Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Phong Nha is home to the oldest karst mountains in Asia and is riddled with hundreds of complex cave systems.  Phong Nha boasts the worlds largest cave and Asia's longest cave, with some of the most spectacular stalagmites and stalactites the world has to offer.  We were certainly excited to get to Phong Nha after 8 days on the open road!  My bum was getting sore!

We'd planned to spend a couple of days here, exploring and resting up for the next leg of our trip.  We did a lot of exploring but not a whole lot of resting!

We arrived on the Friday evening and checked into Phong Nha Gecko Hostel on the main strip.  At $20 (£16) a night it was a little more than we had wanted to spend, but it was decked out appropriately with hipster bicycle components everywhere and Dire Straits playing over the sound system.  With an à la carte breakfast included it was very appealing to two weary travelers.

We ended up visiting four caves in our two days in Phong Nha; one day of cave exploring with an organised tour and one day of cave exploring with a group of people we'd met at our hostel, The Gecko.

Organised Tour - Paradise and Dark Cave

Cost 1,350,000VND/pp (about £50)

We were interested to see Paradise cave as we'd heard it had been voted the most beautiful cave in the world, and so a trip which took us to both Paradise cave, and a more ominous sounding Dark cave seemed ideal.  The trip was arranged on the morning of, with our hostel, from 08:45-17:00 and included a traditional Vietnamese lunch.  Perfect.  It was nice to do a tour so our brains could switch off for the day, a bit pricey but well worth it.  The trip included a visit to the botanical gardens to see the rescued baby monkeys, a giant snake and a hike up to a beautiful waterfall where our guide risked life and limb chasing after Mikes flip flop after the waterfall took it away.  

Paradise Cave itself is truly breathtaking, at 31km it is the longest cave in Asia; we only explored the first kilometre but were impressed by the sheer volume of it and the epic stalactite & stalagmite structures which line it's walls.

We had a tasty lunch at the ominous Dark cave before we donned hard-hats with head torches and zip-lined over a large river to get to the mouth of the cave.  Here, we entered the cold water and swam into the Dark Cave, head torches on.  It was a small group, just 7 of us and so 7 little yellow beams flashed around the cave.  Apart from that, there was no light.  As we swam further into the cave, a burly Canadian got scared and went back to wait at the entrance.  The rest of us slipped deeper into the Dark cave, squelching through its thick mud as we got deeper in.  Occasionally a giant spider or cricket would jump out and everyone would scream but apart from that it was lifeless.

When we finally emerged from the Dark cave we washed as much mud off as we could and kayaked back across the river to a cold beer (and cold shower)!

With our mates from The Gecko - Phong Nha and Tien Son Cave

Cost 260,000VND/pp (about £9)  

In our hostel we got got chatting to some fellow travelers at breakfast and decided to explore the Phong Nha caves together.  The Phong Nha Caves are reached by riverboat from Phong Nha town.  On the walk to the river we collected a few more travelers and by the time we arrived at the ticket office there were 14 of us.  Amazingly, the boats to the caves hold 14 passengers and there is a flat fee per boat.  Jackpot!  We split the price of the boat 14 ways and each paid the entrance fee to Phong Nha and Tien Son caves.

Phong Nha Caves are actually quite far from Phong Nha town, it took around 30-40 minutes before we reached the mouth of the cave.  On arrival, we all had to switch into smaller boats of just 4/5 people because the water level inside the cave was so high - a few days previously Phong Nha had experienced severe flooding and the caves had been closed to the public!

We were paddled through the cave system by two Vietnamese, one at the front, one at the back, there was a strong current due to all the extra water and they both had to work hard to get us upstream.  The way back was much easier as we simply rode the current down the centre of the cave.  Phong Nha Caves are very beautiful but not quite as impressive and spectacular as Paradise Cave.  

Whilst inside the cave we were deposited on an underground beach and made our way out on foot over the natural steps that had been created by water pooling in the limestone.  On exiting Phong Nha cave, we saw a sign for Tien Son cave, and climbed the one million giant steps up the to the cave above. (They don't tell you about the steps when you buy the ticket!  So much for a rest day.)  The cave had more stalactites than you could shake a stick at.  It's safe to say we were all caved out and headed back to The Gecko for yummy spring rolls and beer.

Organised Tour V Do-it-Yourself

I feel like I can reflect on this as we did both.  If you're watching the pennies then definitely DIY.  But the tour had some nice benefits which doing it yourself doesn't:

  1.  A tour is completely stress and hassle free; even if you loose your flip flop in a giant waterfall, there is a helpful local on hand ready to risk his life to get it back to you.  
  2. Lunch arrives when you are hungry.  
  3. You meet a nice bunch of people you otherwise wouldn't have met.

If Money is No Object

Phong Nha-Ke Bang is home to the world's largest cave, Son Doong cave.  Its cross-section is believed to be twice that of the second largest cave, Deer Cave, in Malaysia.  Apparently a Boeing 747 could fly through its largest cavern.  Fully surveyed only a few years a go, access is still very limited; only 500 tourist permits were granted last year (2015).  Tours to the cave are 5 days long and include a trek through virtually untouched jungle.  At $3,000pp (£2,420) it was a little out of our price range.