We were setting off from Hue to go north and inland to Phong Nha caves, famous for being part of the largest cave system in the world and for a geologist like Ryan an all round amazing stop on our trip. Our hotel wanted to charge us $8 for the very great privilege of taking us there directly, including picking us up from right outside. We were having none of it, convinced we could do it cheaper under our own steam. So we set off in a taxi to the local bus station, caught a bus to another town called Dong Hoi, got lost, fought off a travel agent who really really wanted to sell us an organised tour, walked across town in the rain to wait for another local bus to take us to Phong Nha caves. Guess how much it costs all together? You guessed it $8! But hey that’s what travelling is about…right?!
The small village of Bo Trach has only been seeing western tourists for a few years and there aren’t a huge amount of amenities in town….aside from the backpacker centre of the Easy tiger hostel. There was no room when we arrived so we opted for a hotel across the road. When I opened the curtains to reveal plastic bags over the windows instead of glass we knew the standard wasn’t high but hey it was cheap! And we could still go over the road for chat and beers…
Lots of people take organised tours to see the caves, but once again us sting flints set about doing it on our own…but this time it worked out. We hired a moped to drive the 45 mins or so to Ke Bang national park, braving the drizzle in our borrowed waterproof trousers, and started off at Paradise Cave. This is one of the most popular destinations with Vietnamese tourists and it’s not hard to see why. As you enter the wooden stairs descend into what could be a totally different planet, stalagmites and stalactites glistening in the falling water, emerge from the walls of the cave almost like a living organism. They were huge…I mean really really big…even the non rock lovers of the group were impressed. But incase you forgot for a moment that you were in SE Asia the authorities gave a helpful reminder in the shape of multicoloured flashing lights illuminating some of the rocks…classic.
Both feeling pretty ‘wowed’ we headed along the road to the imaginably named “Dark Cave” and as the name suggests there is not a multicoloured light in sight! We paid our entrance fee, which got us a life jacket, helmet with light attached and a guide to show us through the cave. As we stripped off to our swim suits in the freezing rain I began to question whether this was a good idea, however by the time we were attached to the zip line it was too late to change our minds. There are many ways to cross a river to a cave, however by zip line has to be one of the most fun. Being unhooked from the zipline we swam behind our guide into the cave, looking at fossils in the walls, climbing through small chambers, and swimming in a mud bath. In what is probably one of the oddest experiences of our lives we swam in the complete darkness in mud with the consistency of melted chocolate, but with a taste that didn’t quite match up. We swam back through the cave in complete darkness, heading towards the sunlight creeping in from the cave opening, with the cave all to ourselves this was a pretty magical experience.
Cold, tired and happy we jumped back on our moped and Ryan drove us back through the stunning countryside, dodging cows in the road, and staring at the misty limestone karst, half obscured by the rain. After a hot shower we ended a brilliant day with beer…what could be better?