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 a 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 won UNESCO heritage recognition in 2003 thanks to its system of 300 different caves and grottos which date back some 400 million years.
Popular caves for everyday travellers
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 the first time, having little previous experience of cave visits, I decided to stick to those everyday traveller caves.
I got to Phong 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 the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dressed 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.
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.
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!
Phong Nha cave
The next morning I showed up at the tourist information centre for a Phong 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. Altogether we decided not to wait anymore, bought tickets and went to the boat station.
The boat ride was nice and in some 10 minutes we arrived at the cave entrance.
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.
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 by clicking this link.
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 the 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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Related: see my 12 day Vietnam itinerary in 12 pictures clicking on this link.