Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park is a sight to behold! The massive limestone Karst that define the landscape hide the enormous limestone caves deep inside.
The high mountains and deep caves are a must see when visiting Vietnam. The park is located roughly 500kms south of Hanoi, or 3 hours north of Hue close to the western boarder to Laos.
This national park is home to the largest limestone cave in the world: Son Doong Cave, rediscovered in 2009 by a team of British scientists and local Vietnamese farmers. But more importantly, this national park and UNESCO world heritage site, since 2003, protects two of the largest karst limestone regions in South East Asia. Comprised of more than 300 caves and grottoes over 857 Km2 of mountains and forests. This is my favourite location to date in Vietnam!
My stay in Phong Nha village started at 4:30am on January 20th when the night bus woke me up and unceremoniously kicked me to the curb. The streets were dark, my friend Jenna and I hadn’t made any arrangements for a hostel or hotel, so we camped outside of Easy Tiger hostel until the sun rose over the horizon.
At around 6am, it was time to get to work planning our day. Many tours are available that bring tourists up into the national park and include the entry ticket to the caves and lunch. However as backpackers we could do better than the outrageous price of 1,250,000 VND each ($80 CDN).
There are five caves open to tourists:
- The Phong Nha Cave
- Tien Son Cave
- Thien Duong “Paradise” Cave
- Hang Toi “Dark Cave”
- Son Doong Cave
The largest cave, Son Doong, is only open during the summer when water levels recede and only for experienced cavers for a ticket price of $3,000 USD each.
Choosing which caves to see is tough. Phong Nha Cave formerly the largest cave of the network in Phong Nha is hidden behind a waterfall requiring a small boat to be taken down river. The boat costs 350,000 VND but can be split among ten on top of a 150,000 VND entrance fee. In the end, we couldn’t gather the necessary bodies to split the boat cost and decided to visit the more accessible caves: Paradise Cave and Dark Cave for 250,000 VND each.
We split the cost of a scooter rental to make our way into the national park. The total cost per person for the both caves and travel was 580,000 VND or $37 Canadian, less than half the amount of a day tour but still a substantial sum so we were hoping for a great day.
This cave is SPECTACULAR! The entrance is located a kilometer from the main gate of the park, up a beautiful mountain of luscious green vegetation. The park itself has a variety of small shops, restaurants, cafes and easily accessible washrooms. There is even a restaurant at the mouth of the cave high in the mountain overlooking the valley below.
The cave is very large with beautifully shaped limestone, calcium carbonate, stalactites (icicle that hangs from the ceiling) and stalagmites (pillar that rises from the floor). These structures are huge in size and extremely colourful. What I found amazing was the sharpness of the rock formations and the intricate patterns created by the mineral deposits found in the water seeping through the cracks.
The structures were so detailed and fine in their shape, sound hardly travelled despite the immense size of the cave and the solidness of the limestone. Paradise Cave is truly a sight to behold, for $15 CDN or $10USD, it was totally worth exploring its deep and dark depths.
Hang Toi ‘Dark’ Cave
This was my favourite part of the day. Dark Cave is an adventure park, a totally different experience from walking within the pristine Paradise Cave. After an entrance fee of 250,000 VND, cavers are equipped with a hard helmet with head light, a lifejacket and a zip line harness.
The course starts off with a fast zip line above and across the turquoise blue lake. From the zip line landing pad, the mouth of the cave was but a short swim away. The clear mineral rich water was a little chilly, so the other cavers were slow to get it… Or it could have just been the Aussies who can’t handle a little cold dip. As a Canadian, I had reputation to uphold so in I went without hesitation. The water was less cold than Crystal Crescent, Nova Scotia in peak summer despite January being mid winter in Phong Nha Ke-Bang Park.
Once in the cave, we marched single file into its dark depths. The twist and turns in the cave devoured the light and eventually we saw no vegetation at all. Once rid of our life jackets (but not our hard helmets), we turned into a narrow passageway less than three feet wide in parts. We marched deeper and deeper until the only light was that of our head lights, and the only sound that of our hands and feet navigating the increasingly muddy path. The passageway was dangerous, with no elements to dull the stone the limestone was razor sharp or occasionally jutted down in stalactite spikes from the ceiling, requiring a keen eye and carefully placed foot. Easier said than done when both hands and feet are covered in clay mud and darkness is everywhere but directly ahead.
The end of the passageway saw us to a mud pool roughly twenty feet wide and ten feet across at its widest point. The mud was lightest on top and quickly grew thicker as we stretched out our limbs to reach the bottom! The mud was so dense we could float on the surface, sit up straight and lift our legs almost entirely out of the mud. And then the lights started going out, one by one the cavers turned off their headlights until the last one went out and only darkness remained. We screamed, yelled and floated around in the darkness. I swear there was a current created by the cave or the people moving for when the lights returned I had drifted towards the center of the pool.
This was the most amazing experience to date, fun, thrilling and easily affordable. I recommend the Paradise Cave for its pristine beauty, but paired with the dark cave for an awesome day exploring the caves in Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park.