Featured image courtesy of Olivia Brady
When people think of visiting Vietnam I think they often envisage a country bursting with culture and food, which is definitely true, however what you soon discover after crossing the border into this colourful country, is its abundance of caves and forests as well. Phong Nha is a stop often missed off of backpackers’ bucket lists, with many simply chugging past the area, unaware and half asleep on one of the dozens of dozy sleeper buses or trains which traverse the landscape, escorting weary travellers to their next destination. I regret to admit that I had never actually heard of Phong Nha before I arrived in Vietnam, but after stopping there for 3 nights it has leap-frogged itself up and over the bucket and firmly secured itself a special place in my heart. It’s true what they say, you really are better off not pre-planning a set itinerary for yourself – you never know what glorious secret might be lurking around the corner. Flexibility is key.
Our journey begins as we wait in a pool of backpacks, backpackers and bags of snacks, on the side of the road in Hanoi to board our first sleeper bus, destination Phong Nha. From what I have heard I think we may have lucked out on our first experience of these sleeper buses; we each have our own little cubby hole with an almost entirely reclined seat and a blanket to settle down in for the proceedings 10 hours, they are quite cute really… Although I do feel as though I may not still be saying this in a few hours time…
Update: it is 4:30AM and I am now napping on a hammock waiting for the hostel (Easy Tiger) to open, after a very disjointed and pretty much non-existent nights sleep. To be glass-half-full about it, at least next time I will know not to choose a top bunk unless I want to spend another 10 hours fearing I will tumble down into the aisle at any given moment. Lying on a hammock as the sun rises I feel like I don’t have much to complain about though.
Later there is a somewhat traumatising incident involving a chicken which I would rather not go into, but every experience is an experience right?? And being driven around on ‘easy riders’ by local Vietnamese men who used to work in the forest before it became a national park is honestly the best way to get to know the area. They drive us down country lanes (the sort of road that makes me appreciate the country lanes in England) and then we are watching the sunset ft. happy hour G&T’s and again I cannot think of a single thing to complain about. The scenery is honestly stunning and let’s be honest, a sunset just never gets old does it?
Phong Nha Ke-Bang national park was first created to protect both the ecosystem of the limestone jungle and what is one of the world’s two largest karst areas. The park wears many medals, it is home to the longest underground river and the largest cave in the world. Named Hang Son Doong, the cave could apparently fit the whole of Manhattan inside, skyscrapers and all. Pretty big then. I will have to take their word for it though, as unfortunately I do not have $3000 or 5 extra days to spare on the trek to get there, maybe on another trip. It is mad that it was only discovered as recently as 2009 given its size, which really makes you wonder what other undiscovered secrets there are in the area, particularly as apparently only about 20% of the forest has been explored by humans.
The region is home to a myriad of cave systems (300 to be exact), so there was lots for us to choose from to explore. We settled for the imaginatively named Dark Cave and our group spent the day riding around on mopeds through glorious countryside, making our way along meandering lanes surrounded by limestone mountains. The children all wave and shout “Hello! Hello!” gleefully at us as we pass and the farmers smile and wave. This really is a lovely country. When we arrive at the cave we are immediately (and rather brusquely) strapped into harnesses and life jackets, given a helmet with a head torch on and pointed in the direction of a slightly ominous looking tower.
Standing on the edge of the top of the tower I wonder why on earth I, afraid-of-heights me, agreed to do this but then I’m jumping off the edge and whizzing down a zip line over a river and landing on a patch of grass amongst the trees. We then clamber out of our harnesses, jump into the (surprisingly cold) river and swim into the mouth of the cave. Once inside the cave, we use our head torches to guide our way through the nooks and crannies as we make our way deeper inside, the air becoming darker and the floor muddier until we reach a massive natural mud bath. This we find particularly hilarious because the buoyancy of the mud makes it near-impossible to not float. So here we are, bobbing around in some mud in the middle of a cave. How fantastically odd.
After making our way back out of the cave, we kayak down the river that we hurtled over earlier and mess about in the water until our tummies start to rumble and we get back on our mopeds and go in search of some local Pho. The fun thing about eating in local restaurants is that you never quite know what you’re going to get, for example, for dinner we ordered vegetable fried rice and what appeared on our plates in front of us was boiled rice with an omelette on the top? Still, it was actually delicious, just not quite what we were expecting.
The next day we trek through a jungle to a lake, singing songs from the Jungle Book and loving life despite becoming a walking mid-afternoon snack for the local mosquitos. We cross over a river on a bridge made of bamboo and climb down the side of the waterfall to be met with (another) absolutely stunning view across the valley. Overlooking the jungle, with the sun on our backs, the noise of water trickling down rocks and splashing into pools, and pairs of butterflies dancing around us, we are utterly peaceful.
On the journey back through the trees we don’t pass a single person, and the air is totally quiet except for the noises of crickets, birds and occasionally our voices as we play “what would you do if a tiger jumped out” (apparently there are tigers still living in this area, although none have been seen in a while). On our way back along the dirt roads we pause to admire the view along the river along which supplies were sent during the war, making Phong Nha a much-hit target for bombs, and we are reminded of the violent history embedded within the caves and forests of this beautiful place.