From Huế we traveled north by bus a few hours to Phong Nha, a small riverside town in the hills with an adjacent park by the same name. The park is home to a huge number of limestone caverns including the largest (known) cave in the world, Son Doong. We didn’t have the time or cash to fork over for the several-day excursion into that cave but we did sign up for a 2 day / 1 night trip to a couple of its neighbors (Nước Nứt and Hang Va).
From what we had read we didn’t expect much of Phong Nha town. The cave tourism thing is a fairly new development with many of the big ones only having been discovered in the past ten years. The town has since been transitioning from quiet village to international destination, usually not something that’s favorable aesthetically and culturally. To our surprise we found it to be very beautiful and relaxing, easy to bike around and enjoy panoramas of karst hills, river, and farmland.
Highlights of an afternoon in Phong Nha town included relaxing in a hammock with a beer at Bomb Crater Bar (nicely landscaped around its namesake), watching the sunset on the river, and eating delicious grilled pork and chicken at a smokey local restaurant. I (Gregor) blew my third pair of flipflops here – this is the problem with cheap footwear – leading to watching a mother and two children turn their market stall upside down in search for a matching pair that would fit me well enough.
In the morning we met up with our guide Quang and two fellow cavers Natasha and Tarik. We were briefed on gear and itinerary: hike to Nước Nứt, explore after lunch, then off to camp at the entrance of Hang Va which we would see the next day. We were dropped off at a jungle path and took a pretty easy walk to the first cave where we were served a big lunch in the shady, cool, decidedly cave-like entrance.
The cave started off with some large open spaces with big columns and stalactites, and then changed into following an underground stream under and through narrow spaces to a few other huge caverns. It’s an otherworldly experience going deep into these caves: the air is cool and misty, a distinct damp musty smell is pervasive, and all around are bizarre, massive, and delicate formations of rock and mud. Note: it’s hard to take good pictures inside dark caves without the right equipment! We did the best, but we also stuck together 5 minutes of video footage that helps illustrate the experience. It’s also far from pro, but check out the video here!
Swimming along the sparkling clear and clean waterways past slabs of granite and hanging limestone was really awesome. Our hike in this cave was about 2 km. Looking at bus-sized chunks of rock that had fallen from high ceilings or boulder piles balanced overhead made it hard not to occasionally worry about being squashed, but given that this changes occur over thousands or millions of years it wasn’t too concerning. Of more practical concern was the regular evidence of flooding: logs and other debris lodged in disturbingly high locations. Flooding is seasonal (we were told).
Once we were done with the first cave, we hiked to our campsite. When we asked our guide how far the trek was he said “One hour” so we settled into a comfortable pace for about 20 minutes and then we arrived. Huh, guess we were very fast! When we arrived at camp there was another group eating lunch before trekking back out and we were a little mystified because it was around 3:30 and they all looked wiped. We wondered what the next day had in store for us, haha! After dropping our stuff off we descended into the cave for a ‘swim’ before dinner which turned out to be following a granite tunnel (nearly perfectly circular in some places) a ways downstream. Unfortunately we didn’t have the camera for this part but it was really fun!
So we camped in the jungle near Hang Va which was a really cushy experience. The porters took care of absolutely everything and the food was quite nice. After dinner I (Gregor) shared some rice wine with the locals: this entailed sitting in a circle while they passed around an aquafina bottle full of the grappa-like booze, each of them offering a few kind words to me (translated by Quang) before we downed another swallow. These are all folks who used to be farmers and hunters but have transitioned over to tourism as the local economy has changed. They were very friendly – I wish I knew more Vietnamese so I could have held an actual conversation!
The next day we did Hang Va, which required descending into the cave harnessed to some ropes and then heading upstream in the opposite direction of last night’s swim. This cave sports some cool waterfall areas where the water is shooting out of the ceiling above you, as well as some fun scrambling / squeezing sections.
Reaching the top of a multilevel section of Hang Va required some more roped traversing. Up there are some weird soft cone-like structures formed by sediment dripping into still pools. The pools were mostly dry at this time of year so the sight wasn’t at its most spectacular but nonetheless it was super weird and super interesting.
Both caves at first glance seem quite sterile. The water is clear of any algae or other green stuff (which thankfully means the wet rocks aren’t slippery) and the rock walls look bare. But there’s a decent amount of flora and fauna. Bats of course would circle around us in certain areas. White crickets with huge antennae apparently eat stricken bats that fall to the floor. Weird fungi and even some small white plants grow, and we also saw some spiders (white) and a centipede (white).
A couple times during our treks we turned off all light sources in the caves and just sat there. Not surprisingly, it is totally dark. This is a darker dark, however, than I think I’ve ever experienced before – no stray photon here or there to tickle your eyeball into seeing a spot or two. Just black. (No photos to share of this particular experience).
After climbing back up out of Hang Va we had lunch and then hiked out along a different trail. This was a bit more difficult, not only because it was longer but also it had rained the night before which made the roots and rocks on the steep limestone hill quite slippery. We were also hot and a bit tired. We made it though, not without a few stumbles and a bit of excitement involving some leech removal after fording a couple streams.
We got back to the tour office to clean up – wonderful! – and had a bit of a unique experience. A recent big-budget movie (Kong Skull Island) had filmed in some caves here with the tour company, and the director along with another one of his director buddies (Star Wars Rogue One) and the Vietnamese Tourism Ambassador had returned to visit. This coincided with the 6th anniversary of the tour company, so they wanted to take a group picture, and wanted as many folks in it as possible, so Gregor, Natasha, and Tarik were recruited as extras (sadly Elaine was in the shower). See the photo here: famous folks in the middle, Gregor sticking out in the back.
We spent the night in nearby Đồng Hới where we were to catch a (very cheap, $20!) flight up to Hanoi the next morning. Đồng Hới is a very not-touristy seaside town and unlike much of our trip we really ran into a language barrier and encountered a lot of curious stares. The curious looks peaked when we stopped at a popular looking street place for dinner and ordered soup without having any idea what was in it (the owner held some dark stringy stuff up with her chopsticks by means of asking are you sure you want this? to which we just shrugged and said yes). It turned out to be eel – and very delicious!
Specifics: there are plenty of cheap and survivable guesthouses in Phong Nha, or there are places where you can spend more and like everywhere in Vietnam you get what you pay for. We saw plenty of folks taking just a day trip to Phong Nha from Hue, which is doable but there’s no reason to torture yourself with 8 hours round trip because the town is really nice! Get a bike and ride around. We toured with Oxalis Adventure Tours – they basically have a monopoly on multiday treks to non-touristy caves. It was quite expensive ($350/person) which is more than seemed warranted for 1.5 days of activity despite the high level of service, but still absolutely worth it.