Traversing Vietnam By Motorbike: Days 12-13 – Phong Nha Ke Ban National Park
Bike Condition: resting
Driver Condition: exploring caves
Though we had originally only planned to spend one full day checking out the Phong Nha Ke Ban National Park, within the first half of that day we had already decided to extend and stay an extra day, which seemed to be a common theme among many who had come with the one-day plan and had even the slightest wiggle room in their itinerary.
Phong Nha Ke Ban is one of the most spectacular national parks in all of Vietnam, the home of Asia’s oldest karst mountains at around 400 million years old, and the phenomenal cave systems hidden within and below many of the towering limestone cliffsides. Beyond the limestone peaks and caves, the park is covered in thick jungle habitat, the vast majority of which is primary forest. In other words, the entire park is pretty stunning regardless if you are above or below ground.
While the mountains and cave systems are quite old, full discovery and thorough exploration of many of the cave systems only began in the 1990s, with new caves discovered as recently as within the last decade. The park is also home to the largest cave in the world, Hang Son Doong. While discovered in the early 1990s by a local hunter that would take shelter in the caves that dot the region, it wasn’t fully explored and confirmed as the world’s largest cave until 2009. The principal cavern of the cave is more than 5km long, 200m high, and up to 150m wide, big enough to park a battleship, with areas of stalagmites over 80m high. It’s possible to visit this cave only on a guided 7-day expedition that runs $3000/person. Needless to say, we skipped this one!
While many impressive cave systems can be found within the park, the majority of them can only be visited as part of guided tours/expeditions. In addition to many of them being remote, access is also strictly controlled because explosive ordinance still dots the countryside, so hiking without certified expeditions/guides is prohibited. There are still a few spectacular caves that can be visited without having to do a full day (or longer) trip (for some serious $$) though, so we visited a few of these.
Our first visit was to the national park’s namesake cave, Phong Nha Cave. This cave system is 7.73km long and contains 14 grottos, as well as a 13.97km river. Scientists have surveyed 44.5km of passages within the cave system, though apparently more people have been to the moon than have traversed the length of this cave. This was the first cave open to public viewing, though the public can only access the first 1500 meters. The journey to this cave is actually via a boat cruise down the Son River and into the cave. Boating through the cave, small lights illuminate several of the cave features, including impressive stalactites and stalagmites. After the boat trip through the first portion of the cave, we were also able to walk through a small portion of the cave.
In addition to simply being a stunning cave, the Phong Nha Cave also has a bit of war history, used for shelter, storage, and as a hospital during the American/Vietnam War. While the Americans had bombed many of the bridges in the area during wartime in attempts to thwart the movement of supplies southward, they remained perplexed that supply trucks continued to make it through the region until finally discovering that the Vietnamese were hiding a floating bridge within the Phong Nha Cave, which they would move out at night to ferry supply trucks. The exterior of the cave has scars from bombings.
Leaving Phong Nha Cave, we climbed 400+ steps to access the nearby Tien Son Cave, also riddled with stunning features, and offering a great viewpoint over the surrounding landscape. While we were in the second cave, the skies opened up with a massive thunderstorm, buckets of rain pouring down. Most of the people in our group quickly purchased the 10,000VND ($0.50) polka-dot rain ponchos from the vendor at the cave entrance who conveniently had them at the ready. Even with the ponchos, it was a unanimous decision to stop at the first covered patio snack/drink stall on the way down the steps back to the boat, and enjoy a few beers while the rain cleared a bit.
We spent the remainder of our first afternoon enjoying lunch with some of our boat trip companions, an awesome table “barbeque” with pork, veggies, and rice, and later made a trip to the Bomb Crater Bar, which, true to its name, had two massive wartime bomb craters on the premise. The skies poured down again on our way back to the hostel.
For our second day in the national park, we visited the spectacular Paradise Cave. This cave was discovered in 2005 and though the cave system extends over 31km, only the first kilometer is open to public viewing (though you can go a bit further on a guided day trip). Even so, the first kilometer is absolutely spectacular, with giant caverns, massive stalactites and stalagmites, and other crazy features that I don’t know enough about caves to know by name. It is truly a beautiful cave. We had read and been told that if you only visit one cave in the park, this should be it, and it didn’t disappoint. Very stunning.
Unfortunately, Shawn wasn’t feeling that great the rest of the day, and while he rested at the hostel, I went to visit the “Botanical Gardens”, which were really more of hiking trails through the forest than botanical gardens, which was just as well. The star of the show on the trails was an impressive waterfall that you were able to climb up and around via rock scrambles along the sides and through the falls, a rewarding view over the surrounding landscape at the top of the falls.
Everywhere we traveled in the park we were treated to amazing views – stunning caves, impressive jungle-covered tower karst peaks, limestone rockface, gorgeous waterfalls, endless lush green rice paddies, water buffalo grazing along the riversides. It’s definitely a place that when you roll up, you quickly realize that one day will not be enough, and we could have spent several more days there if time and money were no constraint. A truly amazing landscape.