Next up for us was to continue our path north through Vietnam and head to the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park near a small village called Son Trach. Phong Nha means “cave of teeth” and this is exactly what we came to see – some of Asia’s oldest karst mountains housing a few hundred caves and grottos. We’d heard from another traveller that though difficult to get to, the area was absolutely stunning so it sounded like a worthwhile stop.
With the Tet holidays still not yet over, we were unable to book a train ride to Dong Hoi, a town about 50 km away from the caves, which would have been our easiest and most scenic route. Instead we had a long and tiring day of travel via local bus routes to look forward to. After first getting ripped off by the Hoi An taxi driver who drove us in circles before finally dropping us off at the bus station, we then caught the local bus to Danang which is a much bigger city about 25 km away. On this bus, we got charged about 3 times more than the posted price that the locals paid, but at least we had been warned that this would happen. Then we searched for the single minivan departing at 1PM that we’d been told would bring us on a 7 hour drive right to Phong Nha. After a lot of frustrating hassling from other drivers trying to convince us to get on their buses (which were actually headed to Dong Hoi instead of Phong Nha), the driver of the right minivan somehow found us and resorted to calling the English-speaking owner of a guesthouse in Phong Nha on his cellphone so we could speak with her to convince us that this was the right driver to follow. After a little hesitation at first (I was getting really crabby from being grabbed and yelled at by so many people trying to bring us to their buses), we eventually followed him out of the bus station about 2 blocks away to where his minibus was parked, filled with Vietnamese passengers waiting to leave. We crammed ourselves in to the back of the minibus (there was actually a motorbike in the extremely small trunk area so our backpacks were at our feet) and departed 20 minutes earlier than scheduled. Amazingly, we seemed to be charged the exact same amount as all the other locals on the bus which was a real shock for us. We continued to pick people up along the way, each time shuffling around a bit more to make room and by the time we were at full capacity we had 26 people in our 18 seat minibus. Even I was feeling pretty constrained for leg room so you can imagine how uncomfortable Jesse was (not to mention the people beside him). As it seems with all minibuses we’ve taken so far on this trip, there was a little boy vomiting up a storm near the front of the bus and whenever he “filled up” one of his plastic bags, his dad would promptly throw the vomit bag out the window of the minibus, much to the dismay of the many motorcyles riding by. This all made for a highly exhausting trip, but at least we were finally en route.
By the time the bus dropped us off in Son Trach it was pitch black outside so we quickly checked in to the only hotel recommended in our Lonely Planet (tripadvsior had no reviews of any hotels in this village either). The accommodation was basic, but also inexpensive. I think there was maybe one other guest staying in the 25+ room hotel. The town felt equally deserted as we walked out to find somewhere to eat dinner. Luckily there was another tourist couple having dinner at the only somewhat lively restaurant we found so we asked them about their stay and they reassured us that it was definitely a worthwhile place to visit. Incidentally they had also originally checked in to the same hotel as us on their first night but promptly left due to some extremely hard beds and bug-filled pillows. They recommended we walk a few doors down to another hotel where it was cheaper and much cleaner. After a horrible first night’s sleep, we took their advice and moved to the other hotel the next morning.
Our first morning in Son Trach was a shock for us because we woke up and looked out the window to see an incredible limestone karst mountain literally a few hundred feet behind the hotel, surrounded by rice paddies and vast fields. Arriving late at night in any place is always disorienting, but we could not believe the stunning surroundings we found ourselves in which we just could not see the night before. After a forgettable breakfast of beef pho with blood pudding (not my fave) across the street, we headed towards the river bank where you can hire a boat to take you to the Phong Nha cave. Here we ran into several tour buses filled with Vietnamese tourists coming to visit the sites. We lucked out by also running into a group of 7 other young Western tourists who had all just arrived by motorbike from Dong Hoi that morning and we agreed to split the cost of the boat ride together. It was a peaceful and scenic cruise along the Son river towards the cave as we passed through the gorgeous limestone mountain scenery, with local villagers pulling seaweed out of the riverbed (maybe I should call it riverweed actually), water buffalos grazing along the shore and little kids fooling around in the water.
When we did finally arrive at the caves, we first headed up a few hundred steps to check out the Tien Son Cave. Our LP tells us that this cave was used as a hospital and ammunition depot during the American war and hence was heavily bombed. It’s a dry cave and had a big walkway through it with slightly offensive coloured lighting showcasing some of the more interesting parts. After touring through this cave, we jumped back onto our boat and the skipper paddled us through the small opening into the more famous Phong Nha cave. At first it feels like you’re in a very dark cavern and all you can really make out is the procession of other boats paddling around you. Thankfully you eventually run into some areas that have been artificially lit up to help see inside, and actually the boat is able to dock twice and let us off to walk around to explore further (one stop is much more interesting than the other though!). I think the real highlight is just realizing how far into the cave you’re actually able to paddle and the sheer size of what’s going on inside what looks like a big solid limestone mountain from the outside. Very cool experience.
From what we could tell, Son Trach is essentially just one main road surrounded by a sleepy little town, so there’s not really much set up for tourists to do there except visit the caves. As a result, for the afternoon we contented ourselves by going out and exploring the surrounding areas in and around the village on our own. We walked along a little dirt motorbike path that led us behind the main street and walked through rice paddies and cemeteries and a few people’s yards. We befriended a few cows that we met along the way and had a pleasant time hitting dead ends and then turning around. We eventually found our way onto a paved road behind the morning market which was lined by little houses (we were wondering where everyone in town lived!) where we were met by many surprised and excited children waving and yelling hello. Even most of the adults seemed pleasantly surprised to see us and joined in the fun. We headed back to the hotel with big smiles on our faces.
The next morning we rented a motorbike to make the trek about 30 km away to visit the more recently discovered and much touted Paradise Cave. This cave system has only been open to the public since 2011 and is said to be one of the longest dry caves in the world extending out for 31km (though the public can only really go in about 1km). The drive itself to the cave was really lovely as we followed a winding road through the rice and fields and amid the big limestone mountains. The combination of having a great motorbike, empty roads, beautiful weather and gorgeous views made this one of our most memorable rides.
Once there, to access the Paradise Cave opening you have to walk a little bit on a paved road (which is dotted with slightly entertaining enviro- and eco-focused phrases) and then up about 500 steps to a rather small opening (we actually weren’t sure if we were walking into the cave because it looked so unimpressive). But once we ducked our heads inside, we quickly realized just how massive and remarkable this cave really was. First you walk back down a number of steps into the depths of the cave and then follow along a big wooden boardwalk which brings you in about a kilometre. Just like the Tien Son cave, most of the most impressive structures are artificially lit up but luckily not in tacky colours but rather in much more tasteful soft white light. Pretty much in every direction you can see something truly spectacular and truthfully the photos we took hardly capture it all properly. We both couldn’t believe just how far out the cave extended and cannot imagine how much more there is to see in the remaining section not open to the public. It definitely made an already great day better.
After the cave we were starving and needed to grab an already late lunch somewhere but for some reason every place we went to (the restaurant cafe at the cave, the next 2 places down the road) were all completely reserved off for big tour groups and we continued to be met with “No! No! No!” followed by shaking heads or wagging fingers whenever we pulled up and asked if we could eat. Feeling slightly defeated and increasingly more hungry, we continued to backtrack almost 20 km before we found a little road side local restaurant that was actually willing to serve us. With no menus, no other people eating there and no English, we just said the few familiar words we could make out on the sign outside the restaurant – “Com” and “Ga” which mean rice and chicken respectively. So far in our Vietnam travels the combination of those words almost always results in some sort of tasty meal. And again, we were not disappointed. They brought us a delicious broth soup with greens, some fantastic ginger-lemongrass stewed chicken, a plate of sautéed baby bok choy (didn’t even need to order it!) and of course a massive bowl of rice. We chowed down and could not believe how good everything tasted. Maybe it was just the fact that we were starving, but we declared this the best meal we’d had in Phong Nha so far.
Feeling refueled, we continued on to the Suoi Nuoc Mooc Eco-trail (also all part of the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park) to have a short like hike around the area. Nothing too exciting going on in our opinion, but it was a peaceful little trek. We had hoped to go swimming there but we managed to find ourselves right in the midst of a rather large tour of western tourists who sort of took over the small river swimming area quite quickly so we decided to just move on. Hopping back on the motorbike, we continued on the loop to make our way back towards Son Trach. Again the drive itself ended up being a highlight, as the roads continuously wind up and down and hug the edge of the massive mountains and forests that you pass through. There’s definitely something about the late afternoon rides with the sun just beginning to set which makes the lighting that shines down on the surrounding areas really breathtaking. We stopped several times throughout the drive just to take in all the views and beautiful sights. It was a great drive.
That evening for dinner we decided to check out what we suspected was Vietnamese hot pot at a restaurant just 2 doors away from the hotel. We’d seen some big groups eating feasts there the night before and since our food selection in Phong Nha had been somewhat mediocre, we’d hoped that this would be a good change. When we walked in, there was already a big group finishing up their meal and another table set up for another large group to arrive. When we motioned to show that we also wanted to eat the hot pot, there was a bit of concern on the young waitress’s face and she eventually managed to communicate to us that it would cost us 400,000 VND. This is the equivalent of about $20CDN, and definitely steep by Vietnamese standards. She also kept showing us the number 4 on her hand, which confused us a little but I suspected it meant that the hotpot is usually for 4 people. In any event, we had our hearts set on hot pot so we accepted the price. When the food came out, it was clear that for we were actually getting a good deal…for a family of of 8! Platter after platter continued to fill up our table – one with heaps of fresh shrimp, chunks of fish, slice of beef (and some liver to boot), 2 platters of fresh veggies, a huge bowl of noodles, a plate of tofu and tomato, and finally a bowl of fresh eggs. We were definitely getting some funny stares from the tables of people seated next to us who were in much larger numbers…but we dug in and enjoyed our feast. The meal was made even more enjoyable for us because the rice wine started to flow freely at the two big tables around us and that’s when they started having duelling matches of which table could toast each other louder. One would stand up and yell “Mot, Hai, Bat, Yooooo!” (which is like yelling 1, 2, 3 Cheeeeers!) and then shortly thereafter the next table would get up and yell even louder. It was all great fun and lasted the whole meal. Jesse even shared a shot with some of the ladies at one table who seemed to take pity on him for being the only man who didn’t have a drink in his hand. Another memorable meal for us and a great way to end our stay in Phong Nha :)
The next morning we planned to get up early and to try our luck at catching another series of local buses to Hanoi…