We came to the conclusion that an overnight train from Hanoi to Phong Nha was not the best use of our time; we wouldn’t have seen any scenery overnight and it was as cheap to fly so we took the short one hour hop to Dong Hoi and then jumped in a private transfer on to Phong Nha.
We stayed at BFF Homestay on the outskirts of the town. It was an excellent spot with a fab view over the river. On that first evening we joined the communal meal, which was served every night to any and all travellers who wished to have dinner. It was a great idea and we made friends who we have caught up with again on the road.
Our hostel had complimentary bikes and we took full advantage on our first day. We stopped in at Easy Tiger Hostel for their free morning briefing on what you can get up to in the local area. This was a really worthwhile stop, most of what they brief you on is free and when they do talk about tours there is no sell whatsoever. It’s held every morning at 9am, they let anyone come along even if you are not staying at the hostel and it formed the basis for our whole plan whilst we were there.
After the briefing we set out to explore the local countryside by bike. Our first stop was back at Easy Tiger to collect Caro’s phone, which she has developed an inconvenient habit of leaving wherever we go. Phone restored we set off to explore Bong Lai Valley. After a short stretch on the road we dipped on to a concrete track which was reasonably easy going despite a few nasty hills. This soon changed when we crossed the river. It dissolved into a rutted, rocky track which made for some interesting cycling on our rickety old bikes. The scenery was spectacular.
Our first stop on the cycle was the Wild Boar Eco Farm. The name was a bit of a stretch as it only had a few animals and they were definitely not boar. But it did have a beautiful view over the river, hammocks and a really cool swing. We relaxed and took on board some refreshments.
There were some seriously happy buffalo escaping the heat in the river below us and we envied the cooling river, but with the number of buffalo in it we thought that it would be wiser to give it a miss.
Our next stop along the bumpy track was the Pub with Cold Beer, which is the absolute best name for a pub in the middle of nowhere.
This is one of a number of local places where you have the option to kill your own chicken for lunch. We decided to give this particular travelling experience a miss. We can confirm that the pub did have cold beer and served some incredible grilled pork with peanut sauce (and spring rolls, obviously).
The return leg of our cycle took us through the countryside of local houses, rice paddies and fields of grazing buffalo. It was a really great way to experience the rural area and we would definitely recommend it as part of a few days in Phong Nha, you can pick up a map of the loop at Easy Tiger.
On day two we set off on a trek into Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park with Jungle Boss, a local trekking company. We chose the Abandoned Valley trek which is one of the more strenuous 1 day hikes. Our group was made up of us and 3 French Canadians who chatted all day and gave the hike a nice energy.
At Jungle Boss headquarters we were offered a pair of Vietnamese army boots which we accepted and which we would highly recommend using; during the hike waded through thigh deep water and our hiking boots would have horrible to walk in and taken days to dry if we’d worn them. We also met our guide for the day, Captain. He was an ex local hunter turned guide, who in his spare time goes off in to the jungle for weeks at a time armed with just a hammock, a machete and a lighter looking for new caves. He had so far discovered six and was also a porter on the expedition which discovered the largest cave in the world. A fascinating chap to talk to. It took quite a lot of self-restraint not to say “Oh Captain, my Captian!” every time we addressed him.
A short bus journey later we were deposited on the side of the road and scrambled up a short but steep slope. Then came the downhill and it was really tough work. It was very slippery and involved a lot of slithering down muddy slopes and clambering around tree roots. We spent a good portion of the time clinging on to trees to stop ourselves from falling over. Had the trees not been there, Caro at least would have spent the entire time on her arse.
Once we reached the bottom of the valley the walk was mostly flat through dense foliage. Captain had to machete his way through ahead of us, the plants grow at an incredible rate, this walk is done every day and yet still they need to hack through.
We stepped out from under the canopy and the sky opened up above us revealing the most gorgeous surroundings. One of the French Canadian girls just gazed around her and said: “C’est f**king beau”. We couldn’t have described it better ourselves.
Our walk continued along the valley to the aptly named Dark Cave. Dark Cave is one of the premier tourist attractions in Phong Nha, but that’s the other end. We were at the decidedly non-touristy end of the cave, in the middle of the jungle.
Side note: When visiting Phong Nha you cannot miss advertising for the Dark cave. It is set up as big adventure playground with zip wires, etc. We had heard mixed reviews and decided to spend our money trekking instead.
Once at the cave we were given helmets, gloves and torches, all of which had been carried in by the porters.
We set off to explore the cave. It was awesome fun scrambling over rocks, wading through water and generally having a blast in what felt like a grown-up playground. To be perfectly honest, Caro isn’t a cave fan, her general lack of balance combined with slippery places, unknown obstacles and only torchlight to guide you isn’t really her idea of fun. For her money, 45 minutes in the cave itself was too much but we emerged unscathed and very mucky.
After a quick refuel on some chocolate, marshmallow, and biscuit goodness, our trek continued to our lunch stop. We had to cover up for this section, due to poison ivy, and we were both extremely sweaty as we waded through streams and clambered and squelched along the river bank.
When we arrived at the second cave and our lunch spot, the two porters had already constructed a shelter and laid out a full spread for lunch. Piles of veg, fresh BBQ pork, rice and rice paper for making our own spring rolls. It was awesome and we pigged out as usual.
After a snooze, we changed into our swim suits, helmets and head torches and ventured in to the freezing water for a swim in a pitch-black cave.
It was a very weird experience to be swimming into the darkness. We turned our torches off for a while and without a guide we would have had no idea which direction was out again. This next photo is blurry but we just wanted to show how blue the water was, it really did look like this.
After drying off and a warming cup of tea, we completed our circuit of the valley basin before retracing our steps up the steep climb out of the valley.
Back at the top, 7 hours after we set out, we were rewarded by incredible views over the valley and the surrounding National Park.
Jungle Boss have perfected their trekking product and supply you with cold beer when you finish. After a sweaty day hiking, we sat on the side of the road, pulled off our soggy boots, and toasted a good day’s work. That beer tasted really good.
That night we had dinner at the hotel again and got chatting to an American couple, Zach and Maddie. They’d been out on a different trek with Jungle Boss and we shared war stories about trench foot and leeches.
On our last day in Phong Nha we had a lazy morning before visiting Paradise Cave in the afternoon. We’d gone back and forth on whether to go, more climbing didn’t hold a huge amount of appeal, but we thought that we should probably see one of the most famous caves in the area and Caro was unable to find an account that convinced us that it wasn’t worth it. She tried really hard. We are really glad that we convinced ourselves to go because Paradise Cave is wicked. We went after 2pm so all of the tours had moved on; we had the place almost entirely to ourselves. Also, the climb up was nowhere near as bad as tripadvisor had led us to believe.
When we reached the cave entrance we were surprised, it is such an assuming hole in a wall of rock.
Then we got inside and our jaws dropped; it’s huge, you can’t even really register the scale of it because there is nothing large enough inside to compare it to. We’ll try and give a sense: If you look at the picture below, we are standing about three quarters of the way down into the cave looking back at the entrance. There’s 10 flights of stairs there and more out of sight. It’s enormous.
It’s also really really long. 31km long. You can walk along 1km of boardwalk into it’s depths.
When you reach the end it feels like you are in the centre of the earth, and there’s another 30km to go! It’s also incredibly beautiful. You know that scene in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (that’s the better, Gene Wilder version), where they are walking through the land made of sweets with the chocolate river? Well Paradise Cave feels a bit like that, in melting grayscale, a land of pure imagination.