Our bus to Phong Nha took most of the day, and got us in after dark, so we were unprepared for the sight out of our window the next morning.
The village of Son Trach (Phong Nha) is nestled between stunning limestone peaks on one side, and rivers and rice paddies on the other, making a beautiful base to explore from. We set off on a motorbike to visit the Paradise Cave, along an impressive winding mountain road though the jungle covered, mist shrouded mountains.
Along the way we were lucky enough to spot some endangered Hatinh Langurs, found only in this part of Vietnam, just chilling by the side of the road. A good spot! When we reached Paradise cave and paid the frankly extortionate entry fee, we walked about 15 minutes up the mountain, and then into the cave. It is an enormous, spectacular cavern, filled with soaring columns, stalactites and stalagmites, all beautifully lit. A picture tells a thousand words, but in this case do no justice. Still, we will try!
Exiting the cave after about two hours, and having headed 1km underground (the cave continues for about 20km), we got back on the bike and carried on around the park, stopping to marvel at the scenery.
When a restaurant claims to sell ‘the best BBQ pork and noodles in the world’, then we need to substantiate that claim. We soon discovered that, while a bold statement, the pork was fantastic and we had the best Bun Thit Nuong and Spit Roasted Pork Noodle Soup we have found so far.
There are more caves than just Paradise Cave here, so our next day’s activity was to visit two more of them. We boarded a boat to Phong Nha and Tien Son caves. Phong Nha cave, while not as large as Paradise Cave, can be entered by boat, and we were rowed up river into the cave by a Vietnamese lady who looked far too small to move such a large boat. After being rowed through the cave for about half an hour, we got off the boat and were able to explore more, getting off on a very surreal underground sandy beach.
We then climbed the 600 steps to Tien Son cave. All three caves are absolutely stunning, and all subtly different – Tien Son was a warren of limestone formations and worth the climb. Opinion on the best was divided between us, but there was definitely no worst!
Cave exploring works up an appetite, so we went for a spot of lunch with an Argentinian couple we met on the boat, Raul and Cynthia. It turned out that they had lived in Queenstown at the same time as us, so we had lots to reminisce on and chatted away while eating some lovely food in the Bamboo Cafe.
We then realised that we had paid for the motorbike for the day so decided to try to find a nearby waterfall. Within ten minutes it had started raining and in fifteen minutes we gave up, soaking wet and headed home to find no electricity or hot water in our hotel. Finally the power came back and we could warm up and dry off! It is actually surprisingly cold up here (perhaps it is relative though!)
For our last day, we decided to spend the morning exploring some more of the park on our motorbike, naming the water buffalo we passed, before heading to the wonderfully named ‘Pub with Cold Beer’. After 2km on a muddy dirt track, the cold beer was appreciated. Even better was their menu. Or, as we would call it, chicken coop. We chose a live chicken and the owner disappeared around the corner with it. Fifteen minutes later, he reappeared with it plucked, gutted and spatchcocked and barbecued it over the fire pit we were sat around. Served up with rice and peanut sauce, it doesn’t get any fresher than poor little Feathers. She died that we might eat.
We spent the rest of the day riding around the villages, being waved at and shouted to enthusiastically by the local kids, enjoying the view over the mountains and rice fields, before it was time for a painful night bus to Hanoi.
Thanh Dat guest house.
250,000vnd for a room with two double beds (all rooms are same price).
Standard guesthouse with thick warm blankets and comfy bed. Plenty of hot water, wifi, air con. Owner very friendly and helpful. Excellent English spoken. Place to park a moto.
Apparently Mountain View guesthouse sometimes gives you dinner as a guest or for a social scene, Easy Tiger backpackers is popular.
Bus from Danang bus station leaves at 1.20pm to Phong Nha and takes about six hours. We paid 250000VND, but were probably overcharged. Price written on door is significantly less. Large minibus, avoid sitting over rear axle as it is a bumpy road!