Surrounded by huge stunning stalactites and stalagmites, I was awestruck and excitedly walked through the vast expanses of Phong Nha Cave and Paradise Cave. Walking in a huge beautiful cave in the midst of tropical jungles containing some of the largest cave systems in the world and one of the oldest karst mountains was an other worldly feeling. But getting here wasn’t that simple.
After more than 30 minutes of waiting for a bus numbered B4 in a quiet street of Dong Hoi, we worried for a while if we would miss out on the splendid caves that we had heard so much about. Dong Hoi is the nearest city to the Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park and we had arrived there by train from Da Nang. Getting a cab to the park wasn’t easy either as there were hardly any vehicles moving along that stretch of road. Fortunately for us, the owner of a store near the bus stop called a contact who came by to drop us to the famed National Park for 500,000 VND.
Phong Nha Cave
It came as a pleasant surprise that there was no queue at the ticketing counter and we were the only people there. The tickets cost 150,000 VND(600 INR). A German couple joined us to pool in for the 10 seater boat ride to the caves. We were told that the boats usually go ahead into the caves and are navigated through the darkness but rising water levels due to continuous rain over the past week would permit the boats only till the entrance of the cave. Excitement surged during the ride watching the green covered hills with the scent of rain in the air. We were about to explore one of the largest cave systems in the world.
The boat docked to the right of the cave’s entrance. The mouth of the cave looked small on the limestone mountain due to the rising water of the Son river. A stone staircase carved onto the mountain led to the largest cave I had seen. Huge stalactites covered the walls of the caverns in all shapes and sizes that you can relate to be absolutely anything based on your imagination. I walked deeper into the caves still amazed by this staggering piece of nature. It seemed liked it could go on for kilometers (7.7 km , which i got to know later). We still had to visit the Paradise cave so we headed out and like every other day of our trip, it started pouring.
Clueless as to how to get to Paradise Cave, which was about 23 KM away, we took shelter in one of the handful shops available outside the Phong Nha Entrance. A group of men, possibly hired drivers waiting for their customers, were playing poker while enjoying some chilled beer in one of the shops. A 30-minute wait later, we got a cab to drive us to Paradise Cave on the unfriendly roads that were at places flooded by small streams due to the persistent rains.
The rain had calmed down by the time we reached Paradise Cave. Being more well-known, Paradise cave drew in a lot more tourists and the entry fee was also slightly higher at 250,000 VND(760 INR). A 500m climb on a cement path took us uphill to the mouth of the cave. The stalactites and stalagmites were much larger and the cave was more brightly lit up that entice your imagination to run free among the numerous shapes of the cave.
The sheer size and grandeur of the cave makes me wonder how it doesn’t make it to most itineraries or lists of places to visit in Vietnam. There were places in the cave where the water seeped from the stalactites mirrored the shapes of the stalactites above. It had been quite some time since we got here and decided to head out and find a transport before dusk but we had lost half the group. We went back and waited for another 30 minutes, while munching on some fruits, for the rest of them to gather and found a cab back to Dong Hoi.
A small vegetarian cafe opposite to the beach became our source for an early dinner. On the way back to the room, Vijay and me were stopped by a family celebrating an occasion to join them, which we got to know as Mid-Autumn Festival. There were about 50 guests at the home and an array of dishes prepared. The generous hosts offered us beer and a shrimp covered in a thin transparent layer and also educated us on why the Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated. We left but not before thanking the guests and proceeded to catch a train to Hanoi.
My Take: The Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng national park, despite being one of the largest cave systems in the world and a UNESCO heritage site, is one of the most under-rated places in Vietnam. You might have visited limestone caves in the past, but the Phong Nha caves takes the limestone experience on it’s zenith. It receives little attention from the tourists and is a must visit other-worldly experience.