Phong Nha National Park is a big jungle area in north central Vietnam characterized by its dramatic limestone formations and caves.
Our night bus from Hanoi got in to our hostel at 4am, and I was rudely awakened from a deep dream by a Vietnamese man yelling in my ear… classic night bus situation. Our hostel ever so conveniently didn’t have anyone at the check in desk until 8am, so my travel buddy Zoe and I proceeded to literally sleep on the pool table until a friend who was already staying there came and got us. #backpackerlife right?
We were on a very tight schedule traveling through Vietnam in 15 days, so we had only one day to check out Phong Nha. When we woke up again around 8, we rushed to the desk to figure out what tour we could do that day that would encompass as much of the park as possible – we knew there were multiple caves and jungle adventures to be had.
We settled on the “National Park Tour,” which showed us around a some bombing sites from the War, a few smaller caves and sites from carving the Ho Chi Minh trail out of the jungle, Paradise Cave, and Dark Cave (two of the most popular caves in the park). We ordered an incredible sweet potato and egg breakfast to go, smothered it in chili sauce (obviously), and sleepily scrambled into the van that left a few minutes later at 8:30 that morning.
We jetted off toward the jungle, stopping a few times for views and some background information on the park and some of the impacts that the Vietnam War (“American War”) had on the area. Being a jungle area, a lot of the bombs that were dropped around Phong Nha actually didn’t explode when they hit the soft soil. Especially after the war and even to this day, bombs would wash up on the streets after a big rain. Our tour guide told us some heartbreaking stories about children finding and playing with bombs as they grew up, thinking it was normal. They also told stories of brave people who paved the Ho Chi Minh trail through that area despite bomb attacks trying to prevent North Vietnam from getting into the south.
We toured around the area and visited a smaller cave/temple before getting to the real deal caves: Paradise Cave and Dark Cave. We learned that caves form so much in this area because the rocks and mountains are all made of limestone, which can morph, wear away, build up, and change over the course of the millions of years this area has been around. From water slowly dripping down over this many million years, caves slowly form, along with stalagmites and stalactites that protrude from the ceilings and floors. It’s hard to wrap my mind around how much time that is!
Paradise cave was the first stop. After a short tram ride and walk up the hill, we arrived at a small crack in the rocks which was the entrance – easily mistaken if it didn’t have the title broadcasted above it! After a quick briefing about the cave and how it could continue over 7km into the mountain, we descended through this small hole and down dozens of stairs.
It was one of the most breathtaking sights I think I have ever seen! The claustrophobically close rocks quickly opened up to a view of a sweeping cave as big as an amphitheater – lit up by small lights along the wooden path. Immediately visible were some large stalagmites and cave walls so incredibly and expertly carved into small and intricate patterns that it completely blew my mind. And it only got more incredible as the cave went on!
It was like what you picture a deep, dark cave to be like in your dreams, but even better. Each stalagmite and part of the cave was like an art piece of its own, with its own character and features to make it unique. I honestly don’t think even the most talented of artists could have come up with some of this stuff in their wildest dreams. Oh, nature; you beat, you. I think I’ll just stop talking and let the photos do their justice – make sure to look closely at each one! It was truly magical.
After Paradise cave finished blowing our minds, it was time for lunch, which was provided by the tour company. We got back to a restaurant at the beginning of the path, and had a lovely family-style Vietnamese buffet where we passed plates around the table and served ourselves into a small bowl. With any food in Asia comes some questionable dishes of course, but we tried to at least attempt most things! Our meal came with one free drink; Zoe and I got coffee of course! Oh, how we love those little 30c coffees.
After lunch it was time for “Dark Cave.” Dark cave, unlike Paradise Cave, was made of darker, smoother limestone, which means that it is older and more hardened without as many small patterns or stalagmites and tites. We found out that the experience came with a zipline and kayaking experience, which was pretty cool, but when ordered to take our clothes off and walk around in our bathing suits as soon as the minivan stopped, it was just slightly strange and abrupt. But at least we got to know each other better quite quickly, I suppose! After getting our lifejackets and light helmets, and warding off old Russian men trying to take photos of us, we climbed up a tower to start the zipline.
We zipped over a river and onto the other side, where the entrance to the cave was. It was definitely dark; a huge slit in the side of the mountain which was pretty difficult to see inside. I then understood why we had lights on our helmets! As a group, we had to jump in the water and swim to the cave entrance.
I felt like a true explorer! We walked along the pathway until it ended, and then traipsed over rocks and through water by the light of our helmets (and just in our bathing suits still) and followed our guide. Eventually he walked over to the side and began to disappear into a seemingly invisible little opening in the rocks, and we all, of course, followed. I hoped no one was claustrophobic, because we were literally walking through a pathway no more than three feet wide for a good five minutes by the light of our headlamps! It was so exciting. The mud was getting thicker and thicker until we could feel it squelching through our toes.By the time this narrow pathway opened up, there was thick, extremely soft mud all around us. It was hard not to want to play with it – we were told not to throw mud balls at each other, but they said nothing about handprints! we stuck our hands into this thick mud and climbed around in it like little children.
But, we weren’t even at the best part yet. After climbing over some more of this magic mud, we were presented with a completely awesome literal mud pool. It was actually like your childhood dreams had come true – or if you ever had dreams to swim through a big pool of milk chocolate fondue, because that’s what it felt like (come on, don’t act like that’s not a great thought). We veeeery slowly made our way further into this pool; it was actually ridiculously hard due to the thickness of the mud. I tried to swim, run, and wade through, having an insane amount of fun while I was at it.
We were all laughing like kids, making mud patterns on our faces and completely submerging ourselves in it. It’s actually supposed to be really good for your skin! One of the coolest things was that due to its density, you are able to just comfortably sit cross-legged, kneel on your knees, or lie flat in the mud and just.. stay there. You neither floated nor sank in this mud, you just sat there suspended in whatever position you chose. It really was fascinating. Here are all my girlfriends and I after this experience, a photo that has been pretty popular among our instagram followers 😉
After trekking back to the water and washing our whole bodies off, we had one more adventure to complete: swimming to the back of the cave. It was like swimming completely into the unknown; it was totally and completely dark. It got deeper and deeper until we couldn’t touch anymore, and we were all just paddling with our life jackets along into the blackness, just following the first light which was our guide. This was really amazing too, to look back and see a few dozen tiny lights making their way into the watery abyss. At one point our guide told us to all turn our lights off- it was terrifying and scintillating at the same time. Like, actual total darkness. Pretty crazy. After telling us a few things about the cave and some of the things living inside it (there are cave spiders?! UM, NOPE.) it was time to make our way back through the cold water.
When we arrived back to the main area they had a completely clutch cooler of beers waiting for us, and we all sat and reminisced on our epic day. And to think – these were only two of the caves in Phong Nha National Park. Not only are there more in Phong Nha, but there are dozens of caves in Vietnam, reaching from over 10km long to a few hundred! Vietnam is actually home to the largest cave in the world, Dong Soong, and it is totally on my bucket list to visit that one day, along with another huge cave called mammoth cave. For these caves you have to be a pretty intense adventurer and go on multiple day treks inside them with camping, so basically it sounds like the perfect adventure for me! Until next time, Vietnam Caves. Phong Nha was a definitely a wonderful start