Our next stop after Hoi An was Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, home to the recently discovered Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest cave. (Side note- it is $3000US for a 5 day trekking tour into the cave, it is only open for 6 months of the year and only 10 people per week can enter the cave- so no, we didn’t visit this cave ha ha). Phong Nha is only a relatively new tourist area. Although it has been there forever, and was heavily occupied during the war, it has been untouched by tourism for a long time. The British Caving Association only begun exploring the caves in the mid 1990s, and the world’s largest cave was only discovered in 2009, although a local Vietnamese man had found it long before this!
The Vietnam Military heavily control the park, and trekking through it is only permitted with a licensed tour guide due to the huge amount of unexploded ordnance leftover from the war. The village of Son Trach is the only town in the park, and it consists of a few hotels and a few small restaurants. The tourism in the area has been single handedly driven by an Australian man named Ben. He and his Vietnamese wife Bich opened the Phong Nha Farmstay, the first real accommodation option in the park, in 2010. It was quick to become a very popular stop for backpackers and adventurers in their journey up the coast of Vietnam. Since then, he has also opened the only hostel in the area, Easy Tiger, which when we visited was completely booked out.
We left Hoi An at about 1.30pm on a very hot, sweaty, stinky bus bound for Phong Nha. We stopped over in Hue, an ancient town we unfortunately had to skip, where we changed buses. It was about 2 hours from the time we got off the first bus, to the time the second bus left… but that’s just Asia! The second bus we got on was a sleeper bus, so we got nice and comfy up the back and had a great trip! We arrived in the small village of Son Trach at about 10.30pm, checked into all a small local hotel and fell into bed.
The next day we had booked a Phong Nha Farmstay Tour of the national park run by Ben’s team from Farmstay and Easy Tiger. The tour included a local guide, visits to a few memorial sites from the war, the Paradise Cave, lunch and the Dark Cave. We woke up to a gorgeous view of Son Trach village and headed for breakfast at Easy Tiger before starting the tour.
We drove deeper into the park, and our guide (an Australian guy! We loved hearing his accent!) gave us some really good information on the park, it’s discovery and its role in the war. It was one of the most heavily bombed locations during the war, and was a strategic location for the Viet Cong.Although many people’s interests in the park lie underground, the lush forest and the beautiful limestone karsts were just spectacular! There was greenery everywhere you looked, the scenery really was breathtaking and still so pure and untouched by humans. The Son River runs throughout the park, as well as many other river systems flowing from inside the caves.
The first cave we visited was the 8 Lady Cave, a site where 8 teenagers were killed by a bomb. There was a beautiful memorial temple next to the cave, remembering the many other victims of the war within Phong Nha.
Our next stop was the Paradise Cave, the largest dry cave in the world. We parked the van in a very busy car park and hiked up 500 steps to the entrance of the cave. As soon as we got close we could feel the change in temperature, with a very cool breeze blowing out of the entrance. The first 1km of the cave has had wooden platforms built inside and it is lit up with dim lights. No photos or videos do justice to just how big it was inside, and how beautiful all the stalagmites and stalactites are. There were so many different types of formations, all so unique and detailed.
After a lovely buffet lunch we headed for the Dark Cave, the best part of the day. The plan was to get into our swimming gear, get a helmet, head torch and life jacket and zipline into the entrance of the cave. The cave is completely dark, and filled with mud that you can’t sink in! You then kayak out of the cave and spend time ziplining into the river and playing on a huge inflatable Wipe Out style obstacle course!
So that was the plan… the reality was we sat in our bathers for 2 hours doing nothing, only to be told that the cave was too busy and they were about to close so we wouldn’t be able to do it. Everyone was very frustrated, including our tour guides, but arguing about anything in Asia tends to get you nowhere, so to no surprise we couldn’t resolve the issue.
It was really disappointing that we didn’t get to experience the Dark Cave, as it would have been the highlight of the day. But no-one is to blame, Ben, the owner of Farmstay, gave everyone a very generous refund. He explained that the government (who run the Dark Cave) aren’t coping with the influx in tourism, and are still learning how to manage the increasing popularity of the area. People who were staying longer in the park were able to organise the activity for the next morning but unfortunately we were leaving on a night bus that night so we missed out.
Although it was really sad to not have had the day we expected, this is the worst thing that has happened on our trip so far so we can’t complain! Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park and its caves are spectacular, and it is sad to know that it is skipped on many people’s Vietnam itinerary! It is a must see, and I can’t wait to go back and spend more time there.