We’d booked a cheap room in Phong Nha but when we arrived were offered the opportunity to try out the new place the hostel had built a couple of kilometers away. We weren’t sure at first as it’s a tiny town and everything was central, but then someone across the room piped up and said she had just come from there and it was definitely worth it. We agreed and were picked up and driven over a couple of minutes later.
When we got there, we discovered that it was very definitely worth it! We had been moved from a tiny room with shared bathroom and put into one of their brand new private cabins with balcony, air conditioning and en suite – a quadruple upgrade, with a pool up there too if we fancied a swim. For our $7 per night room we were getting one that they were going to charge $60 for! This was a good start, and beer was 50p so that helped too.
Sadly, we had actually come here to see some world famous caves rather than just sit in our lovely cabin, so felt the need to rent a bike and look around the area. It’s a national park full of limestone mountains and caves, and despite me losing an unofficial race to a lady with about 20 ducks on the back of her bike, it was beautiful and felt like almost nobody else was there.
Our first stop was the Paradise Cave. This required a long walk across the enormous empty car park – a sign of how busy this place can get in high season – before something like 1km and a lot of steps up to the entrance of the cave which was very good exercise. The cave itself was massive, you can do a whole day trip in there if you choose to, but we stuck to the standard tourist walkway for a flying visit. It was full of stalactites, stalagmites and all sorts of rock formations and was really impressive.
Next up was the dark cave, which has turned itself into more of an activity centre than a cave. After a wait for some other people to arrive our guide led us up a tower from which we ziplined down towards the entrance of the cave on the other side of the river.
We then swam about 10 metres to the actual opening of the cave, before walking in. Not quite the ‘swim into the mouth of the cave’ as advertised, but fun regardless. We walked through the stream in the cave to a small opening in the side of the main cavern and from there explored a little through the tunnels. We ended up at a mud bath, in which we got muddy, and then returned the way we came.
To make our way back over the river we hopped in a kayak and paddled to a small zip line that you could drop into the water from, which was fun but by this point we were freezing as its was a cooler day and the water wasn’t warm so called it quits.
We headed back to town in search of food before returning to our hotel and a chat with the owner, who was really nice. We also played with the many pets in the hotel, including 5 dogs, a load of cats, ducks and pigs. One of the pigs had been raised with the puppies, so thought he was a dog.
The following day we visited Phong Nha cave after which the park is named. It was used as a shelter by the locals during bombing raids and also as a makeshift hospital. This had to be done by boat, so down to the appropriate spot we went and hopped in with a few other tourists (the boat costs the same regardless of how many people are in it, so sharing the cost is much more efficient).
After a cruise past the locals all raking up river weed from the riverbed for their dinner we entered the cave and drove a little way in before returning to a spot near the entrance that you can walk around. This one wasn’t quite as impressive as the Paradise Cave, but was still nice to see and the walking bit at the end was nice too.
It had been more than 24 hours since my last banh mi, so that problem was solved (twice) before we headed back to our cabin for a restful afternoon.
With such a nice place and plenty of sleep and planning to catch up on, we stayed an extra day and relaxed. Our bus was that evening at 9pm and the hotel were even good enough to let us stay all day without having to check out until evening. Relaxed, we hopped on the bus to Ninh Binh, our next destination.