Sunshine in Hang Son Doong. By Ryan Deboodt
The Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is a rugged swathe of limestone mountains riddled with gigantic caves and home to endangered wildlife and ethnic minority groups. The gateway to this land of adventure is Phong Nha, a mellow, welcoming village lying on the banks of the graceful Son River.
Hang Son Doong is the cave that made the area famous, and by some criteria, it is the largest cave in the world. It’s big enough to accommodate skyscrapers and a jumbo jet and it features it very own jungle ecosystem. No wonder then that the multi-day tours to explore it have sold out every year since they began in 2013. To explore this mammoth wonder of nature, you’ll need US$3,000 and six days, but for those with less time and funds, there is plenty more multi-day subterranean exploring to be done.
Deciding which of the other expeditions to embark on is no easy task. With just two days visitors can enter the magical world of the Tu Lan cave system, swimming through river caves and camping on the edge of waterfall-filled lagoons surrounded by cliffs, while the beady eyes of flying squirrels peer inquisitively down from the tree tops.
Alternatively, head for the most recently opened cave experience and trek through Hang Nuoc Nut, camp in a jungle at the base of a limestone cliff, then enter the surreal world of Hang Va with it’s bizarre semi-submerged formations.
Those who want a taste of the enormous scale of Son Doong without going for the full experience should choose Hang En, made famous by the New York Times, with its magnificent, colossal main chamber containing a beach and shimmering turquoise pools.
Those with less time can visit the cathedral-like chambers of Paradise Cave, where stunning formations have been tastefully lit allowing day-visitors the chance to marvel at the beauty created over thousands of years.
There is much more to Phong Nha than the underground exploring however. The jungle is home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna and the ultimate way to discover this is on Hai’s Eco Conservation Tour.
Mr. Hai, a young and enthusiastic conservationist, takes visitors to the Wildlife Rescue Centre to see rescued macaques, langurs, porcupines and more. What’s more, while trekking to the Thac Gio Falls and deeper into the jungle, there is even a small chance you could spot macaques enjoying their own natural habitat.
For another day out to remember, hire a bike and pedal out to the Bong Lai village in search of the Pub With Cold Beer for one of the country’s best foodie experiences. Here, only one item is on the menu—the most sublime grilled chicken known to man, served up with unbeatable homemade peanut sauce. After lunch, ride a little further and reward yourself with a cold drink and views across the Cuong River valley at the impossibly pretty lookout of the Wild Boar Eco Farm.
While the Dark Cave (Hang Toi) attracts backpackers in droves, the Non Mooc Eco Trail remains more serene, it’s cool, rushing turquoise water providing the ideal way to cool down when the mercury rises. It’s possible to cycle out here via farmland and cross the original Ho Chi Minh Trail on a tour with Phong Nha Adventure Cycling; alternatively, hire a bike and make your own private adventure.
With just 24 hours in Phong Nha, head to the Paradise Cave to get a taste of the majesty of the underground world and add on a trip to the Non Mooc Eco Trail in the afternoon.
Those with two days visitors could add a second day of exploring the Bong Lai loop by bicycle or a tour of the jungle with Hai’s Eco Conservation Tour. People looking to get the full caving experience should opt for one of the two-day trips: Hang Va, Tu Lan or Hang En.
Rains close some of the caves from November to January. April to June are fantastic months for the peanut harvest and swarms of butterflies while July to September the temperature can be very warm.
Trains arrive at nearby Dong Hoi train station from both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Direct flights from both cities are also available to Dong Hoi. The easiest way to transfer to Phong Nha is by local metered taxi.