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  • Writer's pictureDeb Smithers

Phong Nha Caves - Vietnam

Mud baths and cave hopping.

I just love Vietnam, it really is an amazing country and after spending many years living there, I was lucky to have had the opportunity to travel from North to South, visiting some wonderful remote areas, and yet still, there are so many places and adventures I wish to pursue in Vietnam. After COVID forced provinces, states, and countries to remain closed for what felt like eternity, it was a blessing when the districts of Vietnam began to slowly open again after a 5-month total lockdown.

I was off like lightning to escape the monotony of village life and travel again. Even with tight restrictions still in place, I wanted to move around, even if only for a while.

But as I always say, not all travels go to plan.

Especially during a pandemic.

Illustration of a branch with drying leaves

I departed Hoi An to travel and spend a few weeks around the Province of Quang Binh. Think of the narrow part of Vietnam. I traveled on the sleeper train to the town of Dong Hoi. The trip was $30, took around 8 hours from Danang, and it was definitely an experience.

So, the carriage has 4 sleeper beds, that would be 4 people in the carriage, correct? No, my carriage already had a Vietnamese family of 9, along with 5 bags, a 6-month supply of rice, and standing room only. I will admit as I sat pinned against the wall with my bag squashed by my feet, I was horrified and a little concerned about the next 8-hour trip.

But who would have imagined that this journey would become such a fond memory and one of the best train trips I have experienced. That day I laughed so hard with this beautiful family, screaming babies and all!

Once arriving in Dong Hoi, which is 45 km from Phong Nha, I hired a basic old motorbike and headed to a small fishing village in Phong Nha to spend a week. The bike rental was simple and at about $55 for the week. You can also very easily find a driver; it depends on what kind of experience you want to have. I prefer to always take the more adventurous path when possible. It's usually more fun, you'll come across surprising things, and a great way to meet the locals.

Phong Nha- fishing boats on the water of the Son River
Phong Nha Vietnam

Quang Binh is a magnificent area to visit and I was excited to be heading to Ke Bang National Park to see the sacred caves of Phong Nha.

This UNESCO World Heritage site, a complex of 14 grottoes and a 14 000 m underground river situated in the limestone mountains of the park . It is home to the world's largest cave, Hang Son Doong. There are many caves in Vietnam, including Dark Cave, Paradise Cave, and Elephant Cave just to mention a few. This intricate system of hundreds of caves was formed over 400 million years ago.

The enters into a large rock entrance to the Phong Nha Cave.

Phong Nha Cave

Paradise Cave - This cave system extends for 31 kms with most people only entering as far as 1 km. The magnitude of the cave and its formations are incredibly breathtaking. As you descend the rickety wooden staircase you arrive in a huge open space where you can immerse yourself in this majestic cathedral-like cave.

Lights illuminate massive stalactites and there are huge gothic-like statues.

It has a beautiful, yet eerie feel. I strongly suggest going very early because listening to the sound of guides on microphones deep down in the cave is not as nice.

Consider the added adventure of taking on the 7km Paradise Cave tour which includes swimming in the underground river. Not expensive at all and a fabulous experience.

Dark Cave - The name derives not from how dark it is inside, but instead from the black basalt rock that can be found within the limestone. This cave is great for families as it has plenty of adventure, and a chance to roll in the therapeutic mud and swim in the crystal waters of the river. Enjoy a peaceful kayak taking in the stunning surroundings and enjoy the calmness of the river.

Kayaking down the river in Phong Nha, Vietnam

Tu Lan Cave - The Tu Lan cave system comprises more than 20 wet and dry caves, underground rivers, and massive hanging stalactites. This unworldly landscape became the backdrop for the movie 'Kong, Skull Island'.

Gliding on a boat through the dark caves, with its rock formation and incredible colours.

Tu Lan Cave

Hang En Cave - Amazing. The third largest cave in the world and another of our planet's marvels.

Hike and trek Vietnam offers an amazing 5-day trek through the cave.

A man looking out through the entrance of a dark cave as the colours of light outside shine through

Hang En Cave

Hang Son Doong - This is the world's largest cave.

This UNESCO-protected cave stretches for over 5 km with heights reaching 650 feet. If you want to visit Hang Son Doong, you have to put down quite a bit of money. Four days of Jungle trekking, abseiling, climbing, swimming, and camping in the cave. For a hefty price of USD 3000, I hear you must first apply and then join the 2-year waiting list as it only allows 300 visitors a year. Maybe it will become more accessible in the future, with plans to introduce cable cars to the cave. (I don't think I would like to see that happen) This one is right up there at the top of my bucket list, my fingers are crossed and just waiting patiently for that email.

Campers in tents awaking to the magnificent light that shines in the cave entranc

Photo by 'Oxalis Adventure'

Illustration of leaves

I decided to take the unconventional way to visit the National Park, by riding along one of the legendary Ho Chi Minh trails, cut into the jungle during the Vietnam war and used as a supply route. Riding along the trail for hours, with nothing but your thoughts, was such a surreal and memorable feeling. Surrounded in this wonderful landscape, lush greenery and Karst mountains. It really made me reflect on the war and how well the soldiers could remain hidden under the canopy of this thick, dense jungle.

Dense follage, vines over grown making a canopy over the jungle

A Zip line crossing over the jungle toward the River in Vietnam

A line up of Vietnamese ladies stiking a pose after a cave tour

Next was to the Bố Trạch District we were to zip line along the Son River, then kayak down into the Dark Cave. 

The cave is very dark, narrow, and extremely slippery, making it easy to lose your footing if you are not paying attention. The torch provides little light and some parts of the path are so narrow you need to proceed side-on, but the cave is astonishing, ending with a slide over the rocks and into a mud bath.

Who could resist an adventure that promises to end with a therapeutic mud bath in the Dark Cave.

Illustration of a leaves

A group off ladies covered in mud whilst in a cave in Vietnam

Of course, it helps if you're with a great crew!

The next journey was to ride along Road 20 to Cou Tra Ang to try to locate the 8 ladies' cave, quite a spiritual cave having such a tragic story behind it.

During the war, the area was bombed and the 8 young volunteers became trapped when a boulder came down and blocked the mouth of the cave. Unable to free them, they were given water by tubes for 6 days but eventually died.

A beautiful shrine has been constructed next to the cave in memory of their dedication.

Locals tell me that the banana hands harvested around the cave only ever produce 8 bananas each.

Stone steps with orange matting leading down to a sacred shrine in Vietnam.

8 Ladies Cave

Riding around this countryside is so incredible it makes it hard to concentrate on the road and the directions, but take it from me, one wrong turn and you could find yourself at the Laos Border.

A woman stanging on a rail and pointing to the Laos sign on an intersection in Vietnam

After finding the wharf in Phong Nha along the Hon River, I hired a small boat to take me up the river to the stunning Phong Nha Cave. The boat trip was about $30 and the guy also organized to come back in a few hours to take me back to the wharf.

Phong Nha cave was much bigger than I had expected and is amazing. I took a boat ride along the underground river and through nature's stunning geological creation. This cave has some remains of ancient Cham altars and inscriptions can be seen within the cave walls.

Rock formation on the green river. The entrance to Phong Nha Cave

2 Vitnamese boats stop along the rock formations of the entrance of the Phong Nha cave

Stalegnites and coloured rock inside the caves

After witnessing the magic of inside the cave, there are also many beautiful hikes around the area you can enjoy. There are little stalls along the way where you can enjoy BBQ corn, coconut water, and even hammocks swaying from the trees along the path if you are keen to

have a small siesta.

Phong Nha cave    

A woman resting on a hammock on the river side of Phong Nha caves

The lush green  jungle that line the amazing road to Phong Nha
North Vietnam

Phong Nha cave hopping was a winner for me, I loved the caves, adventures, and the great selection of activities to choose from. One of the best parts of the trip was riding the motorbike from cave to cave and enjoying this magnificent paradise at my leisure.

There are many things to do just outside of Phong Nha, so take an adventure outside the usual route and see where it could take you. I enjoyed the things I stumbled across more than the things I had planned.

  • Ride along one of the Ho Chi Minh trails

  • Visit Vinh Moc tunnels

  • Visit Hue city

  • 'City of Ghosts' Cemetery (20km from Hue)

  • Hien Luong Bridge

  • Ben Hai River

  • Battlefield sites in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

Enjoy Quang Binh!

Traditional Vietnamese coloured boats

The real voyage of discovery consists not of seeking new landscapes,

but in having new eyes.

Marcel Proust

Illustration of palm leaves


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