Leaving Hanoi was hard as we'd had a lovely time eating and drinking our way through all the streets of the old town, and wandering around the lake of an evening. Our next stop was the famous Phong Nha caves, home to the very recently discovered biggest cave in the world. To get there we took a tour to the "Halong Bay of the rice paddies" at Ninh Binh (Tam Coc). It was a beautiful trip in a small canoe along a central canal in the rice paddies with spectacular karst mountains rising up all around you. We also went through a few caves on the boat. It was very touristy however, with boats waiting for us at the end of the river to sell souvenirs, food and drinks, and pretty incessant "tip, tip sir, tip sir?" the whole way back, which detracted a little from the beauty of the place, but it is definitely a sight worth seeing.
We left the tour at Ninh Binh and took the night bus to Dong Hoi. This turned out to be another travel adventure as the bus driver didn't wake us when he went through Dong Hoi like we had discussed deciding
instead that we probably wanted to go to Dong Ha (a tiny town another hour south). This is apparently a fairly common occurrence, which found us running back up a road in the middle of nowhere at 6.30am to be put in a minivan full of locals going the other direction back to Dong Hoi. We were dropped on a main road in Dong Hoi, and it took us an hour to find someone with limited English to ask how to get to Son Trach village, the town right on the edge of the National Park. We successfully found the public bus, paid our $2 and hoped we would know when to get off! The people on the bus thought it was pretty hilarious that we were on the bus with them (most people take a taxi or moto out to the National Park, but this was going to cost us $30, so we stuck with the bus), but they were very kind and called our guesthouse so the driver knew where we were meant to be getting off. We were frequently being amazed by how kind and sincere the Vietnamese people were, especially as we left the touristy areas.
We stayed at Pepperhouse Homestay, owned by a Vietnamese-Australian couple, Yim and Multi. It was a very laid back affair, with delicious food, good beds and a really happy social atmosphere of an evening. As we were in the middle-ish of Vietnam it was a great opportunity to talk to other people about where they'd been, and share some of our stories from further north. Our hosts were very friendly and treated us like mates rather than clients from the outset. When we arrived (having only slept an hour or so on the night bus) they convinced us to join them for a ride to a friends wild pig farm where we enjoyed some cold beers, wild boar barbecued in bamboo and lazing in hammocks while overlooking an amazing view of the mountainous jungle scenery.
The caves of Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, were a definite highlight of our whole trip. The largest cave in the world was only discovered in 2009 by a local cave enthusiast (a local farmer I think). Since then Phong Nha village has begun to grow as local and international visitors continue to hear about the beautiful caves
and scenery. Small businesses are opening up and flourishing and more tours are being tested everyday. Apparently only about 25% of the caves in the area have been discovered and there are hundreds more. Scientists believe the real biggest cave is yet to be discovered and is probably filled with water. The site also offers some fantastic history lessons as some of the major freight routes during the Vietnam war intersected here allowing troops and provisions to be sent west to Laos, south to the DMZ, east to the coastal ports and north to Hanoi (as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail). The Vietcong utilised the caves and jungle to their advantage during the war and entire towns were constructed within some of the larger caves.
The sheer size and beauty of the caves is like nothing I have ever seen, or could ever even imagine. We did the National Park tour, a one day trip into 2 of the caves in the area, Paradise Cave and Dark Cave. It was the best tour I think we've done, not only because of the amazing viewing opportunities inside the caves, but we also went deeper than a general tourist
can go (in Dark Cave). The Paradise Cave is spectacular and is one of the most accessible in the region so all the international and local tourists come here. This cave was much more impressive than the caves that we had seen previously in Australia, so beautiful.
After lunch we made our way to the dark cave where none of the Vietnamese tourists dare to enter. In fact we were the only group to go in that afternoon I think. We were equipped with head torches and life jackets and started our kayak to the cave. The water was a deep clear blue in the river and I couldn't wait to jump in *must have been 40C that day!). We came to the entrance and started making our way in but the path finished quickly and soon we were walking on the cave floor in our bare feet. Lights on, we travelled further into the large cavern then suddenly turned to go down a smaller opening. We walked (and climbed) single file for about a kilometre into the cave through narrow tunnels and chambers. We waded through mud up to our waist (the most gorgeous mud I have ever
Immense stalagmites in Paradise Cave (Thiên Đường)
Some of the most beautiful and spectacular stalactites and stalagmites in the park are found within Thiên Đường.
had the pleasure of sitting in - it was so pure!), then sat in the pitch black silence, probably all thinking how screwed we'd be if our head torches gave out right then! We backtracked towards the opening of the cave, only to turn back around and come to a large underground lake. We jumped in and swam a hundred meters or so deeper into the cave. The water was so cool and clear (I assume it was clear, the head torches weren't giving too much away!). When we came back out into the light we just swam for another hour or so in the river and we were so happy. What an adventure, I couldn't wipe the smile from my face!
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