Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park
Never heard about this strangely named national park? That’s quite alright. This site made it to the ‘things to definitely see in Vietnam’ list just recently and many of the travelers in Vietnam haven’t heard about it either. But you may remember a National Geographic Magazine cover with a cave on it, that has its own proper mountain, jungle and river. That is Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest cave. And this cave is actually in the Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park.
The park was named after the Phong Nha (windy teeth) cave and the Ke Bang forest surrounding it, and since its foundation it became a UNESCO World Heritage site. There’s a huge cave system underground with about 50 caves discovered and many more to be explored. If we get lucky, we might discover one cave as did a Dutch tourist in 2012, and that very cave was named after him (Hang Kim).
Phong Nha Cave
I arrived from Hue a bit late, walked to my lovely hostel that was located a bit further outside of the little town. In the morning some 5 people got together at breakfast to go to the nearest cave, Phong Nha. Lucky coincidence, as one can get to the caves only by boats of 12, and it doesn’t matter how many people are in the boat, the price remains the same. We met two extra people at the pier, so hopped in the boat the seven of us. We went with the boat through town and about 20 minutes more to get to the entrance, where the engines were cut off and we slided into the cave rowing.
In our boat two tiny little Vietnamese lady were rowing at least 20-25 minutes in, then back. We were lucky not having super loud Chinese or Vietnamese groups in the cave so we could really enjoy the tastefully lit cave. It is a beautiful cave with big stalactites and stalagmites. Up until the discovery of Paradise Cave (1994) and the final exploration of it the Phong Nha Cave was considered to be the longest cave of the area. Unfortunately we can enjoy only a short section of it.
On the way towards the exit the boat stops and we all get off to explore it a bit on foot. I spent about half an hour wandering among the formations in the huge halls. At the exit we get into the boats and leave to the town enjoying the beautiful landscape.
Many people told me, that Paradise Cave is “the same” experience as Phong Nha, and the only difference is the way of progressing in the cave. In this case on foot instead of using the boats. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen both – they said. It is a bit expensive, but I’m happy I didn’t listen to them and visited it anyway. After riding through a short section of the amazing Ho Chi Minh Trail, 20-22 km south from Phong Nga you can easily find the cave. After the ticket office you walk another 15-20 minutes then a final steep section and you reach the entrance of the cave. The lazy ones can use electric buggy cars for a little extra money, but they also need to climb the steep slope.
Once you enter the cave you see the long turns of stairs leading you towards the floor of the cave, that is huge. In the mist and darkness you see the lights from far away and just have a vague idea how big this place could be. I couldn’t process its volume first. The more I climbed down, the more I could see its real size and the experience just got better and better. The stalactites/mites are beautiful, diverse and huge. After each turn there was a new surprise, a new amazingly great hall.
The cave is 31 km long, taking over the title of Phong Nha as the longest cave in the area, but without a guide you can visit only 1-1,5 km of it, with a guide about 3,5 km. I was really impressed. I was literally crying a couple of times seeing all these beauty. I was thinking of my caver friends a lot, wondering whether they’d like it, or would find it exceptional.
I personally found it beautiful, and I’m convinced that it is worth a visit to both of the caves, as the experience in them is incomparable.
The national park
Starting from the little town you can make a loop of 65 km through amazing landscape. First riding North on the Ho Chi Minh Highway, then switching to the Ho Chi Minh Trail back towards the south, entering to the national park through the gates. No need to pay any fee if you use a bicycle or a scooter, just duck under the gate. Along the road the attractions are lined up: the Dark Cave with a little aquapark, mud bath and zipline, a lovely spring and the Paradise Cave. At the next huge intersection we turn towards the north again, and along the road towards town we drive by a botanical garden with a little waterfall before getting back to town. I did the full loop only once, but I kinda had to stop every two minutes to enjoy the view and taking pictures. I loved just to stop and admire the view, sit on a bridge for a while, observe the river, the mountains and the low traffic.
During one of my stops I met a retired Canadian teacher and had a half an hour long lovely discussion with him, while enjoying the view of the jungle and the mountains. He worked as a teacher in Asia for two decades, then back in Canada for a while before he retired. Now he just escaped the rough winter back home and wanders the Vietnamese countryside with a foldable bicycle. We shared our views on priorities, life choices, the life we chose for ourselves and weather it is possible to have family and kids when living this life. Also shared some insights on the lives we had a great effect on.
This is one of the things I love in travelling: two random people park their bicycle and rented bike on a bridge in the heart of a beautiful national park in Vietnam, sit next to each other and have a heartful, genuine conversation and can connect to each other without masks and pretending to be someone else. Such a pure moment.
- Hue – Phong Nha buszjegy: 150.000 VND (6,5 USD)
- Phong Nha boat ticket: 360.000 VND (15,6 USD)
- Phong Nha cave entrance ticket: 150.000 VND (6,5 USD)
- Paradise Cave entrance ticket: 250.000 VND (10,9 USD)
- Parking at the entrance of Paradise Cave: 5.000 VND (0,2 USD)
- Electric buggy car to the cave entrance: 80.000 VND one way (3,5 USD)
- Entrance to the national park by motorbike: free, just follow the instructions of the park ranger and duck down when driving under the gate.