Feb 1 to Feb 4, 2014
Dong Hoi, Vietnam
Wanting to see a little more of Vietnam we decided to head to Dong Hoi for a few days to check out the caves in the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. We all enjoyed exploring the caves in Nerja, Spain so much that we thought we would have fun seeing these caves as well. Now we just had to pick which caves to see as there are over 300 caves in the Park. Oh yes of course not all the caves are tourist friendly mind you, and we are not yet experienced “cavers” and of course we left our rock climbing equipment back in Canada! So that really narrowed down our choices, and made choosing a little easier.
The majority of people who go to see the caves travel to Hue and take a day tour from there. However, we didn’t want to add another 6 hours of bus travel time into our cave tour, so we decided to go directly to Dong Hoi and arrange a tour from there, which gave us more cave time and less travel time. To get to Dong Hoi, our hotel in Da Nang booked a “sleeper bus” for us, because they are “more comfortable”. It was a daytime trip, despite being called a “sleeper bus”, because we had decided that we would not take any overnight buses in Vietnam. The seven hour bus ride was far from comfortable, it was horrible. I won’t go into details about that, other than the end of our trip, which completely guaranteed a horrible journey. Once we arrived at Dong Hoi we were literally thrown off the bus on the outskirts of the city. The bus porter had our bags out of the belly of the bus, on the side of the road before Len could even get his shoes on to get off the bus. On a sleeper bus, you take your shoes off and bag them, in the same manner as if you were entering someone’s home, business or a temple. The bus driver and porter were shouting at all of us to get off the bus as quickly as possible. The porter was demanding me to put my shoes on, while I was trying to tell him they were Aurora’s, not mine. In the end he threw them out the door to the ground and demanded I get off the bus. Aurora had to get off in her socks and put her shoes on out on the road! When Noah got off, he was just about hit by a passing motorcycle, and the bus was already rolling forward before my feet even hit the ground!!! By far, this was one of our worst bus experiences. We found out later (while talking to our hotel host about our experience) that the bus driver was likely too lazy to drive us to the bus station, so he just tried to quickly drop us off at the side of the road instead, before being ticketed (because it was illegal for him to drop passengers at the side of the road). We were obviously not the first people dropped off on the road in that manner and at that spot, because there were taxis waiting in the distance. A taxi pulled up and offered his services as we were trying to regroup and calm down, from what just happened.
We booked our tour through Phong Nha Discovery Tours at a cost of $250 CAD (a bit of a splurge for us). We were to see the Paradise Cave and the Phong Nha Cave. Now some people choose to rent a scooter and drive to the caves on their own. This option would be much cheaper, but we weren’t brave enough to face the crazy Vietnamese drivers and dirt roads and neither Len nor I have motorcycle licenses.
Our tour started with a pickup shortly before 8am, then we were driven to the company’s office where we quickly had a Vietnamese coffee (which is very thick and strong). We then were loaded into a minivan to begin our journey, in total there were 12 of us squeezed into the van. The drive was very bumpy and rough. Looking around the van, there were a few people looking as if they were going to be car sick, but we all made it without anyone losing breakfast.
On the drive our guide told us some local history including how some of the caves and tunnels in the area were used by the VC (Vietcong) and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) during the Vietnam War. As well he told us about how the windy mountain road we were on was a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that was used by the VC, NVA and their supporters as a transportation and supply line to the south. We also got to see up close some of the dense green jungle of Vietnam along with the beautiful mountain scenery.
After what seemed like a long time, we finally made it to the Paradise Cave. The cave, discovered by a local man in 2005, is 31 km long, and is considered to be the longest dry cave in Asia. The cave is massive, reaching 100 metres high and up to 150 metres wide. It is difficult to describe just how big this cave is. To get to the cave entrance we had to walk up a hairpin path slowly ascending higher and higher until we got to the mouth of the cave. Once at the top, we had a chance to catch our breath, have a drink of water and listen to a little history about the cave. Then we finally got to go into the cave through its relatively small entrance, through which you need to duck down so as to not bump your head.
The first thing you notice upon entering the cave is the massive stairway structure leading to the base of the cave. There were many hundreds of steps down into the first cavern of the cave, which I am guessing is the highest and widest spot in the cave. Once at the bottom there was a well constructed wooden sidewalk to lead us through the first kilometer, which was all we were permitted to explore.
Lights placed throughout the cave, allowed us to get a better look at the enormous structures. We spent over an hour walking through the cave admiring this colossal underground world. It is difficult to explain just how enormous some of the stalagmites and stalactites are, you feel so small and insignificant standing beside them. We really needed a 360 degree camera to show the immensity and beauty of the cave. With a little imagination, you are able to see many different images and shapes (animals, faces, monsters, ghosts, everyday objects and so on) in the walls, ceilings, stalagmites and stalactites of the cave. In many ways it was like looking at clouds and visualizing images, but way better and the details of each image are so much more intricate. We each pointed out and photographed many different things we could see in the cave. Despite so many tourists inside, there were times the only sound you could hear was the dripping of the limestone…water…calcium. Being in this underground cave was so calming and relaxing. Almost magical.
After eating a buffet lunch we were off to the next cave; the Phong Nha Cave. This cave we had to enter by boat because it has a river which runs through it. We took a 30 minute dragon boat ride down the Son River passing by many people harvesting seaweed from traditional wooden boats and water buffalo grazing alongside the shore. When we finally arrived at the mouth of the Phong Nha Cave the boat motor was turned off and the roof of the boat was removed which allowed us to have a better view while inside the cave. Then the boat operators (whom were two women) began slowly paddling our dragon boat through the entrance and 1500 metres into the cave, because that is as far as boats are permitted to take tourists. The river carries on for many more kilometers, and the cave walls are much more restricted. Experienced cavers can carry on from there, depending upon the height of the river and other factors.
As we slowly made our way through the cave (and the many other boats paddling in and out) it was hard to take everything in. It was dark, with a little light reflecting off the water and many cameras were flashing to catch a memory, but it was also very silent, and most people were speaking in whisper tones as if not to spoil a special moment. The cave itself was beautiful. This was the first water cave we had been in and it didn’t disappoint. There was lighting throughout the cave, but not enough to allow us to get a really good photo to show how amazing it really was. There were numerous caverns, some with steps carved into the stone in order to reach them. Near the end of our tour we were allowed off the boat to explore one of the caverns near the mouth of the cave. Where we got off the boat was actually a beach, yes a sand beach that led up into the large cavern. We can mark that down as a first, our first ever “cave beach”, all it was missing was some sunshine. We were told the cavern and spot had been used as a small hospital during the Vietnam War, and before that ancient Cham lived in the caverns. The Cham people who lived in the cave left behind cave art, Cham script and other archaeological evidence of their presence. Unfortunately we did not get to see any of that.
Was the side trip to Dong Hoi worth it? Did it live up to our expectations? Without a doubt, Yes! Highly recommend it. Maybe next time we will tour the Dark Cave including the zip line across the river to the cave entrance and the more adventurous version of touring the smaller tunnels and caverns, requiring helmets, head torches and fording mud pools and underwater rivers. Maybe!!!