Next stop on our agenda was Phong Nha Ke Bang national park and our base for a few days Son Trach village. Having been on a sleeper bus for 6 hours during the day when we visited Sapa we decided against it. Supposedly the buses are cheaper, but we were quoted $22 per person which was the same price as for the 4 berth sleeper on the train. Choosing between a rubbish bus and decent train wasn’t too tricky so we booked two beds on the train from Hanoi to Domg Hoi (the closest train station to Phong Nha). We boarded the train easily with a QR code on the etickets and met our companions for the journey, a Dutch-Ecuadorian couple on their way to Hue. The train was clean and well maintained except for the smelly toilet (like all train toilets) and there was even a trolley service and breakfast options. We slept like logs despite the wobbling of the train and the abrupt braking and arrived into Dong Hoi on time. To reach the Son trach we had a short walk and then caught a bus to Som Trach. We think we caught the slightly more expensive minibus rather than the public bus as one guy tried to argue about the fare and made the driver and conductor grumpy. Sometimes it’s really not worth arguing about 60p even if it is all about the principle. Either way we got to Son Trach and found our hotel hostess making breakfast. Perfect timing as we were hungry. It was no problem to join in on the breakfast even though we had not stayed the night.
Phong Nha Ke Bang national park is famous for its caves and is home to the largest cave in the world Son Doong. Unfortunately Son Doong has restricted access and requires visitors to spend 5 days trekking and pay $3000 per person. We are sure it’s very impressive but not in our budget. Instead we planned to visit the more affordable and accessible caves in the area. In order to reach these caves there are two options, book a tour or rent a scooter. The tours were fairly expensive even considering the entrance fees for the caves, so we opted to hire a scooter from our hotel. The scooter was perfect for the two of us and gave us the freedom to visit a few places. There’s a Phong Nha loop which most visitors use to get around as it takes you along some scenic roads linking the major attractions. Getting to grips with the scooter was a little bit nerve wracking at first since neither of us had driven a scooter (or motorbike) before but Matthias did a good job of driving slowly around the bends while Zoë was chief navigator. We made our way out of town and the scenery got nicer. The huge limestone karsts are covered with green jungle like forest except on the steep exposed faces.
Our first stop on the loop was Dark cave. It is the most adventurous of the caves that are open to the public. To reach the cave there is a zipline from a tower and a short swim. We have to admit the weather in winter isn’t the best for Dark cave as although the water is warm, the breeze cools you down pretty quickly. Once inside the cave we walked and waded through the caverns and corridors until we reached a muddy pool. Here we had time for a mud bath although we both found the gooey mud between our toes and on the walls a little unpleasant. We are sure that most of it was produced by the bats living in the cave. On our way back out of the cave there was a mudslide which Zoë missed as she fell down the non-slide part of the mud. The mud slide ended in a pool of cleaner water and we had plenty of opportunity to rinse off as we swam back out of the cave. At the exit we jumped into canoes and paddled back to the shore. There were all sorts of games to play in the river but sadly it was a little too chilly for them. Instead we got warm and dry again before setting off in search of coffee.
Our road got steeper and windy so we needed a little hope to get our scooter up the hill but we made it. The views of the deep green jungle, grey cliffs and sparkling blue river kept getting better. Then we took a turn towards our next cave known as Paradise Cave. We both needed a coffee stop before starting the walk to the entrance. It was a nice walk through some jungle although we were both surprised how far it was but it did explain why they had a buggy service. Once up the hill and at the entrance we realised that this would be the first cave we visited without a guide. Not sad about the lack of guide we started down the stairs into the cave. There’s quite a few steps to go down but the further into the cave you get the quieter and more beautiful it becomes. We were shocked by the pure scale of the place. The caverns were ginormous and we never had to duck or squeeze between rocks. The wooden walkway just kept leading us deeper into this huge cave. There were stalagmites and stalactites reaching floor to ceiling and terraces of rock like rice paddy terraces. We were almost the only people wandering through the cave so all we could hear was the dripping of water slowly contributing to the giant rock formations. Finally we reached the end of the walkway but wondered just how much further it was possible to go.
We had a slight problem starting our scooter but thankfully one of the locals showed us how to kickstart it and got the engine running. We both jumped on and set off to complete the loop before the end of the day. Since our scooter didn’t like starting we decided to go straight back to town rather than stopping at the botanic gardens. From what we read they are just an area of nice jungle rather than a real botanic garden but maybe they are worth a visit if you fancy a nice walk. The road back to town took us up a fairly large hill with fantastic jungle views. Matthias did a great job of keeping the engine running while Zoe tried to take some photos. As we turned back into town our scooter started to feel a little wobbly. We weren’t sure at first if we had upset something when crossing a small ditch but the wobble got worse. When we stopped, it was obvious we had a rear wheel puncture. Thank goodness for Maps.me we knew we were only 2km from home and a friendly local pointed us to a mechanic. Our mechanic quickly patched not one but two punctures for 40000 VND (£1.30) and we were on our way again. We made it back to our hotel safely and had had an awesome day. Even better was our dinner at Capture cafe where we enjoyed a delicious taste of home, stone baked pizza and pasta. The chocolate brownie was the icing on the cake.
Our second day in Phong Nha was a lo more relaxed as we only had plans to visit the most local caves. The first discovered caves were Phong Nha and Son Tien which are only a few kilometres from the town. The only way to reach these caves is via a short boat ride upstream. We were lucky to tag onto a group at the dock and soon set off with our two Vietnamese women as boat crew. The boats use a motor to get up the river but once the river disappears into the side of the mountain, they cut the motor and row. The rowing style is interesting, requiring leaning into the oar and pulling back whilst the oar moves in a circular motion. Our two ladies were experts and very relaxed, even joking and teasing an American about rowing although they never let him take the oar. Once inside the cave we were treated to our first underground river experience. We had tried to take an underground boat ride twice in Eastern Europe, but they were both closed due to low water levels. It was worth the wait to finally be on a boat gliding along to see the rock formations all over the walls and ceiling of this big cave. We were surprised by just how wide the river was and how far it went into the cave. Although the cave was lit, it was still pretty dark and gloomy with water dripping in from the ceiling in places. Before we knew it we had reached the end of our ride and our drivers turned the boat and rowed us to a jetty. From the jetty we walked out of the cave past some impressive stalactites before we reached the exit. From there we boarded our boat again and went back to town whilst chatting to one of the drivers to find out she had 5 children. The locals in Phong Nha are very friendly and also the majority are Christians which makes it a little different from the rest of Vietnam.
Overall Phong Nha Ke Bang is definitely worth a visit. The caves are larger than anything we have seen in Europe and the jungle makes it appear mystical.