In the 1990s, a local Vietnamese man stumbled across a cave in the jungles of central Vietnam. He didn’t enter it at the time as the hissing sounds of a river running through the cave, combined with whispy clouds exiting, heeding warning signs that his presence was unwelcom to the spirits and gods of his culture.
Nearly 20 years later, in 2009, the British cave association went to explore the jungles to see if there were any undiscovered gems in the already famous Phong Nha cave network. The same local man described the cave and took the researchers back there and what they discovered was the worlds largest cave, Hang Son Doong, or Mountain River Cave. At 5km in length, and 200 metres in height, it is large enough to fit entire blocks of the Manhattan skyline inside.
After a 4am arrival on the night bus from Hanoi, I booked on to a 1 day tour around Phong Nha, to explore the explore the national park and some of the smaller caves. Expeditions to the larger caves took 3 days or more, and if I had enough time I would have liked to have seen them.
In the morning, we were driven through the Park’s karst mountain scenery and along Highway 20. This highway was built by thousands of young Vietnamese volunteers at the time of the American war as a way of ensuring supplies could reach the South of the country. The highway stretches to the Laos border, and is so named as the majority of the volunteers, many of whom lost their lives during the construction of the road, were under 20 years old.
Scars from the war were plain to see, with bomb craters visible in the valley floor and cliffs alike. Our first stop was at the 8 lady cave. The locals dug out small caves in the sides of the mountains to shelter from the U.S. bombing attacks. The 8 lady cave is a memorial to the lives of 8 people who died when a bomb attack caused a slide which buried them alive in the cave. A temple was also built at the site in their honour. Buildings are otherwise forbidden on the land of the national park.
Later in the day we visited the paradise cave and the dark cave, my favourite of which was the dark cave. I zip-lined down into a lake near the entrance of the cave. The only light (hence the name) came from our head torches as we entered the cave, and we explored deep into the cave’s lagoons and passages, ending up in a mud cave.
As I’d spent a day exploring the national park, I hired a push bike for the second day to explore the local villages. In the afternoon we rode almost 10km (on a fixed speed, rusting bicycle) to the imaginatively named ‘Pub with Cold Beer.’ The main attraction here being the option of fresh chicken – choosing a chicken out of the pen and then killing it yourself. I didn’t do this, but was witness to a botched attempt from one of the people I was with.
On the way home we stopped off in the countryside to enjoy the sunset. Losing track of time, we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, with dirt track roads to ride home in the pitch black night. We’d made it a mission to stop off for a drink with some locals on the ride back – being in a part of Vietnam relatively new to tourism, the fun of trying to communicate without a common language appealed to us.
As we rode, the sound of music and cheering crept up on us, as we’d luckily stumbled across the village carnival. We felt like celebrities their, with all the locals wanting to talk to the only white people in the village. We spent a few hours miming out words, playing carnival games (and trading a few small prizes for beers) and winning/losing money on gambling games. Any game we played created a huge crowd of the locals who cheered us with every move.
It was the authentic experience of rural Vietnam I’d been looking for, and that combined with the picturesque scenery of the national park and country side has definitely made this one of my favourite stops so far.