Warning: There are lots of pictures of rocks. Lots. But they are pretty cool.
We crossed into Vietnam via Cha Lo, which is not a common tourist crossing we found out. Our bus was full of 20-something Vietnamese guys presumably returning from working in Laos or Thailand, as their wallets were stuffed full of cash. 40 guys with stinky feet and me, and absolutely no English. It took us 2 hours to get through the border, which was full of hand gestures, confusion and shuffling bags back and forth between inspections and the bus. The whole time, we had a glimmer of hope that they could drop us off in Phong Nha (our destination) as it was in the direct path between Thakhek and Dong Hoi. So we kept saying Phong Nha to the driver and the ticket guy and the other guy who was in charge of something. Eventually they started calling us Phong Nha.
But we didn’t stop in Phong Nha, though we got within 20 km or so. We got dropped off in Dong Hoi and found out the last bus to Phong Nha had already departed and we could take a taxi for an exorbitant amount, or wait til the next morning to catch the local bus at just over $1. So we found a nice guesthouse along the ocean and ate some delicious beef soup.
The next morning we woke up early and went out on the main street, hoping to find a bus marked with our destination. After 20 nerve-racking minutes, we spotted one, got on and discovered other tourists headed the same way.
We spent that afternoon researching and talking to people coming back from the caves. The national park here has the world’s largest cave and it was only discovered in the last few years. Hence, tourism has just started to pick up and people are flocking to the area to see the caves. The largest cave is $3000 to visit and has a waiting list, so that was out. We opted for a few of the other, also spectacular ones instead.
The next morning the power was out (something we would come to discover happens quite a lot). There are tour companies in Phong Nha who offer day trips to see multiple attractions. We asked around, thought $60+ was too much and decided to do two caves on our own. The roads are good and the scenery is gorgeous, so we rented a motorbike for the hour drive to Paradise Cave.
The ride up the cave was beautiful, more karsts, little towns and lush, green foliage. It rains quite a lot at this time of year. We parked the motorbike and climbed about a kilometer up a mountain to reach the entrance to the cave. This cave has been open to the public for awhile and they have sunk a lot of money into the infrastructure here. Everything outside is paved and the whole walkway inside the cave is wooden and appears sturdy. I was pretty impressed. For being so remote, this cave was really well taken care of and tastefully lit up.
We spent about two hours at Paradise Cave, walking the 1 kilometer path and back. The stalactites and stalagmites were massive and had such character. You could see where some had fallen thousands of years ago and more had formed on top of them. We arrived at lunchtime and all the tour groups were gone so we were able to enjoy a few minutes of complete silence in the cave (besides the dripping water). The pictures don’t really do it justice. It was hard to capture the scale of the cavern with the camera.
Next stop, the Dark Cave. This is more of an adventure cave, not as big and has no lights. This cave is more expensive, but includes all necessary gear – headlamp, hard hat, life vest and safety harness. We were strapped into our harnesses and ziplined across the river to the mouth of the cave. From there, we swam into the cave, waded through chilly water and mud. We removed our lifejackets, flipped on our headlamps and trod through mud toward our destination, slipping all the way. By the time we reached the end of the trail, we were all covered in mud and having a grand time. I had a mudstache – courtesy of our guide.
The finale of the tour is sitting in a thick pool of mud in complete darkness. The mud is so thick that you can float on it, but still swim. It was much warmer deep in the cave and the mud felt great on my skin. We headed back the way we came, rinsed off and kayaked back to the start, where they have two small ziplines dropping you into the water. Despite the chill of the water, this turned out to be my favorite thing in Phong Nha. It helps that they serve you hot soup, tea and rum by a fire at the end.
We dried off and headed back to town in time for sunset. Driving at night is dangerous, as there are no streetlights and when we got back to the hostel, there still wasn’t any power. So no hot showers for us, which was disappointing. Apparently, they are working on the electric lines all the time, probably updating them to accommodate the huge influx of tourism in the area in the last few years. It would be interesting to see the development that happens in this area in the next ten years. The caves are really incredible and its no wonder why people are already flocking here.
The following day we met in the lobby of our hostel to join a bunch of people to visit the cave that is closest to town. Ten of us split the cost of a boat and we headed for Phong Nha and Tien Son caves. The little dragon boat took us down the river about half an hour to the entrance of the caves, leaking all the way. our wooden boat had seen better days. At the entrance to Phong Nha cave, the boat driver switched off the motor and he and his helper removed the top of the boat, so we could look directly above our heads. They pulled out their paddles and we spent the next hour or so moving silently through the cave.
The dragon boat returned us to the entrance of the cave and we disembarked for the walk up to the next cave, Tien Son. We walked up some very steep steps, with ladies selling ice cream all the way up. In my opinion, this cave was better than Phong Nha cave. There is wooden loop way down into the cave, lots more steps. More beautiful formations and tasteful lighting.
We took the dragon boat back to town, where the power was out again. Saw some interesting boat uses along the way.
The next day we took the local bus back to Dong Hoi, where we were dropped at an intersection and told to wait for the next bus to Hue (no time table). Luckily, one arrived about half an hour later, we flagged it down and headed south on the dustiest and bumpiest bus/road we have encountered thus far.
Colonel Mustard and Mr. Tabasco are a long way from home.