Escaping from the party music that had erupted after another overnight bus arrived at the hostel, I went for a jog through the streets near Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. We were here for one night to stop by to do some caving and exploring in what many sources say are some of the world’s most beautiful cave formations. There are an overwhelming number of tour options available, but after looking at their itinerary and the entry prices to the different attractions they visited, we figured it would save us quite a bit of money to do it all by ourselves. That way, we’d also have more freedom to decide how long we wanted to stay in the different places.
So, after I finished my run on the gravel road, past cows eyeing me carefully, dogs flattening their ears and barking, mute water buffalo with egret companions perched on their backs, and humans slowly going about their daily lives, we rented motor bikes. This beautiful place is a mosaic of green forested mountains, fields, concrete homes, churches and graveyards. I made Luke stop several times as we drove past these, as the graves all have miniature monuments, painted bright colours, facing towards the village.
The caves themselves are caves. At the end of the day, when we tried to sit down and reflect on what we had seen and what we had liked, we concluded that we were definitely not suited to be cavers. We like the outdoors and sun too much. Paradise cave, a large cave which had been equipped with electric lights and a boardwalk, had left us rather cold. Our conversations focused on the difficulties of taking photos in the low light environment and led us to play a game, searching for bizarre shapes and figures in the rock formations. It wasn’t exactly a ‘most memorable moment’. We were, however, far more excited by our experience in Dark Cave.
On paper it sounds a little cheesy; it was obviously built and designed as a tourist attraction. But it was genuinely fun. The entrance to dark cave is across the river from the road, so you begin your visit by climbing a tower and then zip lining across. Following this you submerge yourself in the (slightly freezing) water, and swim into the mouth of the cave, where you tread carefully, walking into the depths. At some point the rocks around you begin to change. They grow slick to the touch and you find yourself sinking, slipping and sliding. Mud starts to appear on every surface, and when you reach the end of your walk, you are stuck to the waist in the goo, floating awkwardly, swimming unsuccessfully.
We wallowed and jumped, swam and had mud fights, before our tired guide asked us if we could please turn around. I guess after seeing the mud five times every day it gets a bit less exciting. On the way back we had a water fight to wash off the mud, then kayaked across the river and spent some time jumping off of platforms and swinging into the river. In hindsight, these activities were probably also designed to help reduce the mud on us. It failed. My bikini and Luke’s swim trunks were stained brown with mud for several weeks, despite continuous rinsing and use!
Our tips for Phong Nha are:
- Do it solo- it is definitely cheaper, and the roads are empty.
- Wear a helmet when you are motor biking. We got pulled over by police because Luke’s big head wouldn’t fit in any of the helmets. Thankfully the language barrier meant that the police just frowned at us, wagged some fingers, and then sent us on our way.
- Go to Dark Cave for a different cave experience.
- Don’t stay in Easy Tiger if you are not up for the party atmosphere. There are several hostels and hotels down the road, all basic, but very comfortable for a few days.
- Try the Mango Salad at the Bamboo Café (in the tourist area of town, near to where the buses drop you off). Delicious!