Located at what was previously the split between North and South Vietnam is the luscious greenscape of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. A UNESCO-listed National Park, Phong Nha Ke Bang is over 850km squared of unspoilt jungle and 350 Caves - with more still being discovered!
In 2009 this beautiful region was put on the world map when Son Doong, the world’s largest cave, was rediscovered by a team of British Cavers along with a local farmer from Phong Nha. National Geographic went in and thus, the tourism of the region began.
There is so much to discover here - but we would like to tell you of our particular experience in the jungle. Find out more about the history of the park and its recent discoveries here.
We booked our Hang Tien Endeavour 2D1N Tour in the Tu Lan Cave System through Oxalis Vietnam. The photos and itinerary we were given by the company, although comprehensive, did not truly prepare us for what we were about to experience.
We flew in to Ho Chi Minh City and connected to Dong Hoi where we were greeted by a driver from our hotel, Sy’s Homestay, in Phong Nha Village. The drive from the airport takes roughly one hour to get to Phong Nha town.
Since the tourist business is still in its infancy, the town itself is one strip of hotels and restaurants next to a mountain with a Hollywood-esque sign of ‘Phong Nha Ke Bang’. The town resembles a flat rural village with one ‘high street’ of backpacker-style hostels. The most prominent hostel is in the middle: Easy Tiger. They have quite a fun pool and bar with lots of interesting visitors from all over the world.
Across from Easy Tiger is Paradise Pizza: Phong Nha’s ONLY pizza place. We gave it a go and it did not disappoint. The women running it make their own pizza dough from scratch and each pizza is made to order. It is a great option for post-caving-sustenance... But we will get to this later. What was interesting, however, is that the Phong Nha locals have never tried pizza outside of this pizza place and even find Paradise Pizza too expensive for them. It definitely only caters to the backpackers coming through the town to visit the caves.
We settled in at Sy’s Homestay away from the main road and its hostels. Seemingly slightly more upscale, this Homestay had a view of beautiful rice paddies and had its own swimming pool. Surprisingly affordable (really, try 200 HKD a night) and super friendly, Sy and his wife will cook your meals and attend to you personally. The facilities were clean and had air conditioning, fully sealed rooms, and a choice of a hot and cold shower.
The next morning, after Sy’s breakfast noodles and eggs, we were scooped up by the Oxalis team. Our personal guides came to pick us up and talked us through what our tour would entail, as well as the history of the National Park. Their English was phenomenal! As Phong Nha locals or Ethnic Minority Villagers of the region, they self-taught English through years of listening to tourists. One of our guides showed us the podcasts on forests and jungles that he listens to. The guides are therefore extremely eager to chat and have absolutely no issue in answering any of your questions. They are great company and seem so well educated on matters concerning the jungle and its caves. You feel safe in their hands from the word ‘go’.
After signing our forms at the office, receiving safety briefings and packing our bags, we hopped in to the car yet again for another 40 minute drive through the park to our trailhead. And the adventure begins…
… With water buffalo on our trail.
The trek to the campsite is roughly 3km but is a long trek of up and down a mountain over slippery rocks and fallen trees. Be sure to pick up a walking stick! We would also recommend that if you have gentle feet to bring your own trekking shoes with thick soles. The boots they provide you with are like converse therefore your feet start to hurt after hours of walking over sharp rocks. If you go in the raining season you WILL walk through streams and mud. You will not want to wear waterproof shoes since they tend to hold water in instead of drying out.
The campsite was just stunning. You are parked by a fresh water spring coming out from under the caves and watch a breathtaking sunset over the mountain. The spring, rich in calcium and limestone, is a perfect refresher after a hot hike. It is your only shower.
There is a fully-equipped kitchen at the campsite. All the meals cooked for you are made fresh and each meal different from the last. Meal is the wrong word, we mean FEAST.
You then spend the afternoon hiking to a shallow cave and back to the campsite for swimming, a feast, some rice wine and card games with your lovely guides. You will fall asleep before 8pm (if you are not mesmerised by the startling view of the milky way shining brightly above you in the pitch black jungle).
The next day you sit for a Vietnamese take on a French Crepe breakfast of pancakes, chocolate and bananas and then you are off to explore the caves! The highlight of the entire trip is the trek through Hang Tien 1 and Hang Tien 2.
Come back next week to view PART TWO of our Adventure: Cave Exploration....
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