After Hoi An, and en route up to Hanoi, we decided to stop at Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park (frequently shortened to just Phong Nha). We heard about Phong Nha’s caves from other travelers and thought it sounded worth checking out. We are so glad we went.
Phong Nha is situated deep within a region of karst mountains, the oldest in the world actually. They were formed more than 400 million years ago and they create a beautiful landscape, both mountainous and tropical. Within and underneath the mountains are hundreds of cave systems, including the world’s largest cave (Hang Son Doong: 200 meters high, 150 meters wide, and 5 km long; discovered as recently as 2009; cost to explore… a mere $3,000 USD). There’s about a year-long waitlist to visit Son Doong, and of course we didn’t have $3,000 to spend on caving, so we skipped that one. But we DID visit two other caves in Phong Nha: Paradise Cave and Dark Cave. Most of these caves were discovered fairly recently and have only been open to the pubic for a few years.
Paradise Cave is Asia’s longest dry cave at 13 km long. But you can only explore the first kilometer of that unless you have special permit and guide to see the rest. I think our guide said it takes about a week to do a full tour of the cave. That first kilometer is well-touristed and well-developed with lights, stairs and an elevated, wood pathway that prevents you from wandering off. In some areas of the cave, the ceiling is 100 meters high and the walls are 150 meters wide. This makes for some very impressive stalactites and stalagmites. It is the coolest and most beautiful cave I’ve seen to date and I would recommend it to anyone passing through central Vietnam.
Dark Cave was the complete opposite of Paradise Cave. It was, as the name suggests, dark, narrow in many spaces (so narrow that you had to turn your body sideways and shimmy through), and full of mud. You must go into Dark Cave with a guide, a helmet, and a headlamp. And you walk, slide, or slip single-file through the cave to a small open space with a waist high mud pit. That’s the climax. The Dark Cave is as fun or boring as you want to make it. There’s not a lot to see, and if you don’t like getting dirty, you will hate it. But if you can enjoy a little mud fighting, mud sliding, and literally floating in a mud pit, then you will have a great time. Guaranteed. (Sadly there are no photos of Dark Cave for obvious reasons).
At Dark Cave, there is also a zipline and a variety of other activities like kayaking, pedal boats, and an obstacle course and rope swing above the water. The water there is turquoise blue and refreshing. It makes for a really fun afternoon.
Sadly, we only had one day in Phong Nha because we unexpectedly had to take a night bus to Hanoi. Wish we could have stayed a couple more days. It was such a gorgeous area. Plus our hostel was great (Easy Tiger). Maybe next time!