I was reluctant to leave the charm of Hoi An behind but looking forward to seeing what more this country had in store for me. I hopped on yet another bus to Phong Nha. After some typical transportation complications and two buses later I had arrived in the quiet town. It was dark and all that was visible was one small strip of restaurants and hotels.
I arrived at the Gecko Hostel and was impressed with the common room area (also a restaurant) but was shocked by how dead the place was. Though I was relieved in some sense as I did choose Gecko over Easy Tiger to avoid the crazy party scene and for the comfort of a female only dorm. I shared a 6 bed dorm comfortably with only two other girls from the UK.
I knew for sure I wanted to experience the caves- especially the famous Dark Cave filled with a mud pool. I jumped the gun and booked a tour through my hostel upon arrival for a pricey $65.
As we made our way by mini van through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park I was drawn in by the panoramic views of forested karst peaks, rivers, and farm life. The tour began with visiting 8 ladies cave and the war martyrs memorial which gives a bit of history on the sacrifices made by the local people during the war (note: my hostel didn’t warn me of this- so if you plan to go bring the proper clothing to visit otherwise you can borrow garments to cover your skin).
Next up was Paradise Cave (Thien Duong Cave). Included in the tour was a buggy ride to the base of the mountain to cut the amount of walking. We hiked up the mountain at quite a quick pace- it was for sure a work out but nothing too unbearable! Upon entering the cave you are greeted with the natural air con affect. I have seen many caves and didn’t have high hopes for this one- as I was a bit caved out. However Paradise Cave felt massive as it continued to extend for 0ver 30 kilometers. It was adorned with colossal stalagmites and stalactites. Though many tour groups were being herded through I broke off on my own and found the gaps between the crowds and was able to have moments where it felt as though I was the only creature in the cave. The views were so incredible that I practiced putting my camera down for a good portion of the time and just embracing the moment.
We then hopped back in the van and drove a short ways to Dark Cave. Here we ate a delicious traditional Vietnamese style meal. Though I recommend asking for vegetarian if you are picky about quality of meat. With full bellies we headed up to the towers to zip line over the sparkling green river to the entrance of the cave. From here you need to swim a very short distance into the cave. With our guide leading the way and the light of our headlamps we made the short trek into the cave towards the much anticipated mud baths. Though it was a short trek in- it was quite slippery. Entering the mud was exhilarating and repulsive at the same time! But I loved it. A bit of natural exfoliation for the skin I think no backpacker would turn down. Wading through the mud was such a strange sensation- a mixture between floating and being stuck. On the way out we cleaned up in a small pool made by the river and then hopped in kayaks a short distance up stream. Here we were able to use zip lines to jump into the river and a small obstacle course. There were decent changing rooms and showers here which was helpful! Over all it was a great day- all things I recommend checking out but in retrospect I would save a lot of money and ditch the structure for renting a motorbike and doing it on my own.
Day 2 I did just that and rented a motor scooter for the first time with my two new English friends. This is the way to see the landscapes and fully appreciate the view. Once I got over the nerves of loosing balance or something going wrong and relaxed it was super easy. I can’t believe I waited so long to try. I think we paid something like 50,000 VND for the full day including petrol. After enjoying the local views we headed for Paradise Cave where my friends went in on their own only paying 250,000 VND ($11.50 USD). Saving a lot of money haha 😦 I took the time to go off on my own and ride through the mountain peaks which was just as fulfilling if not more than seeing the cave.
Bamboo Cafe- friendly staff (voluntarily refunded money to a friend who didn’t enjoy her coffee!), reasonable prices, cheesy fries and banana flower salad 🙂
Capture Vietnam Cafe- great for when you are craving some Western Food. Pizza was great as well as the nutella shake- also they sell freshly baked goods daily.
*I didn’t make it here but many people recommend renting a motor bike and visiting the famous “Pub with Cold Beer”- google it and you will hear all about it!
Phong Nha is a great place to slow down the pace a bit and get out and enjoy the scenery Vietnam has to offer.