Every once in while, you just gotta get away from the city. Especially in Vietnam I find. Sooner or later, the crazy traffic and the constant honking is going to get to you. Some towns have more touts than others, and that too, gets tiring. So off we went to a farmstay just outside Phong Nha-Ka National Park.
Phong Nha-Ka Bang National Park only just opened up to tourism about a year or two ago. As written in my guide book, it won’t be a secret for long. And I’ll bet it won’t.
Located about 60km from Dong Hoi, it is a beautiful area with limestone hills, rainforest, turquoise streams and traditional villages. Getting here is more costly but logistically not really that difficult since the area has some paved roads now. This area has some of the world’s most impressive cave systems, and it is where the world’s biggest cave – the Son Doong cave – was discovered in 2009. For those who are interested in Son Doong, this 25-minute National Geographic documentary is well worth viewing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgBFl847z-4 Son Doong is not open to the public and will unlikely be in the immediate future.
The national park was created to protect one of the world’s two largest karst regions with 300 caves and grottoes. Before Son Doong Cave was discovered, Phong Nha held several world cave records, as it has the longest underground river, as well as the largest caverns and passageways.
Taking care of the environment, and keeping it pristine is still a new concept in Vietnam. After all, most are on meagre incomes, and are more concerned about making a living and feeding their families. Before becoming Unesco-listed, there were noodle stands around the caves in the park, and litter in the streams and waterholes. But since receiving funding from Unesco, the locals have been shown the benefits of keeping the area protected and clean, not only for the environment, but also economically. They are being introduced alternative ways of earning income, such as guiding etc, instead of logging and hunting. Unesco, working in conjunction with a European company which manages the funds, ensure the money is spent wisely and in the right areas, and to make sure the funds do not get into the wrong hands.
One of the most beautiful caves within the national park is Paradise Cave. This cave is certainly no secret. Best to come on a week day, and perhaps later in the afternoon after the groups have left.
Paradise Cave is 31km long (you are able to visit the first kilometre), which is considered the longest cave in this national park. The height can reach 100m and width 150m. The limestone formations here are simply spectacular.
Thanks to Unesco’s funding and ‘education program’, Paradise Cave is kept very clean by Vietnamese standards. Simple things like not littering in the cave or not touching the formations are still things locals are learning about. So, you will still find small bits of garbage in the cave despite all the bins. But at least the process has started.
An amazing experience which I was not able to capture on camera was getting a taste of caving. We didn’t really know what to expect, as the guide wanted to keep this part of the program a surprise. We were asked to simply bring our swimsuits, and that it was not optional, but mandatory, as we WILL get wet.
We got changed, and we each grabbed a half paddle, a life jacket, a headlamp and headed towards the water where the kayaks were. I went barefoot as I was told I would lose my flip flops. We got into the kayaks, and after a short paddle, maybe 10-15 minutes, we arrived at the entrance to a cave. We got out of our kayaks, turned on our headlamps and started walking into the cave. At times it was pebbly, other times sandy or muddy. It was very dark, and at times very narrow. The rock formations were amazing. It’s called the Dark Cave because of the basalt, which is a dark fine-grained volcanic rock. The formations form razor sharp edges and moon-like landscapes. There were also fossils to be seen, and white fish. We were told about the white scorpions with no eyes. By this time, it was pitch back if it wasn’t for the headlamps. We started swimming through part of the cave with our rather dim headlamps on. Had we been alone, it would have be pretty freaky. On the way out, we turned off all our headlamps, and simply swam in complete darkness towards the faint light that we could see coming in from the entrance of the cave. To say it was incredible is an understatement!