I’ll be the first to admit: Sometimes I can get a little claustrophobic. I blame this (as always) on my childhood, where my older brother liked to play “let’s see how many tiny spaces I can trap my sister.” As an adult, I can mostly force myself to put mind over matter, unless I’m so confined I can’t stretch out my body. Then I panic.
So I felt a tiny twinge of trepidation as the bus pulled into Son Trach village in central Vietnam. I was about to spend the next two days exploring the caves that had recently been discovered in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park just a few miles away. After hearing about the intensity of exploring the Viet Cong tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City, I was little concerned about the Vietnamese definition of “cave.”
Son Trach is a sleepy little town with only a few accommodation options. Most backpackers opt for the social and fun Easy Tiger Hostel, but we chose to stay just across the street at the Thien Thanh Guesthouse. For two people to share a private room it cost the same per-person as a dorm across the street (about $12 USD). A chance to avoid midnight snoring, farting and potential sexual hijinks? Count me in! Besides, the dining room and bar were open to everyone, so we could still spend most of our time over there anyway.
Our bus arrived from Hanoi painfully early in the morning — about 4 a.m. Fortunately, the Guesthouse was open shortly after the kitchen at Easy Tiger served us breakfast, and we were able to take a quick nap to recharge. The weather wasn’t cooperating when we awoke — the first rain I had seen since Otres Beach in Cambodia was refreshing, but not ideal conditions to be motorbiking through a national forest. Undaunted, we donned the full-body waterproof rain slickers our guesthouse owner provided to us and jumped aboard the motorbike anyway. I let my new friend and travel companion, Irene, do the driving.
The grey sky threw all color on the ground in sharp relief, and we whizzed past chartreuse fields of rice and young corn for a few miles until we reached the entrance of the park. Once inside, karst formations jutted dramatically from flat earth into the misty heavens, their sheer walls a cacophony of salmon, magenta, moss green and charcoal streaks.
We made for Paradise Cave — the most famous of the caves within the park grounds, but one of the easiest to access. Phong Nha only came onto the tourist scene when the park was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003, and development has been slow. But the signs of it are afoot at the entrance to Paradise Cave. A newly-built ticketing kiosk and visitor center stands a few steps away from the gravel parking lot. Carefully laid wooden planks pave the way to the mouth of the cave. The cave itself is lit like a movie set, with several sets of stairs and boardwalks ensuring even elderly visitors can make the most of the cave experience.
Once I stepped inside the well-lit cavern, any fears of claustrophobia were chased away immediately. The roof of the cave soared overhead over 300 feet high. Does that even qualify as a cave anymore? The entire length of this cavern is just over 19 miles (sheesh!), but only the first kilometer is accessible via the boardwalks and stairs. There is a tour option to explore the first seven kilometers, if you’re so inclined. Because our time in Phong Nha was short, we opted to stick to the footpaths and spend more time exploring the Dark Cave.
Alas! I was having far too much fun exploring the Dark Cave to take any pictures to prove it. But rest assured, from ziplining across the river, kayaking to the cave entrance, hiking through narrow passageways (not a jot of concern about any claustrophobia!), it was worth every penny.
After shutting off our headlamps at the underground lake to truly experience the darkness this cavern is named for, we squished our way through a narrow, mud-laden channel to an antechamber that was made entirely of mud! It came up to our waists, and it took a while to get past the ‘ick’ factor. Once we did, we found that we floated in the gooey mess if we sat cross-legged. To clean up, a dip in the underground lake just outside the ‘mud room’ did the trick. Our group decided to switch off our headlamps and swim as far out as we could, much to the dismay of our guide.
Phong Nha was a last-minute addition to my itinerary — I decided to go because the Dutch girls I had met in Halong were all heading that way, and I love hiking and trekking. I figured, why not? I ended up discovering one of my favorite places in Asia, if not the world. I have every intention of going back and spending a lot more time in Son Trach and Phong Nha.
My plans for the return trip? The 4 Day/3 Night Tu Lan Cave Expedition with Oxalis. Let’s go!
Til next time, xoxoxo