Do you remember when we blogged about Mulu? That awesome place in Borneo with amazing caves? Phong Nha is Vietnam’s version of Mulu. And whether you love it or hate it, it definitely has some flare unique to Vietnam.
Phong Nha is a small town which is pretty much centered around a system of caves (and providing means for tourists to explore said caves). There is one small main street that has various hotels and restaurants. You can see some locals going about their business on the main street, but it’s mostly devoted to tourism. If you go just a street over, or if you continue down main street after the hotels trickle off, you will see locals gathering for dinner. That’s the best part about running in new places. You get to see things you probably wouldn’t see otherwise. We ran twice in Phong Nha (Strava data HERE and HERE).
Phong Nha doesn’t quite have the hype (yet) that Mulu does, but I think it’s only a matter of time. Recently (as of 2009), it was discovered that Son Doong cave in Phong Nha is the largest cave passage in the world (taking the title from Deer Cave in Mulu) and they are taking full advantage of this fact. In order to see the largest cave you have to hike in a few days, spend a day or so in the cave, and then hike out. The total trip is something like 5 days. And the price? $3,000 USD. WHAT?! Are you serious? I mean, this is a country where you can get a delicious baguette sandwich for $0.50 USD meaning it costs 6,000 sandwiches for a 5 day trip. Give me the sandwiches! But the thing is people will pay for it. We heard that there is always a waiting list to get on the tour because there is a limit for how many people can be in the cave at once. Supply and demand at its best, I guess!
Since we didn’t quite have it in our budget to drop $3k on a cave visit (even if there wasn’t a huge waiting list), and since we already did some more intense caving adventures in Mulu (there were also some options like what we did in Mulu), we decided to just stick with the “show caves” (or caves you can just walk through).
With that, we rented a motorbike and began driving around the national park. There is a pretty easy loop that you can drive through that takes you to all of the attractions within the park. Entering the park is free, then you just pay for each attraction you want to go to. And when I say attraction, I mean attraction, but we will get there later. The national park itself was gorgeous. It was full of huge limestone cliffs (which I don’t think I’ll ever tire from) and dense jungle completely undisturbed by humans.
Paradise Cave is kind of the jewel of the show caves. And for good reason: it’s gorgeous. There is a really nice walkway through the cave (I think it’s 1 km long) and much of the cave is tastefully lit. Vietnam did a really nice job showcasing this one. One tip, get there early. People (especially tour groups) can be incredibly loud and the sound carries through the passages.
The second cave we considered going to was Dark Cave. Dark Cave isn’t well known for its beautiful formations, its well known for the huge mud pit inside. Sam was all on board for the mud pit while I was a little bit more hesitant. However, the Dark Cave was definitely Vietnam-ized. Meaning, it wasn’t just the cave you got to enjoy. The entry ticket also included a zip line, kayaking, and an adventure bridge. Its like if the Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) was like, “Ok, sure, you can hike on Bright Angel trail but wouldn’t it be more enjoyable if was an obstacle course hike?!” Us: “No, I think I’d rather just..” GCNP: “OBSTACLE COURSE!”
We think there may have been a way to not do all of the “adventure” activities (and to cut down on the cost a bit), but we were too lazy to figure it out. We decided that we were fine skipping Dark Cave, but for some people it’s the highlight of their trip, so to each their own!
Phong Nha Cave
Phong Nha Cave isn’t the most beautiful cave we have seen (wah wah), but what is cool about it is that you go through it in a boat. You load a boat from park headquarters (basically just wait around for enough people to get there to split a boat with.. it didn’t take long for us to get 10 people), and you head on down the river. Once you get to the cave entrance, the boat driver cuts the motor and begins to row. They row you through the whole cave. It was pretty neat. There is a small section near the beginning where you can get out and wander around a bit.
Overall, we enjoyed our time in Phong Nha. Paradise Cave really is something to see. However, there were a few things that detracted from our time in Phong Nha:
1. Since I’m writing this at a point in our trip where we will take no more long bus rides, I can say that we had our worst bus ride of the entire trip on the way to Phong Nha. First of all, it was a minivan with seats for 16 (and that is a stretch… a minivan with four people in each row and four rows). We managed to squeeze in 21 people. The air condition barely worked. The driver had the worst regard for safety that I’ve seen (and that’s saying something). He took us on long detours to drop locals off (even though I’m sure we paid much more than the locals). Then, he ran over a dog without a blink of the eye. If I need to add some validity to this story, we were traveling with a Vietnamese person who worked in Phong Nha, and even she said that the driver was a “f***ing douche bag” (which, btw, we thought it was hilarious that a Vietnamese person knew these English words). It wasn’t exactly an enjoyable way to start the trip.
2. It has become something of a noticeable theme that Vietnam likes to make all of their natural attractions into theme parks of sorts. Sometimes we like it (I’m looking at you, Dalanta Waterfall) and sometimes it just seems to detract from the experience (as with the elevator up Marble Mountain). Phong Nha definitely seems to be headed in that direction. In fact, we heard that there are plans of building a tram out to the biggest cave in the world so more people can see it (and in turn, more money can be made as they shuffle more people through the cave). Part of me understands this. I mean, on one hand, more people get to see the cave that may not be able to afford $3,000 USD or are not physically strong enough to hike in a few days. And a poor country makes more money (although maybe whoever the money goes to isn’t one of the people that needs more money..). And the other, more obvious, part of me is like… REALLY?! COME ON!
In general, I’d recommend a visit. But if you only have time for one place with caves… head to Mulu!