The largest caves in the world reside in Vietnam, and one of the places we had to visit during our month in the country was Phong Nha National Park. We took a sleeper bus from Hoi An to Phong Nha and were dropped at a hotel on the sole street in town. Over the past few weeks in the country we were greeted by towns built up for mass tourism and large cities. We were becoming a bit dismayed at being part of the horde of tourists roaming the country, but looking around Phong Nha we finally found the part of the country we had so desperately wanted to see. Cows roaming down the only road, a handful of options for accommodation, all of them pleasantly small, and friendly locals make up the small town that sits in the hills.
Arriving at our accommodation, Nguyen Shack, we were greeted by an outgoing and energetic host, Son. Son had a printed out map of the town in hand and began circling the must-see areas, writing down prices, and scribbling in how long each site should take to see. The largest cave in the world, Son Doong Cave, is in the park not far from town, however at $3,000 USD per person for a five day excursion, we wouldn’t be visiting it and instead took Son’s suggestions. Paradise Cave, Dark Cave, Phong Nha Cave, and others were all written in, giving us a full schedule for the following days. Son also proudly informed us that the town has not one, but two ATMs if we needed to get cash out, but the shack also accepts Visa, which was very uncommon in our experiences in the country. We intended to find a company that could take us trekking in a cave for a few days and nights, but unfortunately the company Oxalis Adventures has a monopoly on trips in the area, and we couldn’t afford to join any of them on our travelers’ budget.
Phong Nha Cave
The park and town’s namesake, Phong Nha Cave, was our first stop. A short walk from the main part of town is a dock where you can buy tickets for entry to the cave and hire a boat for the trip. Entry to the cave costs 150,000 VND per person ($6) and the boat is 360,000 dong and can carry up to 14 people, so the more people you can find to get on one boat, the cheaper it is per person. We waited with a couple that had breakfast at the shack for more people to come, and ended up forming a group of 10, making the boat price per person 36,000 dong, or $1.60.
A 40 minute boat ride up the river over turquoise blue water and past huge karst mountains brought us to the mouth of Phong Nha Cave. The ride to the cave was much more beautiful than I had expected, with the scenery looking like I imagined Halong Bay to look, but with less water of course. At the mouth of the cave a few people jumped off the boat and the rest of us continued into the massive first chamber of the longest river cave in the world. Just before entering the cave the boat engine turned off and the driver began to paddle.
The cave is lit up throughout the 1.5km that you can visit on the boat tour with various colored lights illuminating the amazing rock formations. Looking around at the gigantic cave was almost overwhelming, passing larger and more beautiful stalactites and stalagmites than we had ever seen. The roof of the cave hung very high above us, leaving room for a commercial jet to park inside if only the mouth of the cave were larger. Around every turn in the river were rock formations that were bigger and more beautiful than the last. Once we reached the 1.5km mark, the boat turned around and paddled to a sandy bank so we could get off and walk to explore the cave on foot.
The scale of the rock formations is absolutely astounding and makes you feel tiny in comparison. We were one of the first boats of the day, having left the dock around 9am, and had this part of the cave entirely to ourselves. Day trips from the busy city of Hue and the less popular Dong Hoi tend to arrive late in the morning or early afternoon, and we were happy to have missed the crowds. We spent a half hour admiring the gorgeous cave before we headed back toward our waiting boat outside. On the way to the boat we noticed the entrance to another cave, Tien Son Cave, with an entrance fee of 80,000 dong. Our group wanted to head back to town, so we decided we’d come back and visit Tien Son another day since we had some time left.
Tien Son Cave
Having visited Phong Nha Cave a few days prior, we found ourselves at the dock yet again, looking for people to join us on a boat toward the cave again. It took some explaining and a bit of arguing with the lady at the counter, but eventually she let us ride the boat to Phong Nha Cave and jump off just before entering so we could climb up and visit Tien Son Cave. Had we known about the cave before visiting Phong Nha then we would’ve known that you can pay the boat driver 400,000 dong instead of 360,000 to wait longer and we could have visited both caves in one trip, but we live and learn. A short walk up a few sets of stairs brought us to the ticket booth for Tien Son Cave, and we showed our 80,000 VND ($3.50) entry tickets and began the climb up a few hundred more stairs to the mouth of the cave.
A bit out of breath, we walked into the mouth of Tien Son Cave and found a large wooden walkway and not another soul inside. Tien Son’s rock formations were nearly as impressive as those in Phong Nha, which is to say among the best we’ve ever seen. Exploring the massive cave put a slight cramp in our necks since we were constantly staring upward at the massive stalactites hanging from the ceiling.
The path took us almost a kilometer into the cave, with bright white lights illuminating the rocks along the way. Water dripped through the cave ceiling and walls, slowly building new formations. In places the path merged with what appeared to be an old trail through the cave, forcing you to squeeze through a gap in the rocks or walk on natural steps in the rock to progress. While you could touch a small part of the rock, which is not ideal for preservation of the cave, 99% of the cave was in impeccable shape, in stark contrast to most other caves we’ve visited outside of Vietnam.
Son, our host at Nguyen Shack, told us that renting motorbikes and riding to Paradise Cave and Dark Cave was the best way to see them and save money. We hopped on a motorbike from the business next door, agreed to pay 100,000 dong for the day, and headed off toward Dark Cave. The ride was only a half hour long, and during that time it rained enough to keep us from seeing any of the scenery that would later reveal itself. When we got to Dark Cave we were told that most people don’t show up until 10:30am, and since it was only 8:30am when we got there, we should press on to Paradise Cave and come back. Another 10 minute scooter ride and we were at the entrance to Paradise Cave.
The entry fee for Paradise Cave was a hefty 250,000 VND each, and we chose to walk 2km to the mouth of the cave instead of paying for an electric buggy to take us. The walkway is easy and relatively flat until you reach the stairs or walkway to the mouth of the cave, where the buggies stop. Once we reached the top of the path and stepped into the cave, we immediately were okay with the high entry price we had paid. Paradise Cave is 31km long, and although you can only walk a kilometer or so without paying for a pricey tour, every bit of that walk is stunning.
Looking back, it’s hard to decide if Phong Nha or Paradise Cave was more impressive (Tien Son is up there as well but not as long), but regardless all three fall in some way into the top three caves we’ve ever seen, and we spend an unusual amount of time in caves. There was one other group inside of Paradise Cave when we went, a Hawaiian guy with two Vietnamese friends, and no one else to be seen. While Phong Nha Cave was nice since it didn’t have a walkway or many barriers, Paradise Cave was just as nice since without the walkway and barriers the cave would likely become less spectacular over the years.
As we were leaving the cave, still with our heads on a swivel due to the insane amount of amazing formations, a few huge groups of people came in. The guide of the first group had a headset on with a speaker attached to her hip, and was leading a few dozen tourists down the wooden path. We quickly escaped as the beautiful, silent cave became loud and a bit cramped in places. More groups shuffled past and we headed back down the steps to our motorbike.
The least impressive but most fun cave we visited in Phong Nha was definitely Dark Cave. A parking attendant collected his 5,000 dong for parking and we paid our 250,000 dong each before our briefing on what we would be doing. From the beginning we had our reservations – the group we were put in (this is no normal cave walk) was 19 people large and the introduction video was absolutely terrible. This video featured a young European guy with a thick accent explaining what we’d be doing, and exactly how much money we’d have to pay if we lost or broke anything.
We changed into our swimsuits, donned the life jackets and helmets given to us, and shuffled one by one up a tower next to the ticket booth to begin the adventure. A 400 meter long zip line brings you over the beautiful river, surrounded by karst mountains in every direction, and not far from the mouth of the cave. Next we jumped into the river to swim 20 meters or so, which was entirely unnecessary since there’s a path that you could walk on instead! From there we switched on our headlamps (mine was broken so I didn’t) and headed into the darkness.
After having seen so many beautiful caves, dark cave didn’t really measure up. What it lacked in beauty it quickly made up for in size and funny, muddy memories. After 10 minutes of walking into the cave, we came to a muddy chamber. The thin mud was relatively warm as we walked deeper and deeper into it, and we finally reached a point where we were told it was time to lay down and float in it. We were waist deep in a thin, light brown mud chamber and as soon as I lifted my feet I felt them shoot up from under me and I fell into a floating position on my back.
The feeling of floating in the mud was really strange and unlike anything I had felt before. Sissy decided to sit cross legged in the mud and was able to float while sitting upright. The mud felt similar to water near the surface, it was so thin, but it was still thick enough to allow you to float or swim around. As soon as I wanted to stand I just lowered a foot and my body flipped upright again without any struggle. While laying around in mud never sounded appealing to me before, I had a blast in this muddy cave!
On the way out we had to slide down a bumpy mudslide, slamming out butts into the hard ground at the bottom. We washed off in the river as best we could and headed out of the cave to kayak back to the ticket office. Remember to wear a dark swimsuit or something old that you don’t want anymore because the mud definitely stains! Once we got back to the beginning we played around on the adventure course which is included in the visit to the Dark Cave. Zip lining over the river and jumping off in the middle, crawling around on an obstacle course that’s suspended by ropes in the air, and swinging on a metal platform and launching into the river kept us busy for a fun filled hour or so.
Driving around in Phong Nha
The weather had cleared up from the morning and was nice and sunny when we left Dark Cave, so we enjoyed driving our scooter around the park on the way back to town. The landscape was the most beautiful we had seen in Vietnam so far and we dodged buffalo and cows while flying down the road, checking out the scenery.
Phong Nha, as plenty of other places in Vietnam, has tons of ornate and colorful graves throughout the park. Driving along with virtually no other cars or bikes around, we were free to stop and hop off and explore a bit. We got a closer look at a grave site without going too near, ensuring we still respected the dead’s final resting places. We didn’t end up visiting a nearby botanical garden with a nice sounding waterfall as we were enjoying our ride too much and finally went back toward town instead.
We were a few kilometers from town when our lovely scooter decided to stop working. After trying every trick I could think of to get it to come back to life (we still had a half tank of gas, it was an electrical problem) it was time to push. A few kilometers of pushing the motorbike wasn’t the end of the world since we had been relatively lazy over the past few weeks, plus the landscape was still really nice.
When we got the bike back to the shop an argument ensued over them wanting the full payment even though their bike broke down, and resulted in me getting frustrated after 15 minutes of arguing through a translator and leaving them without any payment. While eating lunch next door I watched the owner put the same scooter we had just returned back on display for rent and was told by a couple at the shack that the same thing had happened to them and another guy from our accommodation at the same place the day before.
Despite the bike breaking down and a bit of frustration, we enjoyed Phong Nha more than anywhere else we visited in Vietnam. The town was nice and small, the scenery was amazing, the caves are unparalleled, and the people were really nice. We also had the best food we’d had in the country in Phong Nha at various places in town and got new haircuts with Son from the shack. We were sad to leave Phong Nha and will definitely return to spend a bit more time and money on a few day trek through the caves when we can justify the cost. Our next stop was one we were looking forward to – they call it Halong Bay on land, but it’s real name is Ninh Binh.