I can’t hide… From the very beginning when I’ve started writing down our memories from the trip to Vietnam, I was impatient to get to this part. Phong Nha was our favorite part and I am very happy we had even 5 days to explore it. It was the only place that we had in our trip planned and booked well in advance because of the expedition to the caves. Phong Nha National Park is well known for enormous amount of caves, one of them being the largest cave in the world. But let me start from the beginning.
Getting to know the area
We arrived Dong Hoi train station with a small delay. As always, we booked a homestay the evening before and even arranged a shuttle to take us straight to Phong Nha as the bus options were not very clear. We arrived Tien’s Cozy Homestay around 8 am where the host met us with a cup of tea and offered free breakfast after a long trip. We had a quick chat about our plans of what to see in the area, got some maps and as soon as we dropped our backpacks in the room we went for a walk to see the village and move our legs a bit.
In one of the info leaflets Pedro saw that every morning 9 am at Easy Tiger Hostel there is a free info talk on what to see in the area. We were just on time to join it and in another hour we were already running to grab our camera for capturing adventures that were waiting for us today. The info talk was very useful as it gave a clear vision of what we want (or don’t want) to see in the area, as well as gave an option to join a self-guided tour to Phong Nha cave. Basically, the people who attended this info talk just signed up to form groups and shared the costs of a boat trip to the cave. Around 11 am we were already boarding the boat with our small group of 12 people.
The day was rainy again. What a surprise! I was sitting in the front row of the boat and getting wet. Good way to start the day! This morning during the info talk we also got some knowledge about the history of the area. It was bombed by air force every single day for almost 10 years and Phong Nha cave played an important role as it was the main hideaway for the North Vietnamese troops during the war. On this boat trip we visited two caves: Dong Tien Son and Phong Nha cave.
For Dong Tien Son you have to climb up the hill quite a few steps and then enter the cave going down again, so it involved some easy stair climbing. But the cave was really beautiful and worth visiting. Of course, it was adapted to tourists and had wooden pathway all over it, as well as good lights. But it was not super crowded and the stalactites and stalagmites inside the cave were quite impressive.
After getting back down to the river, we found out that the boats were not entering Phong Nha cave due to very high level of water. In fact, water was already flooding a part of the path going towards the cave too. But there were two boats taking tourists in small groups to the first big chamber of the cave. This cave impressed us more than Dong Tien Son because you can walk freely in the chamber and feel it a bit more. If you are lucky with the level of water you can also take a kayak tour deeper in the cave, which we would have loved to do. After this short visit to the cave we faced even higher water when exiting and the cave was closed for the day – we were the last group to enter (and thankfully exit too 😊).
It was still raining but we rented two bikes back in the village and took a ride to the restaurant we’d heard about in the morning info talk – Moi Moi. It wasn’t very easy to reach with our barely functioning bikes, but worth the effort. This restaurant is famous for its unique dish – pork cooked in a bamboo. It is a very tiny and wild restaurant in the middle of nowhere which you wouldn’t find unless you are specifically looking for it. So if you ever are in the area – please look for it! It takes about an hour to wait for this special dish, but we didn’t even notice the time when we were resting in the hammocks, drinking beer and playing with the local girl.
With our stomachs full, we headed back to our homestay enjoying outstanding views of the astonishing green rice fields on the way. We arrived home right before the sunset, but it was too cloudy this day to go enjoy it. Besides, we had another more important issue to resolve.
It turned out that during the day we got the email that our pre-booked caving expedition was canceled due to weather conditions… What?!? Seriously?!? As I mentioned in the very beginning, we only had two things pre-booked for the whole trip in Vietnam: The first night train with soft sleepers and this 3-day caving expedition. We lost the first one with the help of Aeroflot and missing backpacks and now we’d lost the second one due to the non-stopping rain… Anxious of what we might hear, we went to the Oxalis office – the agency of our caving tour. They apologized for the situation, but the expedition had to be canceled due to safety reasons – the level of water was simply too high and no one wanted to be stuck in the cave, especially right after the worldwide known story of 12 boys and their coach in Thailand. They offered money return or choosing another expedition later in the week. After some hesitation we chose a 2-day Hang Va cave expedition (of course we got the price difference refunded). It was planned one day later than ours, but the organizers didn’t guarantee us yet that the expedition would take place. They were still monitoring the level of water. It all depended on the weather during upcoming two days and we would be informed if this one had to be canceled too. Even though a bit disappointed for losing one day of crazy expedition we got back home with at least some good news. Better than nothing.
“The iron horse”
On the second day in Phong Nha we had decided to rent a scooter and visit more distant places as doing that in bikes was not really possible. Whoever knows me just a bit, knows that I am terrified of any type of motorbikes and have always been saying that you could get me on a motorbike only over my dead body. Well… They say traveling is a lot about stepping outside your comfort zone, right? So, I did a very BIG step 😊. After spending these days in Vietnam, where motorbike is the main mean of transportation, I started getting the feeling that if I wouldn’t try a scooter in Vietnam – I would miss something important. So, I gathered all my tiny bits of courage, made Pedro swear that he would drive VERY slowly and be SUPER careful and we rented a scooter right in our homestay.
After filling up the gas in a local gas station right on the corner and trying out the motorbike and his skills, Pedro picked me up and off we went. I have to admit it wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be, except few parts of our ride where the traffic was very intensive and the road wasn’t easy either. But I survived and even managed to enjoy some parts of our ride crossing the mountains.
First, we went to visit Paradise Cave ranked as one of the most beautiful caves in the world. We tried to get there as early as possible to avoid crowds. Yet, before 10 am it was already more than full. From a car parking we took a nice path to the cave, which ended up being a very nice walk by itself. The cave was really very big and incredibly beautiful but so extremely full of tourists that we could only move with the flow.
After visiting the cave, we hopped back on our “iron horse” and headed towards Phong Nha Botanic Garden. Don’t be deceived by the name. Even though it is full of different species of plants, it doesn’t resemble any botanic garden you would see in Europe. It has 3 trails of different length varying from 1 to 4 km, the longest being the most difficult too. It begins as an easy and fairly wide trail but soon becomes just tiny jungle path which in some parts even has ropes to assist you on a rainy day. We were lucky with the weather this day – one of the very few we had with sun and enjoyed the trek very much.
At the end of the trail we reached the waterfall that was mentioned as a must see in the garden. It had a small place to have a swim but we skipped this “tourist jacuzzi”. The nice thing taking this longer trail is that you come to the waterfall from below and you get to see all of its beauty that opens up for you when climbing up the river to finish the trail. We loved this hike and it was a nice practice of jungle trekking before going for our cave expedition. Next – Bong Lai Valley.
We’d heard in the yesterday’s info talk about this valley some intriguing things we wanted to see. It is famous for having some very small and original places to stop by: The Duck Stop, Pub with cold beer, Moi Moi and some others. They are clearly orientated towards tourists but in a very nice and original way. And they surely have some good food to offer!!!! 2 of my top 3 restaurants in Vietnam happened to be in this Valley.
This time we approached Bong Lai Valley from another side than yesterday. Thank god we didn’t try to do it before with the bikes! It is mainly a dirt road that is sometimes difficult to cross even with a motorbike. We started with The Duck Stop which was ranked as No 1 attraction in the area, concurring even with Son Doong cave, the biggest cave in the world 😊. If you like, you can ride a buffalo there or throw a duck to the pond (literally), but we skipped all these attractions and sat down to have lunch. This restaurant only has one dish in their menu – a local pancake Banh Ceo, but they don’t need any others. This was THE BEST MEAL we had in all the trip. I can still feel the taste on my tongue and start drooling even after almost two months…
Moving on, we skipped the “Pub with cold beer” as drinking and driving is not the best idea and stopped at Bong Lai Rattan House where we were met by a… monkey. This was the closest encounter with the local wild (domesticated?) life we had. All the rest had been hunted. Even though still very full after The Duck Stop, we ordered some amazing banana pancakes and smoothies and rested our bodies in hammocks while waiting. Who counts calories on holidays? I also wanted to go for the swings that are so famous around here, but they were occupied by the local kids. Oh well…
I’d heard that at Bong Lai Eco Farm there was an amazing swing over the edge of the hill, with a river below. Thus, we continued that way. It was another beautiful and calm place where I wouldn’t mind staying for a night or two. And that swing… Everything I’d heard before was true! I could spend hours on it with such beautiful views and the feeling of flying.
After some more drinks to refresh our souls, we headed back to our homestay with a hope we would still make it on time for the sunset. We stopped at the bridge right at the entrance to Phong Nha to enjoy spectacular views. It was a nice day and having a scooter to move around helped a lot. No way we could have seen so much without it. Another active day – check.
Whatever can happen – will happen.
We didn’t plan this day. It just happened to be there because of the changes in our cave expedition plans. But having seen already most of the places around Phong Nha and being brave enough riding the motorbike, we rented it again at our homestay not knowing well where we would head today.
We started by visiting Bomb Crater Bar which was a reflection of how people try to make the most out of an unfortunate situation. Then we headed towards Lake House Resort. I was thinking we could go kayaking in the lake, but this place was too touristic for our standards (not in a nice way) so after refreshing drinks we decided to move on. After studying the map and roads, we decided to head towards the beach. It is barely 30 km away and the roads seem to be small enough to avoid heavy traffic. Vietnam has so much coastline and we barely saw any so far…
Once on our scooter we noticed it was making some weird noises. It had some noises yesterday too, but we already knew that you can’t expect to rent high-quality bikes around here. They all are on the edge of falling apart. If it survived yesterday, it would survive today too.
The ride to the beach was very nice – through small villages and fields. The roads barely had any traffic. We only had to cross one big street right next to Ngoai Hoa village. Once at the small road right next to the beach we continued a bit ahead to see if we could find any nicer place. The coastline was extremely polluted. And to our surprise it wasn’t pollution coming from the sea. It was the trash people throw away directly to the beach as they simply don’t value it. There was also a very big cemetery… not more than 50 meters away from the sea.
After realizing we would not find a place for a swim in here, we decided to turn around and try to see if there is any other easy way to any other beach. But before we left this one… we fell. Or I fell to be more exact as Pedro was the first to react and jump of when the scooter slipped on a soft sand. Of course, we were barely moving so the fall wasn’t big and only my dignity and my knee suffered (I still have a heart shaped scar). My friendship with motorbikes is OVER. Forever. But we still have to finish this day and get back.
There was no pharmacy in the village and I forgot to take our first aid kit but a local dentist helped me out with disinfection. He even gave everything needed to take away afterwards and refused to accept any money. I think Pedro was affected emotionally by this fall more than me and we didn’t have much mood to continue exploring the coastline thus we decided to head back to Phong Nha.
More or less in the middle of our way back the scooter started making more and more noise. We stopped to check it but didn’t see anything suspicious. As we continued, the noise was getting stronger so we stopped again. And exactly at the moment when I was looking at the front wheel – the complete brake just fell off!!! I am pretty sure it wasn’t because of our small accident as it was making a weird noise already the day before and it was just a matter of time when the screw would fall. But now what?!?! We were literally in the middle of nowhere, alone, with a broken motorbike…
We checked the map and decided to push our motorbike to the closest village that was a bit more than 1 km away and try to find a mechanic there. After walking for a few minutes we saw a house and a couple of local men working something outside. They immediately came over to check what had happened. Of course, they didn’t speak English, but one of the guys quickly resolved our problem with temporal measures and just said “one kilometer” and showed the direction.
So, with our front brake safely (??) attached with some kind of cord we slowly drove to the nearest village and stopped at the first place that looked like mechanics (we just guessed by the couple of motorbikes standing half assembled in front of a house). We were lucky that this house had a young woman, daughter of the mechanics, who spoke a little bit of English which facilitated our communication. Her father left aside his other work and came over to fix our brake. In less than an hour it was again shining and working perfectly. He also put on a left mirror which was missing. We decided to pay him generously and he was even uncomfortable to accept it, but we really felt grateful for saving our asses.
Finally, without any noises from our scooter we went back to Phong Nha. It was time for lunch so we stopped at Moi Moi again to try out more dishes (and they all were amazingly tasty again!!). There was a Dutch family sitting at the other table when we arrived. They ordered a roasted chicken for a family lunch. You should have seen the faces of teenage boys when a woman from the restaurant went to the field, caught a hen, then brought it to the kitchen and started preparing it from a scratch… The head… The feathers… The guts… But in a good hour they all were enjoying a very fresh roasted chicken. I bet it was tasty like hell.
With our stomachs full again (OMG, my pants started to feel narrow), we headed back to our village. It was still fairly early but we were too lazy to do anything crazy the day before our adventure in the caves. We popped in Oxalis office to confirm that the hike is not canceled and sat down in a local restaurant for a fancy smoothie with the views to the river. The atmosphere in Phong Nha was quite relaxing and we just gave ourselves to it.
Before heading back to our homestay, we wanted to make the last tour around the village. On the way we heard loud music and saw a wedding party going on, so we stopped on the other side of the street to watch it for a moment. It is always interesting to see local traditions. In a few minutes some people from the party came over to us to make a selfie!! Selfie with tourists!!! While doing that, a wedding photographer also took some pictures of us. We’d heard at Easy Tiger info talk that participating in a wedding was one of the attractions you could do in Phong Nha. We were offered to join for a drink but refused as we were driving and moved on before they would drag us in.
The road headed towards Phong Nha cave so we decided to see how it looks in the evening light from the other side of the river (you can’t enter from there). Before we left the village we witnessed another small accident that happened right in front of us. A motorbike with two tourists, just like us, ran into a local boy who just jumped into the street right in front of them. They all fell and got scared but nobody was really hurt, just a few small scratches. This once again lowered my enthusiasm about driving a motorbike… On the other hand, we didn’t see any other accidents in all the trip, only the ones that involved tourists, us included 😊.
We met again that couple watching Phong Nha cave from the end of the road just like us. We left our motorbike a bit behind, as the road was getting worse and I already had a bleeding knee. We spent some time chatting with the couple about our fresh wounds, days in Vietnam and plans for the rest of the trip until the sun started to set.
When we got back to our motorbike there was yet another surprise waiting for us. One of the helmets was gone!!! We left both helmets just hanging on the handles with our sunglasses inside as it was a very tiny dead-end road with no live beings around and we really didn’t walk far from it. Yet, someone obviously stole it. Interestingly – only one. All the way back to our homestay we were thinking how on earth we would explain our adventures of the day to our host. But as we returned the motorbike with the fixed brake and a new mirror, they didn’t mind the lost helmet.
We went out for a walk and dinner a bit latter but honestly, I was so exhausted that I was only thinking of going to bed.
The big adventure
We got up early in the morning, anxious about the upcoming adventure. My knee was quite painful and I knew the wound would have to stay wet all day in unclear conditions. We packed our backpacks, checked out and left half of our luggage at the homestay. We would go back tomorrow to pick it up as the night bus for our last destination leaves right from the corner of the street. Oxalis bus picked us up and a few moments later 3 Spanish guys and an Austrian couple joined us on the way. Let the adventure begin!
First, we had to listen to safety instructions at the headquarters of Oxalis. Now it was clear why we had to wear long pants and long sleeve shirts in this heat. Apart from the bugs we would stumble on the poisonous Ivy. This plant wouldn’t kill you but cause you pain and itchiness at least for a week if you touch it with bare skin. Another repacking to prepare things for the porters and off we go.
The bus ride to the starting point took a bit less than an hour. We started the adventure by an easy jungle trek of a bit less than a couple km until we reached Hang Nuoc Nut cave. We stopped for a lunch break at the entrance of the cave while another group doing a single day tour overtook us and disappeared in the darkness.
I didn’t know what to expect from this caving expedition. I’d never done it before. Even though we’d visited a couple of caves by this time, they were all very civilized and adapted to tourists. Meanwhile these caves were completely wild: no lights, no paths, no people.
We entered the cave equipped with helmets, headlights, gloves and life vest knowing that we would be wet and cold for the rest of the hike. The entrance to the cave was very narrow and soon we had to pass through some passages swimming to reach the inner chambers. I had chills all over not only because of fairly cold water and temperature inside but also because of the mysterious atmosphere of the cave. On the other hand, Pedro had chills for another reason – unexpected opportunity to learn a bit about cave photography and photography in the darkness in general. Unfortunately, we didn’t have our tripod but nonetheless we had opportunities for impressive photography sessions.
Our support team was carrying some strong torchlights to light otherwise completely dark caves. We spent few hours wandering in the cave, stopping by in chambers, listening to explanations about cave formations, climbing rocks, crossing underground rivers, swimming, listening to the sounds of the dripping water, watching weird bugs that live in complete darkness, facing the darkness and again stopping for capturing our moments in photos. It was incredibly interesting, and those few hours just flew by like few minutes.
After getting out of the cave, all safe and sound, we headed towards our campsite deep in the jungle. When I look into the map of our trek I realize we were probably less than 1 km away from the car road. Nevertheless, it really felt like deep in the jungle because a very thick rainforest surrounded by mountains makes you lose your orientation immediately. Not only your orientation, your mobile coverage too. Two days we were out of reach for the outside world. If anything happens for you “deep in the jungle” you are in “deep shit” if you don’t have a satellite phone.
The trail to the campsite was not long but not easy either. We had to climb up and down on a steep, rocky and slippery mountain covered with a rainforest. We were forced to go very slow due to the group pace and feed thousands of mosquitos on the way. Not even the strongest repellents could save us. The only comforting thought was that 7 pm all mosquitos would be gone. They only bite during the day.
Our jungle campsite wasn’t as wild as we would expect it to be. It had a big cover over a row of tents and a big kitchen with tables, also with a tent roof. They build such stationary campsites that they use during the season to make less impact on the wild nature of the park. As we still had some time left before the dinner would be served, our guide kicked our buts to go and try the equipment for tomorrow as well as have a quick swim in the entrance of Hong Va cave. On a second day we wouldn’t have to swim in deep water so no more life vests, but we would have to wear harnesses during all the time in the cave as there would be some sections requiring fairly steep climbing.
A try out of the harnesses and the cave went perfectly well. We could finally change our clothes to dry and light shorts/t-shirts and prepare ourselves for the dinner. We spent the evening chatting, eating, drinking rice wine and playing card games until it was time to rest. Before the evening was over we were warned that if the heavy rain falls at night the water level might go up and we might need to cancel the second part of the expedition, but the sky was clear so we went to our tents calm about tomorrow.
An alien planet
I woke up at night from the sound of a rain. Oh no… No more cancelations, please… During the breakfast we all were a bit tense and confused, not knowing if our expedition to the second cave would actually happen. By the time we finished eating, our guide came over to finally explain the situation. The rain raised the water level in the cave but it was still fairly ok. We were hurried to get ready and start the hike earlier than planned as the water level would keep raising. He also explained that some of the men would stay to monitor flooding of the cave and go warn us if we need to turn back. Safety first.
A bit tense we went down to the cave and started exploring its beauty. Hang Va cave is famous for its unique cone formations which look like eggs of aliens that are about to hatch… Unfortunately, at the end of the dry season there wasn’t much water inside where these cones are being formed. Only in one small part of the cave we could see how they look like half submerged in the water – spectacular.
We hurried up today a bit more and didn’t stop so much for photography. We wanted to see the rest of the cave while it was still safe. In Hang Va we had to walk a lot in the water and we could swim in some parts for our own pleasure too. The most outstanding part of this all caving expedition was walking along an underground river passage. It seemed we were in another planet, in some kind of unfamiliar world and we were the first humans to explore it! The good thing about visiting this cave with the rain is that you also get to see underground waterfalls that are not present on a dry day. They were SO awesome. Simply gorgeous…
The water level didn’t go up too high and we could walk back a bit calmer, with a few stops to admire the cave and take some more photos. In general, all the hike wasn’t very difficult. We didn’t walk many km so the physical strength or stamina was not really needed for this hike. More than strength we needed climbing skills in rocky terrains and very good balance. The rocks in this area were very sharp and any fall could end up with a big cut. Climbing out from Hang Va cave Pedro slipped on one of them and ended up ruining his shoes and cutting some clothes (thankfully they protected the flesh). It is definitely not a hike you could do on your own, unless you have adequate experience in caving and all the required permissions.
After exiting the cave we had lunch in our campsite, quickly packed our things back and finished the hike with another short jungle trek. We had to go the easier and shorter way, skipping the river crossing that was planned originally because of weather conditions again. Weather was really influencing our adventure, so we asked our guide when is the best time to come over for caving expeditions, so that we would know next time. Apparently, it’s April and May, when heavy rains are not expected and the temperatures are still fairly mild. We were so impressed with caving that we put in our Wishlist the largest cave in the world, Son Doong, and hope to come back someday for new adventures.
We were back in Phong Nha fairly early and still had time to have a shower and go for a walk last time through the village. Our host from Tien’s Cozy Homestay had another fun surprise waiting of us – an official photo from the wedding we saw couple of day ago. The photo reached her though social networks. Apparently we were famous for a day!
Later in the evening we jumped on our cosmic night bus that would take us to Hoi An for the ultimate part of our Vietnam exploration.
Our trails in Phong Nha (as always, click on the picture for more detailed information):
A boat trip to the caves:
Paradise cave exploration:
Botanical garden trek:
“Deep in the jungle”: