We had read a couple articles informing us that not so long ago, people had discovered one of the biggest caves in the world in Phong Nha National Park in Vietnam. While we knew we weren’t going to be able to afford the $3000 fee to explore that cave, it did start us looking into the region. We discovered that it was a beautiful place full of large and interesting caves. We’ve had quite a few fun adventures in caves, so we were sold! We left Wayne and Peggy in Hue with plans to meet them again in Hanoi.
Many people just do day trips to the caves, but we thought it was a bit too far for a comfortable day trip, plus we thought the area had enough to do to warrant an overnight stay. We purchased a tourist minibus straight from Hue to the town near Phong Nha. The minibus was just fine, quite comfortable. It wasn’t even full, which feels like a rarity.
We stopped for our bathroom break at an interesting place that we had never heard of. It was a local Catholic church called Our Lady of La Vang that has a neat origin story involving the Virgin Mary appearing to settlers in that region. It was heavily damaged – we assumed from the war with America. However, they had rebuilt a new building for the church attached to the old steeple. In addition, there is a huge statue of Mary nearby. It also appeared that you could purchase large bottles of holy water to take away with you. We didn’t, but a Vietnamese family on our bus did!
Where We Stayed
We stayed at the main hostel in town, the Easy Tiger. It was fine, but was a large hostel with only dorm rooms. We never enjoy staying in dorm rooms – although as far as dorms go, these weren’t too bad: comfortable beds with only 4 to a room.
We had been hoping to stay at a place that we had read about called the Phong Nha Farmstay which was a lovely guesthouse out in the country, but unfortunately they were full. The book also made it sound like the town was super small with not a lot of services, so we jumped on booking the Easy Tiger as soon as we could. When we arrived though, we saw that the town was actually booming and there would have been plenty of other places to stay. Probably where we could have gotten a private room for even cheaper than what we paid for the dorm. So, next time we’ll know!
The Easy Tiger did have free breakfast and a large common area/restaurant which was nice. This did cause us to end up being more social and meeting more other travelers than we had done in a while!
What We Did
The Easy Tiger also provided some of the more interesting tours of the region. There were lots offered and we spent a significant part of our first day making decisions relating to the tours (and how we were actually going to leave Phong Nha and get to Hanoi… but that is a different story!) After agonizing for what seemed like hours, we picked the cheapest tour which also took us to the most amount of caves.
We started the tour at 8:45 the following morning. We were picked up by minibus and whisked off into the national park. The park is absolutely gorgeous. The mountains are covered in brilliant green jungle. We were also excited because for the first time in ages, it wasn’t glaringly hot. Still humid, but a much more comfortable temperature.
We enjoyed some of the stops along the way where our guides explained more about the formation of the park (large limestone karsts) and more about what happened in this area during the American War. It was heavily bombed as the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran through. For those who don’t know, the Ho Chi Minh trail was a path that the North Vietnamese used to supply their fighters in the South during the war. The trail was over 2000 km long and made its way through Laos and Cambodia before arriving in South Vietnam. The US bombed the trail constantly so it was a huge amount of work for the North Vietnamese Army and volunteers to continually rebuild it.
We learned that many of the volunteers working on this section of road were young – in their 20s – and many of them died doing this work. Our first main stop was called the 8 Lady Cave. It currently houses a temple to remember 8 youths who died here. They climbed into the cave for shelter during US bombing, but then the entrance caved in. Apparently they lived in the cave for 9 days before they died.
Our next stop was significantly less solemn. We headed to Paradise Cave which used to have the title of the longest cave in Asia. There is currently 1 km open to the general public. The cave was lovely with large formations – both stalactites and stalagmites. Perhaps the most distinctive thing we saw though was some sort of Asian music star filming a music video in the cave!
After a delicious, large lunch, the group headed to the next stop which was called the Dark Cave. This part of the day involved many steps. First we had to find working life jackets and headlamps. We say “had to find” because it was a bit difficult. Most of the life vests did not have working buckles to hold them on. Eric found one of the few that had three working ones while Della’s had only 1 and a half. Della ended up having to trade with the guide to get a working head lamp…
After we “geared up” we headed to a zipline! Della was a little unsure given the quality of the other gear, but the zipline seemed to be in much better condition than the life vests. We took a long zip across the river with no problems. Once on the other side, we slipped into the water for a quick swim to the cave entrance. We flipped on our headlamps and entered the Dark Cave.
The walk was a bit difficult as we were in bare feet having to climb over sharp limestone formations. However, after a short time it got a bit better as we started to walk in mud. Then the mud got deeper, over our feet, up to our ankles, up to our knees!
Before we knew it we were walking in mud waist deep! After a final climb over a rock and slip and slide, we were actually swimming in the mud! Now this was something we had never experienced before. It was heavy, making it a bit harder to move than you’re used to. But at the same time, it made you feel incredibly light because you could literally float on top of it as soon as you picked up your feet. Once the whole group was in the mud pool, our guide instructed us to turn off our lights. It’s hard to describe exactly what this felt like. In the pitch black, with the mud messing with our sense of gravity, we imagine it felt like we were floating in outer space. It was truly a unique and wonderful experience… too bad we have no pictures of it to share! You’ll just have to go and do it for yourself.
After our mud swim, we came back into the main section of the cave and rinsed ourselves in the stream running through. We then took an enjoyable swim through the cave in the dark. Finally, we headed back out where we jumped on to kayaks to bring us back across the river. But our day was not done! We all had one last chance to do a quick zip line out to drop into the river. It was an exhilarating way to end an excellent day.
What We Ate
Nothing we ate in Phong Nha was exciting. Our first night we found a small restaurant where we had uninspiring soup and rice. The second evening, we ate with some of our new friends from the tour at the hostel. We had pizza for the first time in months. It was OK…
We only stayed in Phong Nha for 2 nights, but it is a place that deserves a lot longer than that. The area is absolutely stunning and we wish we could have spent more time exploring it. The cave tour we did was pricy, but great. There are also several other cave tours offered that we wish we could have tried. Perhaps we’ll have to come back here in the future!