The best travel advice seem to often times come from words of mouth from other travellers rather than from a guidebook. Hence, when my friend Fanny said to me that we HAD TO go to Phong Nha, I trusted that we did indeed have to go, and the seemingly extravagant expenses (that is, in comparison to our $45 USD a day budget) attached to the trip were overweighted by the appeal of walking through some of the biggest and most recently discovered caves in the world. And so we hopped on the train from Danang heading to Đồng Hới, and I’d say that the train ride alone made the journey worthwhile. The scenery between Danang and Huế is straight out of a game is Myst and I was a little sad that we were not able to stop and explore all these beautiful rural coastal areas along the Hải Vân Pass.
As we stepped off the train onto the platform at Đồng Hới station, our ride was already waiting for us, and we climbed into his car for the 40 minute drive out to the national park. The sun started to set as we rolled through the lush countryside, and as “All Along The Watchtower” started up on the stereo, the sky turned a fiery red and threw the rapidly approaching mountains into ominous silhouettes. It was the first magical moment of many to come over the next few days. Our driver summed it up philosophically as we passed lots of animals on the roadside: “Vietnam. Very cow.”
Phong Nga Farmstay carries a glowing reputation, and as the most expensive place we’ve stayed in the last four months, it had a lot to live up to. It answered on nearly every count. The accommodation is not luxurious – it’s not a resort – but the isolated location, awesome views over rice paddies and mountains, outstanding staff and, of course, the swimming pool really make you feel like you have good value for money.
Day one, and we joined the national park tour with around 20 other guests from the Farmstay and neighbouring accommodations. The tempo was a little slow at the start – we got a sniff of the beautiful karsts on the 40 minute drive out to the Lady Cave, where our guide had some interesting stories but we were all itching to get to the big stuff. We weren’t disappointed by the next stop – Paradise Cave is one of the biggest in the world, and after a short electric-buggy ride and climb up the mountain, it was refreshing to get plenty of time to explore the cave at our own pace. Paradise Cave is simply awe-inspiring, tastefully lit and cathedral-like inside, you can explore underground for a full kilometre. Despite the crowds of Vietnamese day trippers, it’s big enough to find some alone time inside and really soak up the atmosphere – as well as the cool temperature.
Lunch was included in the tour, and we felt well catered for – however the insistence that the four vegans and vegetarians sit in specific seats in the corner felt a little… Isolationist.
The Dark Cave is accessed by a short kayak ride down the Son Chay river, and we were warned not to bring cameras, valuables, or anything that could be ruined by thick mud. Hmmm. Walking into the Dark Cave with headlamps and life jackets, we were led through progressively narrower and muddier tunnels, crawling on hands and knees and sinking into the thick, brown gunge. That thick mud that you pay top dollar to have plastered on yourself at the spa? We were sitting in it, swimming in it, wallowing in it.
And then we learnt why they call it the “Dark” Cave. Switching off our headlamps, we were plunged into pure blackness – your hand not visible immediately in front of your face. The gravity of the moment is quickly broken as the mud slinging begins, and everyone emerges from the tunnels completely plastered in thick, brown mud. How to clean off? Why, by swimming in the underground river, of course. The water is cold and dark, and it’s difficult to describe the feeling off paddling down river, the only illumination provided by our head lamps. On the way back, we switched our headlamps off once more and swimming toward the distant cave mouth was the highlight of the day.
At nearly 70$ per person, it’s an expensive day that starts a little slowly. However the guide was fun (and wouldn’t you be, if your job was to wallow in mud every single day?) and insightful, and it’s difficult to see how you could pack so much into one day independently.
Day two and we took bikes, a map and plenty of water and set off alone. The ride to nearby Son Trach village is a beautiful taste of rural Vietnam – rice paddies and baby cows abound. I wished there had been Vietnamese translation services to help me communicate with the locals better. Hooking up with some like-minding individuals at the hostel in the village, we took the boat to Phong-Nha cave.
We were a little apprehensive – reviews online berate the cave for it’s tacky lighting and music. Well, we were happy to discover that the lighting was redone nearly 18 months ago and paddling softly through the cave is an otherworldly experience. It doesn’t quite have the awe or scale of Paradise Cave, but drifting through the underground river was simply stunning. A withering 500 step climb in the heat of the day takes us to one last cave – the Fairy Cave. It’s the smallest and least impressive cave we’ve seen so far, but the scale is still immense and only magnified by the fact that we have the place virtually to ourselves. The views over the valley and village on the way up are just the icing on the cake.
Phong Nga is not very accessible, and not very tourist friendly, but not only was it worth the diversion, it was one of the highlights of our whole trip to date. You could spend days here exploring the countryside and park, trekking through caves and soaking up the very special atmosphere that seems to permeate this part of Vietnam. The Farmstay comes strongly recommended – there were a couple of sour points, mainly related to food, but the staff were friendly and accommodating, and quick to fix the issues that we highlighted. However, if you make it out here, wherever you stay, you will surely leave wanting more.