After a 12-hour ride from Ninh Binh, I arrived at Phong Nha in the early evening. 6 pm to be exact. I wasn’t sure what to expect to form this developing town but judging from the way in, I knew it was going to be a beautiful place and I wasn’t wrong. A town built right next to huge limestone rocks made me feel as if I was in some kind of movie researching for hidden treasures which lies in the surrounding caves. There was a river that ran through which looked stunning against the rocks. The town is small. Consisting of really only one main street where there are countless of places to eat and stay. I didn’t expect it to be this touristy and I soon found out that this was only a recent affair. Phong Nha used to be one of the poorest places in Vietnam which all changed when tourism arrived and I’m not surprised. It was mesmerising.
I cannot express more how handy a motorbike or a scooter is once arriving here. I would even say it’s necessary to do this place justice. So if you’re not doing Vietnam on a bike, then I highly recommend renting one in Phong Nha, even if it’s the only place you rent one because believe me it would be worth it. (If you’ve never ridden one before and just want an easy ride, get an automatic. It’s basically just like a bicycle with a motor).
As I said before, the place is small and there are a few recommended things dotted around which Easy Tiger Hostel would be able to help you with. (They hold meetings every morning at 9 am on this subject). This is place is perfect if you’re a solo traveller and want to find people to explore Phong Nha with. But you see I wanted to do this trip alone. Avoid being put into groups and having to go by a schedule other than my own so, fortunately, the girl in my hostel room gave me the low down of Phong Nha and told me that if I had a bike, I should just go at it alone. I decided that this was how I was going to do it.
Phong Nha Cave.
I decided to get up nice and early the next day to get a head start on the day. The first place I wanted to visit was Phong Nha caves as this was the closest to town. If you do choose to do this alone, I’m going to assume that you will be using GoogleMaps on your smartphone and when you do, make sure to type in “Phong Nha Cave Boat Station”. I made the mistake of heading straight to the mouth of the cave by typing “Phong Nha Cave” which was nice but it requires a boat to enter. So I had to turn back and had to ask around where the boat station was. (I don’t know why I didn’t just type it on maps but hey, it was early in the morning). Upon arriving at the “Boat Station”, I was required to pay 5,000 VND for parking and was lead to the window where I was told to wait for a group of people to come as it would be too expensive to rent the boat on my own. Fortunately, a Vietnamese family arrived shortly after and was told that I would be able to join their group if I so wished. I agreed and paid them 250,000 VND. I’m not sure if this was the right price or the price for foreigners so be sure to ask around if you can get it cheaper.
It was a really pleasant boat ride and the cave was very nice but I didn’t enjoy it as much nor did I think it was worth the 250,000 I paid for. I don’t know what it was but the formations inside the cave weren’t as pleasing as I thought it would be. Sure it was beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but I just didn’t feel so captivated by it, at least as much as I would have expected. And as nice and pleasant as the boat ride was, I felt that I would have probably enjoyed it more had I been going at my own pace. However, whilst inside, I did see a couple of kayaks parked at the sandy surface which lead to a smaller cave. I immediately thought to myself that this would have been a much better way to see the cave but alas I must stay on this boat and continue on with my journey. I think we went for a kilometre inside before the boat driver turned us back around and on the way back, a few boats full of tourists started entering the cave. Judging from the sound of their voices (which travelled so freely inside the caves acoustics), there were a lot more coming in. At the end of the ride, we were told to get off the boat and walk the rest of the way. This was my favourite part.
The rock formations here were a nicer and at end, you can see the small amount of light, lighting up the entrance of the cave. When we outside, there were places to get coffee and ‘nước mía’, which is sugarcane juice in English. I sat there and chatted with the Vietnamese people that were on the same tour as me. Two could speak English very well and we spoke about how Phong Nha is developing into a great spot for tourists and travellers alike. We did this over a glass of sugarcane juice which they had so kindly bought for me until we were all ready to head back to the boat station.
As I had to rely on other people to turn up, doing this solo wasn’t really ideal but as we were on the way back, I noticed about 10 boats on their way to the same cave so overall I was glad I got there nice and early to do it by myself. As big as the cave was, I can only imagine how crowded it would have felt as those boats try to manoeuvre around each other in that cave.
Paradise Cave (Thiên Đường Cave)
I’m just gonna say this first thing. This cave is awesome. I much preferred it to Phong Nha Cave and here are the reasons why. The ride to the cave was beautiful. Paradise Cave is within the loop of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, a beautiful attraction with fantastic views. Riding through winding roads with limestone cliffs on my right and the forest on my left it really was such an amazing feeling. Even before you get to the national park, you will see the limestone rocks from afar as you drive through rice fields and if you go quite early, just as the sun is coming up, you will witness such an amazing sight as the sun slowly lights up the landscape ahead of you. The national park is outside of the town (obviously) and on the way, you will go through other small little towns/villages which has more of a local vibe. Local food stalls, people riding water buffalos and anything else you can expect from a Vietnamese countryside. I arrived at around 8 am and there were barely any people. I purchased a ticket at the counter which cost 250,000 VND, with an option of taking a shuttle-bus to the entrance. (5,000 VND I think it was). I opted out of this option and decided to walk. It was only a kilometre after all. It was a pleasant walk. There’s a path on the side where you walk through trees, with the road for the shuttle-bus only a few metres on your right. The branches weaved in and out of each other with the sunlight delicately peeking through. I heard beards tweeting from each direction as I tried to locate where they were. It didn’t take long to arrive in which I thought was the entrance of the cave but actually wasn’t. I stepped in where I thought the cave entrance would be, only to be presented with a set of steps on my left and a ramp on my right.
The cave was on top of a mountain. Had I known this, I would have brought with me a bottle of water as I knew that it would be needed when I reached the top. I shrugged it off, continued and prayed that there would be water on top of this mountain. There was a sign that clearly stated that the entrance to Paradise Cave which leads towards the ramp but for some reason, I decided to ignore this information and go up the steps instead (I don’t advise this. It’s 500 steps of unnecessary exhaustion). Fortunately there was someone selling water at the top because otherwise I may have perished and buried in this very cave but alas that was not the case. There were other people here too. Part of a group I’m guessing. They had a local guide explaining to them how the cave was accidentally discovered by a lost farmer who was looking shelter from the rain, then soon after went to the authorities and turned it into this attraction we know today. I didn’t want to wait any longer as I wanted to see it before all these tourists start coming in so I headed into the cave.
Even from just entering the cave already looked amazing. Lit up by halogen lights exhibiting all the rock formations within. Stalagmites and stalactites which appeared like crystals can be found all over the cave. There were barely any people inside as I made my way down to the bottom of the wooden stairs. I counted five to be exact. The sound echoed as I clicked my fingers and proceeded to sing just to see what the sound was like. The acoustics inside this cave sounded phenomenal. It would have been perfect for an acoustic gig I thought to myself as I continued to admire the various arrangements of this cave’s interior. What I loved about it was that you could walk inside it.
The wooden path built to preserve the cave from the countless tourists who make their way around. I do think however that the halogen lights should have been replaced by flaming torches but I guess that is just me seeking more authenticity. You can walk up to a kilometre inside this cave as a tourist or opt for an explorers adventure which lets you get off the wooden bridge and walk a further 7km, (you need a guide for this), but all in all this cave stretched to 31km reaching the border of Laos. I ended up speaking to a Vietnamese local on the way back as I watched a legion of tourists make their way down, with the sound of their voice being carried all the way to the end of the cave. We joked about how it was great how we got there early to beat the rush.
As you could have probably sensed from this writing, I favoured Paradise cave a lot more than Phong Nha Cave. The rock formations and interior was evidently more pleasing to the eye and the fact that you can walk through it was even better. However, If you had your own kayaks, and maybe kayaked inside Phong Nha Cave, that would be a great contender but as far as the boat tour went, it wasn’t as great as I expected. You can definitely do both these caves in a day but if for some reason you can only do one, I would advise choosing to do Paradise Cave as it was visibly more appealing and picturesque than Phong Nha Cave. The ride to Paradise cave was magical and something that should be experienced by everyone who has found themselves in Phong Nha. So yeah. Paradise Cave is the way to go unless you can get a kayak and do Phong Nha Cave yourself at least.
PS. Get there nice and early if you want to beat the tourist rush and have these places all to yourself.