave, uphill the last part of it.way to paradise cave vietnam www.thesanetravel.com

Approaching the mouth of the cave, I felt the cold air coming out of it.
There was a staircase and a wooden path inside, and beautiful lighting. The cave was gorgeous! One can only wonder at what Mother Nature is able to create. Many stalactites and stalagmites of different shapes and colours were all around.paradise cave vietnam www.thesanetravel.com 2

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Pictures do not reflect the real feeling, mostly because they don’t render the correct perspective. Having spent an hour in the cave, we went down to electric buggies who ferried us back to the entrance. Then we took a bus ride to the Dark Cave where we had lunch in a restaurant.

lunch dark cave vietnam www.thesanetravel.com

Dark cave

The Dark Cave is a place for thrill seekers. We are talking about venturing into an unlit cave and taking a swim in a giant mud bath, after all. The cave is made of mostly limestone and basalt, black hard rocks – hence the name. The surrounding gloom was quite an oppressive experience! After lunch we got ready for the Dark Cave adventure.

dark cave sign vietnam www.thesanetravel.comDressed in swimming suites and safety vests, and using special equipment, we zip lined from the tower to the river for a short swim to the cave entrance.

river view dark cave vietnam www.thesanetravel.com

The cave was dark (duh!), so we used headlamps to get to the mud bath, following a narrow path. It was something to fully plunge into the sticky mud! We then washed it off in a small pool nearby, and made our way back by kayaks. On return we had time to swim in the clear waters of the river. Back in Phong Nha I caught sight of an amazing sunset over the mountains from my balcony.sunset phong nha vietnam www.thesanetravel.com

I also met some fellow travellers from the US, the UK and the Netherlands at the hotel, who all recommended the Bamboo café for dinner. I headed directly there and was not disappointed!

bamboo cafe phong nha vietnam www.thesanetravel.com

Phong Nha cave

Next morning I showed up at the tourist information centre for a Phongh Nha Cave tour. In 1550, Dương Văn An was the first Vietnamese to write about the cave, which is now extremely popular, and rightly so. Sitting in a wooden dragon boat, you float down an underground river through many mysterious grottoes and passageways.
The ticket office was hidden between shops and restaurants. For the tour you have to buy a ticket for a 14 person boat and the cave entrance ticket. I met three young people from Austria and Germany at the ticket office and invited them to share a boat, to which they happily agreed. About 20 minutes later we were also joined by a Japanese lady and her daughter. All together we decided not to wait anymore, bought tickets and went to the boat station.

phong nha cave record vietnam www.thesanetravel.com

The boat ride was nice and in some 10 minutes we arrived at the cave entrance.

phong nha cave vietnam www.thesanetravel.com

 

The engine was switched off and the boat was paddled into the cave. It was spectacular and quite different from the Paradise Cave that has no water. We had a look-around stop at the end and got back by a pathway, admiring Nature’s creations.phong nha cave vietnam www.thesanetravel.com 2

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We returned to the village by the same boat. I had lunch in the Bamboo café, and afterwards at 2 p.m. caught a local bus to Dong Hoi, 40 km away.

Caves for future travel plans

The following caves are for real cave lovers ready for several day expeditions with a tour operator:

Son Doong Cave

Son Doong Cave is known to be the world’s largest cave. It was discovered in 1991 by a man named Hồ Khanh. The local jungle men were afraid to venture into the cave due to the whistling sound coming from its underground river. It was only made known to a larger audience in 2009 and opened for visits in 2013. For safety and conservation purposes the government of the Quang Binh province made Oxalis the only tour operator for Son Doong Cave visits. Only 500 spots are available each year, and they’re all sold out more than a year in advance. The expedition lasts 5 days and 4 nights and costs 3,000 USD per person. In the picture Oxalis office in Phong Nha. Read more about visiting Son Doong cave in a fellow blogger's Mike post clicking this link.

oxalis office phong nha vietnam www.thesanetravel.com

Hang En Cave

This cave is the world’s third largest cave just 3 kilometres away from Hang Son Doong. A two-day, one-night trek to Hang En is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Hang En means “swift” – the cave is named after millions of birds nesting there. Local ethnic minorities have used the cave for centuries, both as a shelter from storms and as a hunting ground — baby swifts are a local delicacy. The cave was discovered by British explorers in 1994 and has only recently been opened to visitors. As of 2016, Oxalis is, again, the only touring company allowed to operate there. There are usually two or three departures a week, and the maximum group size is 12. A two-day, one-night trek costs about 295 USD and is available from late December to mid-September, when the flooding season begins.

Hang Nuoc Nut and Hang Va caves

They are a part of Son Doong cave system based on their shared water flow. Some explorers even find the Hang Va stalactites and stalagmites to be more beautiful than those of Son Doong! These two caves were discovered just recently, in 2012. Phong Nha Discovery Tour Company offers two day, one night expeditions there for 404 USD.

The impressions of cave visits really stand out from the rest. Shall I return for a real cave expedition next time?

  • Published by Anita on April 17, 2016
  • Visited April 2016

 

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About the author
Anita is a part time traveler, passionate photographer and a mature career woman
from Latvia, 
traveling mostly solo for more than 10 years. She is a skilled travel planner
planning and executing her travels by herself. Follow Anita also on Instagram.

 

 

 

Related: see my 12 day Vietnam itinerary in 12 pictures clicking on this link.

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Comments   

Voyager
#25 Voyager 2016-05-07 12:53
What mysterious and amazing caves, look so intriguing, would love to visit. The mud bath also sounds exciting.
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Michele Peterson
#24 Michele Peterson 2016-05-07 11:59
I didn't even know Vietnam had caves! Both Paradise cave and Dark cave look beautiful. Although a 2 kilometre hike sounds a bit daunting, it looks worth it .
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Nancy
#23 Nancy 2016-05-07 00:14
I just visited Vietnam for the first time and I am excited to return. The caves look amazing - thanks!
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Patricia - Ze Wander
#22 Patricia - Ze Wander 2016-05-06 16:09
Reminds me about the ones we saw in Halong Bay!
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Taylor
#21 Taylor 2016-05-06 15:04
This looks like so much fun! And perfect timing for my trip planning!
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Elizabeth Rudd
#20 Elizabeth Rudd 2016-05-06 09:55
Very interesting. Those caves are amazing. The mud bath in the dark sounds like quite the experience.
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sarah
#19 sarah 2016-05-05 23:58
Your pictures may not do the caves justice but they are incredible nonetheless -- I have always wanted to go to Vietnam and I will definitely be adding these caves to my itinerary!
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Carmen
#18 Carmen 2016-05-05 20:11
Wow! I'd love to visit some of these. Thanks for sharing :)
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Sophie
#17 Sophie 2016-04-25 11:16
Those caves look amazing and so does the food. Would love to get to Vietnam soon :)

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Samantha Hussey
#16 Samantha Hussey 2016-04-24 16:57
I visited Vietnam in 2010 and I miss it so much! These caves look far more enjoyable than the ones we visited in Halong Bay. They were too touristy for our liking. I've bookmarked these though for our next visit!
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