Caves! Oh my! A trip to Vietnam is not complete without a visit to Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park and its caves. The park has 300 caves and grottoes and was created to protect the karst region which is one of the largest in the world and the oldest in Asia at 400-450 million years old. The park also boasts the largest cave in the world, Sơn Đoòng, which was discovered in 2009 and is big enough to hold a New York City block with 40-story skyscrapers. We have visited a few caves before, but we have never seen anything like this before.
We took a bus to Phong Nha from Huế with the Sinh Tourist. The bus picked us up from our hostel which should have been our first sign this was not just a bus ride. We were told the bus left at 6:30am and would pick us up between 6:45am and 7:15am. We were downstairs in the hostel lobby at 6:30am just in case. The bus came at 7:13am. Unfortunately, this was too early to have breakfast, but our hostel kindly gave us a passion fruit, a banana, and some water.
On the bus we met our very chatty guide who explained that for some people this was a tour to the caves and for others it was just transportation. We had anticipated getting up for this early bus and then promptly going back to sleep once we got on, but that was not really an option. The guide insisted on chatting/quizzing us for the first hour. “Does anyone know how far we are going today? We are going very far. Does anyone know? Anyone?” Some people hazarded a guess, but no one knew, and that particular fact (250km) did not seem that important. Then he wanted us to guess where he was from. Eric guessed Vietnam. “No, not Vietnam”. Other Asian country guesses were suggested. “No, not from Taiwan. No, not Chinese. No, not Hong Kong. Korean? No, not Korean. Ok, you guessed it, I am from Vietnam.” Really?! He could clearly tell people were not into this strange game he wanted to play, but he could not quite let it go, so he said “I know some people are tired and want to sleep. You want to sleep? Maybe you had too much beer last night and you are tired now, but I like to talk so I am going to talk some more and then maybe you can sleep.” Finally after an hour he did stop talking.
There were some benefits to having our transportation be coupled with a tour. There were a few things to see on the way to Phong Nha which we would have blazed by with our eyes closed in a normal bus. This bus actually stopped at La Vang to let us visit the Roman Catholic sanctuary there. In 1798, when Catholics were being persecuted in Vietnam, a group hiding in the forest reported that the Virgin Mary appeared to them and told them how to cure a disease that was ailing them. This appearance is not officially recognized by the Vatican, but the site is an important place for Vietnamese Catholics. Many Vietnamese churches outside Vietnam are called Our Lady of La Vang.
A short time later, our guide also pointed out the bridge over the Ben Hai river at the 17th parallel which marks the official border when Vietnam was divided into two countries – North and South Vietnam – from 1954 to 1975. The blue indicates north and the yellow indicates south. There was a de-militarized zone that stretched 3.3 miles on each side of the river. The DMZ disappeared after Vietnam was reunified, but the area is still dangerous because of unexplored ordnance.
We arrived in Phong Nha around 11:30am and walked to our hostel, Motorvina Homestay. The host did not speak English, but he was fairly adept at using Google Translate to convert Vietnamese speech into English text. It was too early to check in, so we arranged some things for the next day. We wanted to buy a bus ticket to Ninh Bình for the next evening and book a tour to Paradise and Dark caves for the next day. After the bus tickets were sorted, Google Translate reported that he said “I just want to go now.” That did not make much sense in the context, so we asked him to repeat it. The next translation was “I just want to hang out now.” That was also a strange thing to say, so we were pretty sure it was not what he meant. We pointed to a tour to Paradise and Dark caves and the Botanic Gardens we liked in a book and said we would like to book it for tomorrow. The Google Translate response we received back was “ok. We will give you God’s blessing tomorrow.” Umm, that is nice, but will you also book the tour? He confirmed he would book it, but he did not give us a receipt like he had for the bus. Since we were going to pay for everything when we checked out, we figured we would just not pay if we were not picked up in the morning.
Very hungry after our early, not substantial breakfast, we found a familiar lunch at the Nguyen Shack – the Phong Nha location of the place we stayed in the Mekong Delta – and then went back to check in.
Since the caves close at 3:30pm, we did not have a lot of time left to see a cave on our first day. The closest cave to Phong Nha town is Phong Nha Cave, and Jess had read you could visit it on your own by going to the visitor center, buying a ticket for đ150,000 ($6.45), and then catching a boat from the boat dock. The trick is the boat costs đ350,000 ($15) no matter how many people are on it, and it can carry 12 people, so it is best if you can find people to share the boat with you. We were not very optimistic about finding ten friends, but we figured we would see what happened. When we arrived at the ticket window, a woman came up to us and asked if we wanted to share the boat with her. We figured đ230,000 ($10) was still better than paying full price, but then she said it would be đ50,000 ($2.15) each. That was a pleasant surprise, so we paid her and went to the boat dock where we found she had amassed eight other friends! We definitely paid slightly more than our share would have strictly been, but in the process we obtained an English speaking guide!
Phong Nha Cave is the oldest cave in the National Park. It was discovered in the late 19th century, used during the Vietnam War, and first fully explored in 1992. It was opened to tourists in 1995 and then artificially lit in 1998. The cave has a river flowing through it which comes from Laos and makes this the longest river cave in the world. The river ranges from six and a half feet to 50 feet deep, and, except for a 655-foot stretch in the beginning, you can only visit the cave by boat. The normal tour goes roughly 0.7 miles into the cave where the cave is artificially lit to highlight the stalagmites and stalactites. There are some adventure tours that go as far as four and a half miles by kayak in the dark.
As we entered the cave, the boat’s retractable roof was pulled back so we could see the ceiling. The boat had two oarspeople, and the one in front stopped rowing and palmed her way across the cave ceiling at the shortest point. Vietnam is dry in the summer, but it is rainy season in Laos, so you cannot visit Phong Nha Cave in the summer. In fact, our guide told us this was the first day the water level was low enough to enter.
The cave is full of different colors from minerals in the rock. Red and yellow come from iron; black and grey come from lead. The green is from moss which grows where lights shine, so they have to limit the light in the caves. Apparently the original lighting was replaced in 2012 to reduce the damage. The limited lighting is beautiful though. It is like lighting you might use to light a house or trees for dramatic effect and it makes the caves really stunning. This cave does not have many stalagmites because the water that drips falls in the water, but it is still the most incredible cave we have ever seen.
After exploring as far we could by boat, we were taken back to the spot 655 feet in where we could get out of the boat and walk back to the entrance.
Many of the caves were used for military operations during the war. A lot of them were storage areas for weapons and equipment. Phong Nha Cave was used as a hospital and storage for medical supplies. The area where you can walk around is quite large and flat and has a sandy ground, so it is possible to imagine how there was a hospital inside. The walking path through the cave took us out to the exit where we found the boat for the 30-minute ride back to town.
On our way back to the hostel we stopped for coffee since we had not had any that morning and could feel the caffeine headache starting. We got a traditional Vietnamese iced coffee. The coffee is brewed by putting grounds in the bottom of this metal cup which has holes in the bottom. There is a metal filter which sits on top of the coffee grounds. Water is poured over the coffee grounds and left to slowly drop down into the glass below which has sweetened condensed milk. Once the coffee is in the glass and has been stirred into the milk, there is a bowl of ice to add to make it cold.
While we were enjoying our coffee, a water buffalo ambled down the road that passes through town. There were not very many cars or motorbikes, but it did not seem bothered when it encountered one. Phong Nha was surprisingly quiet when we were there. There were lots of restaurants, but almost none of them had any people in them. It was nice, but almost a bit eerie to be somewhere in Vietnam with so few people.
When we got back to Motorvina, another person behind the desk informed us we could not do the tour we had chosen, but we could do another one that was basically the same minus the Botanic Gardens for the same price. The explanation was a little confusing. We were told the tour was “closed” and that there are no tours to the Botanic Gardens. Since we were not sure we were getting the full story, we went into town to ask another company about the tour. That was even more confusing because the woman there told us we could do the tour in the book with or without the Botanic Gardens for the same price even though the Botanic Gardens were not mentioned in the book. We could not get an explanation of how that was possible or how the timing would work, so we decided to give up on the Botanic Gardens. This was a small shame as our Phong Nha Cave tour guide had explained that the waterfall in the Botanic Garden was very pretty at this time of year because there is water. In the summer it is dry. We eventually figured out there are basically two, or maybe three, tour companies that every hostel sells. What we would be buying here was exactly the same thing Motorvina was selling, so we went back to Motorvina and booked the available tour without the Botanic Gardens. It was expensive – đ1,350,000 ($58.05) per person – but much more convenient than trying to see Paradise and Dark Caves on our own.
The next morning we were picked up at our hostel by bus to visit Paradise Cave and Dark Cave. On the way, we stopped at Eight Ladies Cave. It is named for eight ladies that were known to live in the cave. On November 14, 1972, the Americans were bombing the area heavily, and four boys and four girls ran into the cave to hide. A large rock was dislodged by the bombing and fell to cover the entrance. The rock was so big it could not be moved, and the eight people ultimately died in the cave. Now there is a temple there to honor them, and people come to burn things to give their spirits in the next life. There was a huge bomb shell hanging near by which was used as a gong to warn the Viet Cong fighters of danger. Sometimes the gong worked better than the radios which often failed in the humid weather.
Our tour guide on this adventure was actually funny, unlike our accidental tour guide from yesterday’s bus. He explained that northern Vietnam is the financially responsible part of Vietnam. In the south, if they earn two dollars, they spend four. He also recommended that foreigners not try to speak Vietnamese as it is very easy to go wrong. “Xin chào” means “hello”, unless you pronounce it wrong and then it might mean “I’d like some rice.” “Cảm ơn” means “thank you” unless you accidentally say “câm miệng” which means “shut up”. We actually learned this last one in the Mekong Delta and had been worried about saying thank you after that. We hoped people could figure out what we meant from context if they had just done something nice for us.
Paradise cave was incredible! It is 20 miles long, which, it turns out, is not that long. At 405 miles long, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the longest cave in the world! However, 20 miles sounds plenty long to us. In one place, the cave is 197 feet tall and 164 feet wide. Our guide told us the stalagmites and stalactites form at a rate of 1/2 inch per decade, and there is a stalagmite in the cave that is allegedly 250 million years old. We are skeptical about these numbers because at that rate a 250 million year old stalagmite would be 347,000 yards… or 40 times as tall as Mt. Everest… and we do not think it was that big even if you factor in its girth.
Near the largest stalagmite there is a pool of water that is very still and reflects the cave like a mirror. It is almost impossible to describe how beautiful it is inside the cave and photos do not do it justice. The lighting in the cave is magical, and it feels like you are in an art gallery. A lighted wooden walkway leads visitors through the 0.7 miles and protects the cave.
Some of the stalactites and stalagmites are very elaborate with intricate details that resemble carvings or sculptures even though they are created by nature and totally random. Some of them even have names on little signs in Vietnamese like museum exhibits.
Paradise Cave had been inhabited by Phong Nha people a thousand years ago, but was not “rediscovered” until 2005 when someone noticed cool air coming out of the ground. It was opened to tourists in 2010. Our guide told us it was named Paradise Cave because its temperature, which is always constant, is like Paradise. Others say the name comes from how beautiful the cave is.
We had an hour and ten minutes to explore the 0.7 miles that is open to tourists. We could have stayed a lot longer admiring the cave, but we had to go to lunch and then to the Dark Cave.
Exploring Dark Cave was an entirely different experience. We started by changing into bathing suits and putting on harnesses, helmets and life jackets. The first step to visiting Dark Cave is to zipline from one side of the river to the other on a 264-foot zipline. Then on the other side, we got in the water and swam roughly 65 feet into the cave entrance. The water was cold but felt refreshing. Inside the cave, we walked through water at knee height and then waist height until we got to a path off to the right. The cave is also big, but because there is no lighting in the cave, you cannot see very far. We had headlamps, so we could see where we were going and we could see some formations, but it was a much more typical cave experience.
We took off our life jackets and followed a narrow passage up a slippery, squelchy mud path and down the sandy other side. We climbed over a medium-sized rock in the path and came around a corner to a large mud puddle. This is the main attraction in Dark Cave and it is pretty cool! Eric really enjoyed the mud pit because he liked being able to swim in the mud rather than just having a small dish of mud like we got at the spa in Ecuador.
We spent a while bathing in the mud pit. The mud is allegedly good for your skin. Someone discovered that they could float in the mud pit, so we all sat down to try it. It was a crazy experience – like floating in the Dead Sea, except we were in the middle of a cave. After a while another group was coming in, so we headed back to the main part of the cave with the water.
On the way, we hung back from the group to see what it was like if we turned off our head lamps. It was PITCH black. You could not see your hand in front of your face. The rest of the group continued on, so we were left on our own to navigate the way out. It almost felt like it would be possible to get lost in the cave, especially when we came to a place where it seemed like we had a choice to make. We turned left and found an exit, but it turns out the other way was the way we had come in, so both options led out. We walked back through the water, cleaning off the mud on the way, to exit the cave.
When we came out of the cave, there were kayaks waiting, so we kayaked back to the other side of the river. On the other side of the river we played with a zip line that dumped you into the water for a while and then got on the bus to head home.
That evening we were planning to catch the bus to Ninh Bình. Our bus tickets were arranged, and at the appointed time, the hosts at our hostel shuttled us to the bus station on their motorbikes. The bus was scheduled from 9pm to 5am, but it arrived at 10pm. It was super crowded, and for the first time we did not have assigned seats. The only available seats were in a very back of the bus where three seats were next to each other with no divider. We climbed up into the three seats with another girl who had just boarded the bus and tried not to encroach on each other’s space. The bus was hot, and it was so bumpy in the back!