Prior to arriving in Cat Ba, I’d never heard of Phong Nha before. When I got to my hostel, though, I looked at the list of options by bus and Phong Nha happened to be between Cat Ba and the next stop on my list, Hoi An. A quick Google image search gave me lots of gorgeous pictures of caves and jungle, so I decided to book the ticket. I would take a bus leaving at noon, first to a town called Ninh Binh, about 6 hours from Cat Ba, and then overnight to Phong Nha, arriving around 4am. Everyone I met in Cat Ba that had been to Phong Nha recommended the same hostel: Easy Tiger. It wasn’t on the usual booking websites I used, so I had to email them to make my reservation, but they luckily had 3 nights available on the short notice I gave them.
The journey was really, really long. And boring. I first went through the same bus – ferry – bus trip that I did to get to Cat Ba, only instead of going northwest to Hanoi, I went southwest to Ninh Binh (about the same distance). The only semi-exciting thing that happened on this leg of the journey was that I made friends with a CHILD. No one in her family spoke English, but she still decided to fall sleep holding my hand on the ferry and it was absolutely adorable. Once in Ninh Binh, we were dropped off at a hotel for a couple of hours before our sleeper bus arrived to take us the rest of the way to Phong Nha. I met a couple of British guys who I talked to until the bus arrived – Sam and Kyle. Kyle was hilarious because
he reminded me so much of myself – he spent a lot of the two hours thinking of things he’d lost and searching around for them (first his flip flops, which he never found, then his motorcycle helmet, which he did find). Kyle of course also had to use the bathroom at the first stop on the journey, only about 45 minutes in, and a Vietnamese lady felt bad for him for losing his shoes and let him borrow hers for the bathroom. They did not fit, I could not stop laughing.
It took me forever to fall asleep on the bus, though it was really cool how the seats were designed to accommodate sleep (airplanes should be designed this way, honestly); I was the last on the bus and got stuck in the very front, so I
had to listen to the bus driver honking all night. Similar to Yangon, horns seem to be used just to let other drivers know you’re around in Vietnam. Once I did fall asleep, though, I slept well and didn’t wake up until we arrived in Phong Nha. Thankfully, the hostels in Phong Nha are used to the night buses dropping people off at 4am, so there was someone on the desk to let me check in, put my backpack somewhere safe, and then show me to a hammock I could sleep in until around noon when I was allowed to actually check in to my room. I also slept well in the hammock until about 8:30, when I got up and had some breakfast and went to the free information session about the various tours and caves in the area. The things that were most appealing to me were Paradise Cave, which is ranked as the #1 most beautiful cave in the world, and a jungle trek. I made a mental note to come back later to book a tour that included both and went back and slept in my hammock again until about 12:30.
After the exhausting journey, I didn’t feel like doing much that night other than lounging
around the common area. The next morning, I woke up and booked my tour for the next day – there was a perfect combination of Paradise Cave and a 2.5km jungle trek that included a barbecue in the jungle and then swimming through a cave that was just discovered about a year ago. Unfortunately, there were no more tours available for that day, so I would have to just explore the town and take it easy until the following day (my last day in Phong Nha).
Luckily, Phong Nha is a GORGEOUS little town – it’s only just started becoming a place tourists visit in the last 5 years or so, so the town is really just one main road about 1 mile long. The town is rich in history though, as are the caves. During the Vietnam War, Phong Nha Cave was one of the most important caves for the Viet Cong to store war supplies and house a military hospital. The entrance is so hidden in the jungle that the US air force wasn’t able to detect it and it was easy for the Viet Cong to move the supplies from the cave and along the Ho Chi Minh trail during the night. Aside from the main street, Phong Nha sits on a river among lots of rolling green hills and limestone cliffs. I was lucky enough to be by the river to catch an AMAZING sunset – even better than the one I saw in Pai.
The next morning, a van picked me up at 8am and drove me and a group of others to Paradise Cave (Thien Duong Cave) as our first stop. In total, the cave is about 31km long, and there is a boardwalk and lighting set up for tourists for about 1km. It was a long, hot hike to the mouth of the cave, and then a long set of stairs down into it. The cave was only discovered in 2005 and the only manmade parts of the cave are the boardwalk and the lights – everything else is completely natural formations, which is mind-blowing to see in person. Our guide explained the difference between the main structures – stalactites and stalagmites (stalactites are formations that hang from the ceilings of caves and stalagmites are formations that rise from the floor) and gave us about an hour to explore on our own. As usual, I walked around with my head in the sky, drooling.
After Paradise Cave, our group headed to Eight Ladies Cave. We weren’t allowed inside the cave, as it’s a spiritual relic from the war, but it is shallow enough to see inside. The historical significance of the cave is that it lay on a common route for transporting war supplies from North to South. During a US raid, 8 people sought shelter in the cave, but bombs cause hundreds of tons of rocks to cover the exit, trapping everyone inside. There were significant efforts to rescue those inside, but all were unsuccessful. After the war ended, the rocks were finally removed and a temple was built in remembrance of those who had been trapped.
From here, we walked down to the area where our jungle trek would begin. We walked along the paved road to get there and it was so hot the tour guide grabbed a piece of bamboo and wrote my name in the tar on the road, which was liquified in the heat. When booking the tour, I had told the guy on the front desk at my hostel that the jungle trek was one of the things I found most appealing and he tried really hard to sell me on a 12km trek instead of the 2.5km on I chose. Since I don’t have shoes for serious hikes, I decided to stick to the tour I chose and once I started it, I couldn’t believe he tried to sell me on something even more difficult. The first part of the trek was extremely difficult – steep, rocky, nothing to hold on to. Several people fell and I’m pretty surprised I managed not to be one of them. Being my first time in a true jungle, I can’t even describe how beautiful it was, and pictures don’t do it justice either. So much green, so many wonderful noises, and even here, in the middle of the jungle, there are remnants from the Vietnam War. Every once in awhile, we would pass a big open crater where vegetation had just started to begin growing again and our guide would point it out to us as a bomb crater from the war. As I walked through the jungle, I tried to imagine it during wartime, but it’s pretty impossible to imagine such a beautiful place in a negative way.
The trek actually went by a lot faster than I’d expected, and we eventually came to the river where there was a small shelter and barbecue lunch set up for us. All of the food had been prepared in the jungle by locals and was laid out for us on a tarp. We had fresh cabbage and lady fingers, cucumber, rice, and barbecued pork, tofu and eggs. They also supplied us with rice paper so we could roll our own spring rolls. By the time we got here, it was already about 1:30pm and we were starving. The lunch was perfect.
After our lunch, we geared up in life vests, helmets, head lamps, and gloves, and got ready to go rock climbing/scrambling to get to a newly discovered cave that we would be able to swim about 1/2 a mile into. It was a really difficult climb through rocks to reach the cave – again, surprised I didn’t hurt myself – and eventually we came to the mouth of the cave and were able to jump in the water. It was the perfect relief from the killer heat we’d been trekking in and eating in. We swam around at the mouth of the cave for a bit before heading in. It was cool to see the inside of such a large cave without any of the manmade modifications of Paradise Cave, but obviously a lot more difficult to see or appreciate the formations inside. Thankfully though, the lack of light made it easy for us to pretend we didn’t see the massive amount of bats inside the cave. Once we made it to the end of the cave, our guide showed us the mud/clay on the side of the caves and we all put some on our faces and relaxed before swimming back. It was really gorgeous and probably my favorite part of the day, so I’m bummed it was something I couldn’t take any pictures of.
We trekked back to the van the same way we’d come and when we got there, the guides had beer waiting for us to celebrate the end of a good day. When I got back to my hostel, I again took the new best shower of my life and then met my new roommates – two German guys named Dominic and Stefan. We all decided to go down to the hostel’s happy hour together – free beer until the kegs run out starting at 6pm. True to the stereotype, the Germans could drink. A lot. I kept up to the best of my ability, and we eventually met some friends they had made in Bali, Svenja and another girl whose name I can’t remember, who were both from Germany as well. We spent the rest of the night drinking and enjoying the live music and good company. After our hostel stopped serving alcohol at 11, we went to a little pub down the street to play foosball. It was a bit of a walk, and on the way back I happened to look up and see the most beautiful night sky I’ve EVER seen. It was a clear, cloudless night and being in such a small village with very few lights, I got a taste for how beautiful the stars can actually be – even better than Minnesota! And, for the first time ever, I saw the Milky Way. I sat down on the sidewalk with Dominic and Svenja for at least an hour and we just looked at the sky counting shooting stars.