During our travels we’ve seen some incredible caves. We’ve floated through dark, blue-white glowworm studded caves in New Zealand, explored underground cities where people sheltered from war-time bombs in Laos and had an unforgettable caving experience in The Philippines which involved wading through waist-high water and squeezing through tiny gaps by the light of a gas lantern.
Since moving to Hanoi we’ve heard tales of some spectacular caves nestled within Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Quang Binh Province. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park actually boasts some of the longest underground rivers and dry cave systems in the world, not to mention the largest cave on this planet. We couldn’t resist making the overnight journey from Hanoi to explore the caves for ourselves.
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After a sweaty walk through 38 degree heat, the cool breath of air escaping from the cave entrance was a welcome relief. It felt good to descend into the mouth of the cave, letting the natural air con cool our feverish skin; as our eyes adjusted to the gloom we made our way down a zig-zagging wooden staircase, taking in the immense view before us.
The ceiling of Paradise cave is over 100m high and at 150m wide you can fit two football pitches inside. As well as its incredible size, Paradise is decorated with thousands of ancient stalactites and stalagmites of various shapes, sizes and colours. We were surrounded by huge domed peaks that looked like melted candles, honeycomb formations, hornet-nest like shapes, narrow pointy spikes, totem poles and delicate swathes of wavy curtains.
Soft up-lights illuminated the cave, picking out the earthy yellows, browns, and greys catching the sparkles of the rock. The extra lighting, the man made wooden walkway and groups of tourists didn’t detract from the otherworldly beauty of the cave; it helped that visitor numbers were low, in peak season up to 5,000 people can visit each day. At times we were lucky enough to have small stretches of the cave to ourselves.
Spanning 31km, Paradise is the longest dry cave system in Asia. Although we only saw the first kilometre during our visit (you can pay for a longer, more extensive trek if you like), the hour and a half we spent down there whizzed by as we gaped in awe at our surroundings and stopped to capture a million photographs.
Phong Nha Cave
Phong Nha can only be accessed by boat along a river surrounded by lush park scenery. During the half an hour ride we saw fishermen scooping up bunches of seaweed, women in cone hats washing clothes on the bank and children jumping and playing in the shallows. Boats full of Vietnamese tourists passed us and passengers clad in neon lifejackets shouted Hello to us above the gentle roar of the motors.
Once inside the cave we all sat quietly, listening to the creak of our driver’s oar and the echo of water splashing against the edges of the rock. Bats and swallows flew above us and the tang of damp cave air laced with guano hung in the air. Our guide softly told us of the tribes who used to live in the cave over 1,000 years ago; head deeper inside and it’s possible to see their writing carved onto the rock walls.
Again, we could venture only a kilometre into Phong Nha before we were forced to turn around. Deeper sections of the cave can be accessed by kayak; at times the roof gets low enough to touch and eventually only divers can pass through. In rainy season the cave can flood and boats are prevented from entering at all.
We disembarked a few meters inside the cave entrance on a sandy bank to walk the final few metres, spotting more elaborately-shaped clusters of stalagmites and stalactites along the way. The cave was empty save for our tour group and we were able to wander through the cavern in peace.
How we Visited the Caves at Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
We caught the sleeper train from Hanoi to the seaside town of Dong Hoi, which cost us $100 per person for a return trip. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is around an hour’s drive from there; rather than rent a motorbike, which I’ve grown nervous about since our crash, we booked a day-tour to the caves through our hotel which cost $50 per person. We opted to see Paradise Cave in the morning and Phong Nha in the afternoon.
If you’d prefer a more adventurous experience you can also visit the Dark Cave, which includes ziplining, kayaking and swimming in the dark as well as bathing in a mud pool. Two or three day tours can take you to the Tu Lan or Hang En cave systems and if you want to splash out $3,000 you can take an extravagant week-long expedition to Son Doong, the biggest cave in the world.
If you want to rent a motorbike or motorbike taxi you can visit some of the caves independently. Entrance fees (as of May 2015) are as follows:
- Paradise cave costs 250,000 VND ($11.50) per person.
- Phong Nha cave costs 150,000 VND ($7) per person to enter. You will also need to hire boat to access the cave which costs 320,000 VND, the cost of which can be shared between up to 14 passengers.
- Dark cave costs 350,000 VND ($16) per person to tour.
The caves were only discovered in 2009, so they’re still relatively untouched and unheard of. If you’re visiting Vietnam soon I recommend seeing them before they become a major tourist attraction.
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