13 Aug Visiting the Caves of Phong Nha National Park
Visiting Phong Nha Cave
Before settling down in our guesthouse, we decided to check on a few tours to the Phong Nha National Park and its famous caves. Apparently it is not necessary to actually book a tour ahead of time, as long as we know what we want to see and return before 8:00 am. So we snap a couple of pictures of the information chart by the kiosk, grab a bite to eat at a local hang out, which seems to be popular with western backpackers, and go to sleep at the guesthouse. The morning brings cooler weather and it looks like it may want to rain as we return back to the visitor center. After doing some research the night before, we decided to visit the Phong Nha Cave and the Dark Cave. The Phong Nha Cave is supposed to be bright and stunningly beautiful with an underground river running through it. There are huge stalactites and stalagmites and big roomy areas to discover and we’ll be touring the cave on a boat and get to explore a few of the big rooms on foot.
The Dark Cave on the other hand is just like it’s name implies: dark. Well, actually dark and muddy.
The young lady behind the ticket window is very helpful and speaks good English. She gets us our tickets and makes a phone call and before we know it she tells us to meet her around the corner where the boats dock to go on the tour. Apparently, the usual guide for the tour is not available, so she will be our guide, which is fine by us, because we really liked her from the get go.
Since she did not know that she was going to have to go on a tour with us, she is really not dressed to go caving. So in her fancy clothes and high heels she heads down to the water and climbs on the boat where a boat driver is already waiting to take us.
She tells us all about the river, which leads all the way to the park and the Phong Nha Cave itself. Apparently, the park has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site several years ago. There are hundreds of caves in the park and many more are still being discovered.
The park derives it name from Phong Nha Cave, containing many fascinating rock formations, and Kẻ Bàng forest. The plateau on which the park is situated is probably one of the finest and most distinctive examples of a complex karst landform in Southeast Asia. This national park was listed in UNESCO‘s World Heritage Sites in 2003 for its geological values as defined in its criteria viii. In April 2009, the world’s largest cave, was re-discovered by a team of British cave explorers of the British Caving Association lead by a local farmer named Ho Khanh. Wikipedia
Unfortunately, the biggest cave in the world has not been open for tourism until 2013 and then only to a few permit holders who paid a hefty price of 3000 Dollars and more…Looks like we are sticking to our original plan which will not kill our budget.
As we get closer to the Phong Nha Cave entrance, our boat driver shuts off the engine and pulls out a huge oar, with which he continues to enter the cave.
Quietly, we glide on the calm water surface into the cave; all we can hear is the rhythmic splash of the paddle hitting the water. It only takes a moment for our eyes to adjust to the dim light and what we see must be the most beautiful cave we have ever visited. The cave is huge, around every turn is a new surprise of rock formations, stalagmites and stalactites, the water throws reflections on the cave’s walls and ceilings and paints everything with beautiful highlights.
As we continue to glide through the cave, Ron decides to give our boat driver a break and takes over the paddle. Our tour guide thinks it is pretty funny but ensures us that it is OK for him to try to steer the boat through the cave. After a few paddle strokes with the extra long oar he gets the hang of it and the boat driver enjoys looking at the cave with us.
Eventually, we reach a small beach area in the cave, the boat driver takes over and anchors the boat to let us off. From here we explore more of underground wonderland on foot. We don’t get far very fast. There is just too much to see and marvel over in this cave. We take a few steps and take pictures, because with every step we take the angle we look at things changes and the views become more and mores spectacular.
Finally though, we do make it through the cave and board our boat near the exit, where our driver is patiently waiting for us.
Time to hit the next cave-wonder on our list.
We climb back on board and head further down stream to make it to our next destination: a visitor center near the Dark Cave from where we get to zip-line across the river to get closer to the cave’s entrance. Since we’ll actually have to swim into the cave and climb up on a wooden boardwalk to enter the muddy cave, we get to change into our bathing suits at the visitor center before we hit the zip-line.
Also, because there are no lights in the cave–hence Dark Cave--and it’s interior leads to a natural mud bath, we get to wear helmets with lights and life-vest to swim to the board walk, which makes the swimming part a little bit awkward.
The outside temperature has not really heated up much more since the early morning. So we are a little bit chilly when we zip-line across the river. Once on the other side we wade into the very refreshing water to swim into the the underground. Luckily though, the temperature inside the cave is not much lower once we make it in there.
After crossing more shallow water, we ditch our life-vests and shoes on a pile of rocks and continue our way deeper into the darkness.
Since our tour-guide was not prepared for this part of the adventure, she is sitting this part of the tour out. Instead we get to follow a young man who will be leading us and a young German couple. Unfortunately, his English is very sparse; yet, he is good at pointing out all kinds of critters and fossils in the dark, muddy, underground terrain.
The ground changes from small river pebbles to clay, to mud. The wide cave, becomes narrower and narrower, soon there is only enough room to put one foot in front of the other inside a muddy trench to continue our hike forward. The mud gets deeper and deeper, at first it covers only our feet and squeezes through our toes up to the ankles, soon we are knee deep in it and every time we lift our feet up it looks like we are wearing boots. Eventually, we have to climb over a few bumps on our very narrow path and slide back down on the other side and before we know it we are sliding right into a huge mud pool. We are covered up to our chest in mud. It feels weird, the mud is somewhat liquid but has solid pieces floating in it that somehow bump into us like there is a slight current in the “mud-pool”. We try our best to sit down in the mud but is seems impossible to sink in it. Despite it being dark, strange, and very muddy we feel surprisingly relaxed and excited at the same time.
Our guide stayed back on to top of the “mudslide” and starts molding a clay figure out of clay he pulls from the walls. According to the many little statues standing behind him, this must be one of his favorite past times in the cave while he is watching over the tourists. After a few moments he grins and says “Now.. Lights out!”
“Lights out!’ He repeats, “just for five minutes.”
We all try to get comfortable in the mud and follow orders. At first it is very quiet and dark…sooo dark! We can not even see our hands right in front of our noses. The short quietness is deafening and the absolute darkness is mind numbing and incomprehensible.
Then the giggling and laughing starts as we all start teasing and splashing each other and more little mud-balls run into our bodies in the dark.
Eventually, though it is time to get going again.
We hike back through the narrow dark mud corridor back to where our life vests are waiting in the dark. Muddy from head to toe, we put the vest back on and wade into an underground lake to wash off. Then we swim across the lake in the dark and return back, before hiking back out of the cave, where a couple kayaks are waiting for us.
After a short paddle back to the other side of the river, we get to play on a few big water toys and jump off the short zip-line into the clear water before enjoying the most tasty lunch, which our tour-guide arranged for us. The view from the restaurant deck is beautiful, we see mountains, the river, and watch other people play in the water and zip-lining across the river. We even get to observe a few monkeys play in the trees on the other side of the river.
It’s been a long adventurous day at Phong Nha National Park and one of the few touristy things that we have really enjoyed and would recommend to anybody who comes to this area.