Phong Nha National Park was my favorite part of the trip. There were multiple firsts: first time in a gigantic cave, first time in a cave without any light, first time frolicking around in mud in a cave (or anywhere), and first time ziplining in such a beautiful location. Even before all of this we had an adventure to get there.
We started from Hội An and made a stop to pick up Hannah in Đà Nẵng at the airport. She was flying in from Chiang Mai, Thailand where she had had a wonderful time with a good friend and some elephants. We had hired another driver for this leg of the trip to take the scenic route and stop along the way if we were hungry. The driver recommended a restaurant, but when we arrived we realized that it was an expensive seafood restaurant where you literally pick the live fish and they take it from the tank to be cooked. I’d never seen anything like it before and most of us, myself included, weren’t into the see-food seafood thing. Instead we picked a random Vietnamese place that had tasty Phở Gà (Vietnamese chicken noodle soup). After lunch, we headed to the Hải Vân Pass, a beautiful roadway with awesome views and interesting military structures. I couldn’t find an explanation for what seemed to be military lookouts, but I did find that the Hải Vân pass has been a strategically key area throughout Vietnam’s history.
After the pass, we continued toward Huế where we would catch a train to Đồng Hới where we would get a taxi to take us to the destination of the day, Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng. On the way to Huế we passed more amazing views down close to the water. Once we got into Huế it was dark and time to find dinner. We had a couple hours to kill before our train would take us to Đồng Hới, so after dinner we spent time at a café where David, Derick, and I enjoyed my favorite cheap Vietnamese beer, Huda. Then, we got on the train and almost immediately fell asleep, though our night was not yet over. At midnight, we made it to Đồng Hới and took the 45-minute taxi ride to Phong Nha.
We stayed at the Nguyen Shack, which was definitely a shack. There were no doors, just curtains, to the “rooms” and there was a huge cockroach on the wall when we got there. I wouldn’t suggest staying here if you are expecting a normal hotel, but if you like camping, this is more like glamping. Sleeping outside but still with a roof over your head. Having no energy to complain and no other options at 1am, we went to sleep in the surprisingly comfy beds. We had a lot planned for the next day, so we needed our energy.
The tour started in the morning with a hike through the forest. At the beginning of the hike there was a cage with a couple monkeys and a python. The animals seemed to be there just for tourists’ enjoyment, which I don’t support, but I still enjoyed getting a close-up view – monkey faces are so much like our own that you can see them thinking. Past the cages we came up on a stream that was full of waterfalls. I had a lot of fun hopping up and clambering on the way back up next to the waterfalls. This is one of my favorite things to do at home in Asheville, so I was glad to be able to do it in Vietnam.
Next destination was Paradise Cave, the gigantic cave. The entire length of the cave is 31 km, but we were able to explore about 1 km with paths and lighting. Once we got down to the main level of the cave the lights actually completely shut off and we were left in darkness for about a minute, an unexpected experience.
On our way to the next cave we had lunch where we were served a big platter on banana leaves with various meats, rice, noodles, and greens. The idea was to make spring rolls by wrapping whatever we wanted into rice paper. Most of us just ended up eating the stuff on the platter, not bothering with the rice paper.
The final portion of our tour in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park was the most exciting and my favorite. From just above where we had lunch we jumped off a tower and ziplined to the mouth of Hang Tối (Dark Cave). Inside the cave we explored bare foot without any paths or railings. We only had our guide, helmets, and the lights attached to our helmets. At the end of the cave there was a mud pit filled with people all commenting on how the mud felt on their bodies. It honestly felt disgusting. It’s hard to explain why it was so much fun to get super dirty and slather mud all over myself and others but I’d still recommend this to anyone looking for an adventure and an experience that is certainly unique. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to bring our phones to get any pictures inside this cave. I did bring our GoPro, so I got some footage but I need to compile it into a video first. Hopefully, I’ll be able to share the video soon.
At the end, we were given some free time to play on ziplines and jump into the water. It was absurd that there was a playground like this in the middle of this beautiful national park with mountains surrounding us on all sides. There is a ridiculous amount of fun to have in Vietnam and I’m surprised I hadn’t heard about it before planning this trip. The fun continues in the next post where Christina will tell you about our time in Hạ Long Bay, probably the most famous tourist destination in Vietnam.