Vietnam: Phong Nha

After my whistle stop tour of Hue, I continued my journey north to one of the destinations I’d most been looking forward to in Vietnam: the Phong Nha Ke Bang national park.

Travel-wise, the public buses from Hue are notoriously unreliable in departure/travel time, not leaving until full, or drivers deciding to end the journey before the final destination. To this end, get either the DMZ afternoon bus or Hung Thanh evening bus, or ask your hostel about any tour buses that might be able to drop you off at a different time. The journey’s about 4 hours. 

I arrived at the hostel around 6:30pm, and as I was checking in, had a tap on the shoulder – I turned around and there were the friends I traveled Cambodia with! I should have expected I might bump into them here; the hostel Easy Tiger can’t be booked on Hostelworld, you can only book directly with them via their website, but everyone I’d met who’d been to Phong Nha stayed there, so I had to go and see what the fuss was about. It was a little more expensive than my usual bed budget, but it was worth it. Not the nicest dorms I’ve stayed in, but the common areas were fab. A big open bar and dining area with bean bags and comfy chairs, a pool table, a football table, hammocks and a swimming pool. Sadly the weather was too cold and wet to use the pool, but I made use of the rest of the area – particularly enjoying the nightly live music. It had a lovely buzz to it and a great backpacker community from all over the world. You’ll need to book at least a few days in advance so I’d recommend getting in touch with them as soon as you know the dates you’ll be there. 

On my first full day in Phong Nha, I headed out with my friends and another British couple they’re traveling with to the Phong Nha cave. It was a short walk from the hostel down to the boat station, where we and a few others from the hostel hopped into small boats and motored down the river for a few kilometres until we reached the cave. They slid back the the roof of the boats so you could see the cave ceilings, and we headed into the black hole in the bottom of the cliff. We squeezed through a very low gap near the entrance, which even as we went under it, didn’t look like the boats would fit! They’ve decked the cave out with some electric lighting so you can actually see your surroundings deep inside the cliff, illuminating the mineral-coloured walls, stalactites, stalagmites and sub-caverns off the main one. It was all very impressive, it looks almost like a film set!

Cruising down to the Phong Nha cave
Inside Phong Nha cave

We spent about half an hour cruising through the cave before heading back along the river and back to the hostel for lunch. After some food, my friend and I decided we wanted to go to the park’s ‘botanical gardens’. I got my first taste of a motorbike in Vietnam, as we opted to get ‘easy riders’ rather than a taxi: local motorbike guides who take you to your destination and wait to bring you back. They strongly recommend you do this rather than hiring your own bike/scooter if you’re not an experienced driver; the roads are full of potholes, gravel, and often miscellaneous buildings materials, cows, children and dogs. Particularly hazardous when wet thanks to the undulating landscape. If in doubt, speak to the hostel for advice. We each hopped on the back of a bike and whizzed the 12km to the gardens. I really enjoyed it, lovely having the breeze on your face in the quiet rural roads, absorbing the amazing mountainous surroundings. Just as well I had my raincoat, though…

Easy riding to the botanical gardens:
We arrived at the gardens, paid our entrance fee, picked up our map and set off. It certainly wasn’t like any botanical gardens I’ve seen anywhere else. It was more or less just a jungle trek, sometimes with a clear path, and sometimes just with a collection of rocks to scramble over and search for a red arrow painted on something to confirm you’re going the right way! We weaved through the trees, crossing some streams, clambering over some log bridges and admiring some peacocks before we got to the main challenge: climbing up a waterfall. There were some ropes hammered along the route up the fall, but it took us a few seconds to realise that was actually the way forward! We took it fairly slowly and gingerly as it was quite slippery and steep, but there was an amazing view at the top which made the slightly hairy ascent worth it.

The peacock viewpoint

The way back up: straight up a waterfall…

From there it was an easy walk back to the entrance, where we rendezvoused with our easy riders and enjoyed the drive back to the hostel. My friends left shortly afterwards to get a night train to their next stop, and I luckily bumped into a couple I met in Hoi An and went for dinner with them. We settled down for the evening’s live music and I sipped my water (I’m still embargoed from alcohol) whilst they had some rum and cokes, before calling it a night.

The next day it was still raining, but I was determined to make the most of my last day in the national park. I teamed up with the English couple who got a motorbike, and came in convoy with me on an easy rider to a cave called Paradise Cave. The largest cave in the world, Son Doong, was discovered in Phong Nha in 2009, but the only way you can visit it is on a $3,000 4-day guided trek. So, for those on more of a backpacker’s budget, Paradise Cave is the main cave to see instead!

A stop-off on our way to Paradise Cave

It was about a 25km ride from the hostel, and it was incredibly pretty despite the rain. The clouds frustratingly hid what promised to be some amazing views from various points on the road, but did lend the surroundings a spot of mystery and atmosphere instead! We barely saw anyone else on the road as we wound round the cliffs and through the jungle. When we arrived at the cave park, it was a 2km walk/climb up to the entrance of the actual cave. You can get a buggy for an extra 100,000₫ if you’re feeling lazy. When we got there, we slipped through a fairly modest entrance hole into the huge cavern below. Again, they’ve built deck walkways and rigged up some lights for visitors’ benefit, so I can’t imagine how this place must have looked to the first few people who found it! There were colossal rock and mineral formations in various shapes, sizes and textures, and a curious still pool of water which sat on top of a rocky ledge. You can walk about 1.5km into the cave, and enjoy regressing to being a child and making weird sounds just to hear the echo.

Inside Paradise Cave

After exploring the cave and making our way back down, we hopped back on the soggy bikes and headed back to the hostel to dry out and warm up – with some soup and delicious homemade banana bread with homemade peanut butter. The food at Easy Tiger is pretty expensive, but it’s really good and the portions are big.

Homemade banana bread and peanut butter at Easy Tiger

My companions were getting a night bus onwards but I opted to fly for £16 as it was cheaper than the train and more pleasant than the bus. I got my bag ready and went to wait for the public bus into Dong Hoi, the transport ‘hub’ closest to the national park. I waited. And waited. And then a bus came – and drove past me. I asked the hostel, and they said it goes onto the next village before coming back round, so I went back to waiting. And waited a little more. Then the bus came back – and drove past me again. Out of time buffer, I annoyingly had to get a taxi to the airport instead, but at least it got me there on time. Take the public bus at your peril – or leave a few hours spare in the event the bus driver takes a disliking to you and won’t pick you up. 

Next, I’m heading to the north of the country to explore city, coast and mountain village. Hopefully, with a little more sunshine than I’ve experienced in the last week.

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 6, including a Kiwi who thought I was 5 years younger than I am – and he was 4 years younger than me. 
Interaction was:
initially insulting, then I thought that if it means I stay looking young for years to come, I’ll take it.

One Woman and her Backpack x

Follow me on Instagram @ellielfield

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