Phong Nha National Park is home to the biggest caves in the world. They are only the second time I have seen caves in my life – after the Lod Cave in Pai – so I’ve taken quite a drastic upturn in my cave experiences recently.
Good thing they were awesome then.
The quaint town of Phong Nha is very small and peaceful, so much so that turning up on a sleeper bus at 4am doesn’t lend too many problems – all hostels and Homestays are a 2-minute walk away, maximum. This is completely fine because it serves its purpose as a quiet place giving you fewer distractions when taking in its surroundings, which are astounding. The owner of our Homestay was a young and very lovely woman who let us sleep in a bed for the last few hours of darkness for free. Good start.
Taking a bike around Phong Nha National Park lets you explore some of the nicest untouched scenery I have seen yet in Vietnam. Taking a bike out is very unproblematic because the roads are very simple to navigate and scarce of traffic. There are various sections of the national park that you can access with hiking routes or just cruise down the roads towards each cave. We did the three main backpacker caves in three days. The caves all close at 4pm so if you want to do more than one per day – wake up early.
Definitely the most fun out of them all. They have made the cave more into an adventure day out. First, there’s a zip line that flies you to the water right to the entrance of the cave. (It’s the longest in Vietnam at 400 metres. If that’s not long enough for you, there’s always The Gibbon Experience across the border in Laos which tops it). Then you walk along in your herd of tourists through a very narrow and winding tunnel, which involves some climbing and questioning who in the world found this path in the first place. Eventually, we got to a mud pool at the end, which is a lot of fun. We can all pretend to be I-art-more-intellectual-than-thou, but really we all just want to play around in some mud in a cave. You can float around effortlessly in mud due to its density. Tip: Do NOT put your whole head under water, unless you want mud in your eyes and mud-dreadlocks. It was not a wise move by me.
Afterwards, you kayak back to the starting point and can do a mini assault course, which we were too late in the day for, unfortunately. Still worth it.
Cave Level – 7/10 – The cave itself isn’t going to blow your mind in terms of scale, in fact, it is a very thin pathway the whole way. Be prepared to climb. You can’t take cameras with you unless they’re well protected and there’s not a lot you could take that could be classed as Instagram-worthy.
Fun Level – 9/10 – It’s got a lot of things to do and have a fun day, but you will be in a group of about 30 other people.
Down-sides – You will probably have to wait as they take people in groups. The other main downside is you are required to watch a safety video before going in. The only thing this video does for people with common sense and good safety knowledge is that it explains everything you will do, effectively spoiling the surprise. It’s a bit like a movie trailer that gives away the entire plot of the movie.
Experience – 8/10
The next day – yes, we were late risers – we drove back to Paradise Cave, which is situated just a little further away from Dark Cave. It is the biggest cave that is most accessible to tourists. The biggest – Hang Son Doong – is big enough to land two Boeing 747 aeroplanes side by side through its entrance apparently, and is only accessible on a multiple day trek which will cost you around $5000. So maybe next time. Paradise Cave is a worthy contender, however. Only discovered recently in 2005 by a local farmer, which is understandable as you have to enter through a tiny opening surrounded by foliage, after climbing steep stairs for what may seem like hours (slight exaggeration – it was more like ten minutes). After crawling in you suddenly become immersed in a secret Alice in Wonderland scenario, and you feel you have now shrunk down to the size of an ant. It’s big – that is the best way to explain it. Really big, if we want to get technical. Photos don’t do it any sort of justice.
Paradise Cave is a worthy contender, it was only discovered in 2005 by a local farmer, which is understandable as you have to enter through a tiny opening surrounded by foliage, after climbing steep stairs for what may seem like hours (slight exaggeration – it was more like ten minutes). After crawling in you suddenly become immersed in a secret Alice in Wonderland scenario, and you feel you have now shrunk down to the size of an ant. It’s big – that is the best way to explain it. Really big, if we want to get technical. Photos don’t do it any sort of justice.
You enter seemingly close to the ceiling wall of the cave but as you slowly walk down until you reach the floor, you realise how huge it is. That ceiling wall is now so far away it is like a second sky. The people behind you walking in through the entrance are now dots and you will probably have to catch your breath (although part of that is due to the fact that you just walked up seventeen flights of stairs to then walk back down again). It’s called Paradise Cave supposedly because the first explorers were reminded of paradise when walking through – because paradise to some people is a dark, underground cave – but the fantastic rock formations definitely give their argument more credit. If you don’t already know cave terminology, you will be an expert on the difference between stalagmites and stalactites after seeing the spectacular ones here. They seem almost too extraordinary for nature to have made themselves. The cave itself is very well lit up; I brought my torch with me just in case after the Dark Cave experience but it wasn’t necessary. You only see the first kilometre of the cave which has a boardwalk going along it. There is a tour which you have to prebook beforehand that can take you further if you want to pay more to walk an extra seven kilometres. I personally don’t know who would have the energy for that. As you can tell, I’m very much in shape.
Cave Level – 10/10 – It’s a proper cave. Like, Proper proper.
Fun Level – 6/10 – There is definitely an element of wonder to looking at all the formations and making compairsons to what they may look like. Apart from that, there was a lonely Vietnamese security guard sleeping at the end of the walkway which we found funny.
Experience – 8/10 – Not as fun a day as the first cave, but the scale alone is breathtaking.
Downsides – Stairs. So many stairs. Leading up to the cave, you may question who you are, why you’re doing this, is this cave really worth climbing all these freaking stairs? The answer is yes – it will be fully worth it.
Phong Nha Cave
You would think that Phong Nha cave would be the most popular since it is named after the town you are based in and is within walking distance, but most travellers we spoke to before, during and after skipped this cave over some of the others. My suggestion is to absolutely not do this. Just a short walk away from the town after you overcome the awkwardness of buying a boat ticket and entrance ticket separately, which is maybe the least organised system I have ever witnessed (I will explain the absurdity later), it’s a very smooth trip after that.
This cave is only accessible by an engine-powered boat, and a large chunk of the time of the trip is going up the river to the entrance. This is a relaxing journey where you get to see the landscape of the region from a different perspective. You will also likely catch fishermen and women wading out in the water as you go by. When you reach the entrance the driver then switches off the engine and you are steered slowly downstream through the cave with giant oars.
While the feeling of the Paradise Cave was intense, this feeling was like being taken to Hades Underworld, but way more exhilarating – because you’re not dead. The cave is appropriately lit, so you can see all the sculptures that nature has formed but in keeping with the spooky atmosphere. On our boat, nobody broke the silence as we crept through each fascinating section. You could let your imagination run wild – in every crack you could picture some kind of cave-dwelling creature – or just soak it all in. I was in total awe. On the way back, we got off the boat inside the cave, which had sand on the ground (!!) and got to walk back through to the opening. Being underground, around crazy stalagmites and columns, walking on dark sand, it really feels like you are on another planet. We both agreed that this was by far and away our personal favourite.
Cave Level – 10/10 – Not as grandeur as The Paradise Cave, but the variety of formations as you float down the river are astounding, not to mention when you hop off and get to see them up close.
Fun Level – 8/10 – I felt this cave had the best photo opportunities, so there is fun to have there. I enjoyed posing as Gollum.
Experience – 10/10 – It was out of this world, almost literally. A surreal experience.
Down-sides – Buying a boat ticket. It’s actually the worst system imaginable. You have to pay 360,000VND for the boat, split between however many people. But the real fun bit, with NO help from the counter lady who does not give out change so you need the exact amount. Then everyone must individually buy a ticket to the caves after, again with no change given AND ONLY AFTER buying the boat ticket. So bring change, bring a calculator and bring that person who eats in big groups at restaurants and organises splitting the bill for everyone at the end. Those people are real heroes.
Phong Nha is about an eight-hour bus ride south from Hanoi, or it is about a six-hour bus ride north from Hué. The very convenient night-bus from Hanoi arrives in Phong Nha at about 4 am. It’s smart to have a room booked for your nights there beforehand. If possible contact them as well to let your accommodation know at what time you are arriving. A lot of the places to stay have someone waiting for guests when the bus pulls in. Most hostels and homestays are less than five minutes away from the bus stop, which is in the centre of the small town.
Taking an automatic bike is the easiest and most accessible way to get to all of the caves and the other sights in the area. Most places to stay have their own bikes to rent at cheaper prices than you would find in the major Vietnamese cities. The roads are generally very well-made and calm in terms of traffic.
It is a very quiet town and we enjoyed taking a break from the loud and crowded cities in Vietnam. If you have the time, then it is nice to relax, take one cave each day and bike around the area more leisurely. Most people we encountered however stayed for only two nights, which is also plenty of time, and if you are an early bird it is possible to see two caves in one day. Paradise Cave and Dark Cave are quite close to each other.
Hang Son Doong may be out of most people’s price range, but the tour company who deals with the biggest Cave in the world is called Oxalis and they do far more affordable multiple day treks through the second and third biggest caves – which are still pretty big – where you are able to camp in the caves themselves.
Food-related – there is good food in BambooCafé and an amazing local place that does pork a little further out of town down the same road.