Resplendent. That’s one word to describe the lush green karst mountains that rose sharply before us, like the brawny backs of sleeping giants. After the hubbub in Hue, it really felt like we were entering a realm of peace and possibly even magic and Falkor the Dragon would soon be swooping down from the sky like a spectral albino puppy and…
“Shit, there’s only one main street in town. Where are the restaurants at?” I said, panicking.
I didn’t know it yet, but the recently-crowned UNESCO heritage jewel that is Phong Nha doesn’t pride itself on having a vibrant culinary scene – it’s the caves the tourists come for.
Beneath Asia’s oldest karst mountains lies hundreds of cave systems of extraordinary size and length, including Son Doong, the granddaddy of all caves, so big its largest chamber can fit a Boeing 747. There are weekly guided tours into Son Doong – actually, “caving expedition” would be a more appropriate term given how it’s a 4-day / 3-night affair that involves spidering up vertical rock walls, inching along crumbling ledges and wading through an underground river and forest.
Since we have two children and have also seen enough horror films like The Descent to know that a caving expedition is not for us, we gave Son Doong a pass and opted for something more undemanding and family friendly.
The idea of cruising leisurely – instead of spelunking – into a cave seemed terrific, so we bought tickets to the eponymous Phong Nha Cave, which is only accessible by boats lined up at the only jetty in town. Unfortunately, it seemed like the whole of Vietnam thought the same. We found ourselves puttering down an immensely busy river with dozens of other wooden boats, feeling slightly stunned by this unexpected turn of events.
After about an hour of waving to vessel after vessel filled with deliriously happy Vietnamese tourists on the tail-end of their public holiday, we came to a screeching halt at the cave entrance, together with other boats.
“It’s full inside,” our boatboy said in a combination of sign language and Vietnamese. “We wait here.”
It seemed like ages before we were finally allowed in, only to be faced with THIS.
Water levels were high and the actual entrance itself, we saw, was big enough to accommodate only one boat at a time. A few men in uniform scurried around with whistles, directing traffic flow. To top it all off, we had become sitting targets for the swallows, who came here to nest and socialize. #thirdworldnightmare
Smiles gradually turned into frowns and, after dodging numerous shit bombs raining down on our heads, we were finally given the green light to enter, but only with the engines switched off because, you know, sound pollution. Our captain whipped out a huge oar and expertly maneuvered us past other boats – “Haha, cya later suckas!” – and in we sailed, silently, expectantly, into the biggest, most gorgeous damn cavern I have ever seen.
This certainly beats walking, I thought, feeling relaxed as we sailed from one magnificent chamber to another. But then we pulled up to the shores of the underground river and the boatman gestured for us to get off.
Thankfully, it was a lovely, uncomplicated walk along an undulating pathway, past gigantic limestone sculptures that look even better than anything you can find in the Louvre. Our kids wanted to go on a bear hunt and we relented.
If only the journey into Paradise Cave – another highlight of this national park – were half this pleasant. Everyone told us it was bigger, but no one told us it would be hell to get to, especially if you’re used to being chauffeured around in your own private boat.
Smack in the middle of forested karst peaks, the cave entrance – and exit – was unassuming and unimpressive. But enter and the sight of a thousand wooden staircases descending into a colossal underground chamber will take your breath away, but not for the reasons you might imagine.
“Holy crap,” I whispered. “We have to climb all the way down….and all the way up again?”
So we gingerly made our way down into the dim interior – no abseiling or rappelling because that would’ve been faster and more fun – as groups of grown Vietnamese people bounded past us yelling their heads off (who would’ve thought the Vietnamese would be so infatuated with their own echoes?).
But when we came upon our first collection of stalactite and stalagmite formations, like swirls of gleaming rock candies, protruding from every which corner of the cave, it dawned upon us that Paradise Cave was called a paradise for a reason. Some resembled elephants, others the Goddess of Mercy – making it the perfect spot to conduct your own Rorschach test and see if you’ve got a loony in the family (What looked like a lump of melted wax to me looked like a “headless pirate skeleton holding his head in his hands” to our 4-year-old so I’m not the one with the problem).
The cave system extends for 31 kms but, unless you pre-book a special in-depth tour, you’re only allowed to visit the first kilometer via a series boardwalks. If you manage to walk all the way till the end without punching one of those obnoxious Vietnamese tourist who can’t keep his mouth shut – in which case, congratulations! you’re probably fit to be a parent – you will eventually come to a final chamber featuring stalactites that look less like limestone deposit, and more like an enchanted waterfall from Narnia.
And then let’s not forget the very rewarding climb back up with a 15kg toddler.
You emerge into broad daylight like a baby bursting out of the vajayjay, feeling both dizzy and triumphant. Should you choose to celebrate your triumphant return to the civilization, a trip to the most adventurous cave for lazy thrill-seekers would round out your experience. The Dark Cave experience include ziplining into it like that guy in Mission Impossible, bathing in mud and kayaking back out. Of course, it was impossible to live out my mud-wrestling fantasies with two very young children so we celebrated by lazing in our hotel and ordering room service instead.
Our accommodation, the Victory Road Villas, is probably the poshest in town. Rooms are two-storeys high, and come with their own outdoor tub, swing, and – for the kill – Netflix. There’s a small but strategically situated swimming pool, right in front of your room overlooking the distant mist-shrouded mountains.
Not that there’s a bad view to be had anywhere in this place.
At dinnertime, the manager, a lovely but aloof Frenchman, will drop you off in a decent restaurant he recommended on that little strip of road, but not before taking you for a spin in his rusty ol’ US army jeep – a Vietnam war relic – that might or might not work depending on how well it’s lubricated that afternoon. It’s the only one in town so expect plenty of attention.
The rice dishes and kebabs at Bamboo Cafe were lovelier than expected, as was the ambience. They’ll even serve you banana split in the shape of a penis should you be so inclined.
There are other things to do in the national park besides caves. We hired a jeep to take us to Bong Lai Valley the next day, and spent around half an hour bouncing around in the backseat as it traversed across a single dirt path meant for farmers and their bikes. Interspersed with paddy fields and small villages, the valley is a fab place to chill and experience a slice of rural life for a pretty penny.
We dropped by The Duck Stop, not expecting – especially as a paying customer – to be decked out like a farmer and released into a pen of filled with hundreds of starving, menacing ducks.
Of course it didn’t help that they gave us duck food and scattered it at our feet, Viet Cong torture-style. Our kids began screaming like they were on an episode of Nightmare on Elm Street and one of these vicious little bastards pecked me so hard he punctured my skin.
After sterilizing my wound with wet wipes to make sure I don’t contract flesh-eating bacteria, they brought us out to the paddy field and plonked us – one at a time – on a buffalo named Donald Trum (I suppose you can’t say the Vietnamese don’t have a sense of humor). We held on for life as the buffalo plodded in and out of a mud pool, taking us along, while a Vietnamese kid ran around us taking pictures like a pap.
These Vietnamese kids were so amazing we were tempted to smuggle one home with us. Apart from being a pro with camera phones, they also entertained our children, hosed us off and served us a light lunch (unfortunately, no duck because the ducks would probably kill you before you could get to them).
The kids were related to the owner, Quynh, an enterprising young man in his twenties who lives in a ramshackle lil’ hut with his brother and parents out back. We had the most hilarious time, and wished him nothing but the best.
We also stopped at The Pub With The Cold Beer for more food. This humble mom-and-pop-owned eatery was catapulted to the international spotlight after being featured on CNN. We were delighted to discover that it was exactly as advertised and more. People come here for cold beer – and freshly slaughtered chicken straight from their backyard.
But here’s the catch: you get to do it yourself.
We followed our host around as she spent forever trying to catch a chicken. And then she held its exposed throat over a bowl and handed us a knife. The chicken probably knew its fate, and lay strangely meek in her hands. The kids were strangely respectful, serving as silent participants in this ritual.
And in five painfully slow minutes, the deed was done. The blood trickled into the bowl and the chicken’s eyes glazed over as its life drained away.
“A chicken died for our family,” I whispered. “That’s why we should never waste food.”
My 4-year-old understood.
And then he skipped to the play area, grinning, to wait while the lady cooked our meal over a hot charcoal-powered wok. The chicken arrived piping hot an hour later, with their famous peanut sauce and fresh stir-fried vegetables from their garden.
And you know what? Phong Nha might not have the culinary vibrancy of bigger towns but it has the most authentic (and unpretentious) farm-to-table restaurant you’ll ever find, anywhere in the world. And hey, if you don’t fancy the food, there’s always cold beer.
Victory Road Villas If you don’t like roughing it out with other backpackers, this boutique property is the most expensive one in town. Their massive rooms, which spans over two storeys, have all the amenities you need, and extra, including Netflix and an outdoor tub. A filling Western-style ala carte breakfast is included in the price. $$$
- There are hundreds of cave systems on Phong Nha but only a handful are open to public. Allow yourself at least one full day to see two of the region’s best, most accessible ones: the Phong Nha Cave and Paradise Cave.
- There are several specialist tours that bring you deeper into the caves but many require at least an overnight stay or two – be sure to do your research to find the best one and prebook a spot.
- Phong Nha caves are only accessible by boats. No advance reservation is needed – just show up at the only ticket counter in town and pay up. If you’re a tourist, they will charge you the price of one boat (be sure to tip your captain!) unless you request for a shared ride.
- It’s a bit of a walk to the entrance of Paradise Cave from the ticket counter and I wont recommend it if you’re short on time. You can always rent a buggy at the entrance and save your strength for when you really need it – the walk into and out of the actual cave itself.
- Cars are not recommended in Bong Lai Valley, an eco-tourism destination by itself, because of the terrible road conditions, so be sure to rent a jeep or bike. You can easily spend a full day there if you like – eating, floating down the river in a rented tube, and at the Duck Stop. Otherwise, half a day is enough to get a taste of what is on offer. Bring swimmers along.