Phong Nha Caves 12-13 March 2016
The weather in Hue turned bad at the end of the first week of our PVI project and prevented our work team from completing the outside work. A small crew could still work on the electrics and ceilings at the Hope Centre but with so many of us looking for work, we decided to head off on a sight seeing trip for the weekend. One group headed off on Friday afternoon to Phong Nha, a bus trip of around 200kms. We were too tired to face a four hour mini-bus trip so we elected to go on our own on Saturday morning.
We had an early breakfast to be ready for the mini-bus, which arrived half an hour late anyway. We squeezed ourselves into the back seat, where the bumps are magnified but the leg space is better. I hate mini-bus trips. It wouldn’t be so bad if one couldn’t see ahead. I favour painting over the windscreen. It wouldn’t make any difference to the driver because they don’t seem to worry about other vehicles anyway. They are incredibly skilful but still terrifying. We shared the back seat with a Belgian couple who were only travelling as far as Dong Hoi. They were good company and I managed to understand 80% of the conversation.
The bus followed Highway 1 as far as Dong Hoi then turned inland to the mountains. The countryside south of Dong Hoi is very different to other parts of Vietnam being largely sand dune country with low-lying sparse scrub. Except for the difference in plant species, one could mistake the scenery for parts of Australia. Once in the mountain foothills, the rice fields returned, and later, fields of corn and peanuts dominated. The bus we were on was actually part of a tour which would normally depart Hue and return in the same day. That makes for 400km of travel in a mini-bus, a very unexciting lunch at Phong Nha and a one hour tour of Paradise Cave. One hour of touring one cave hardly seems worth the effort and risk to life and limb but plenty of people do it. The guide did convince us to join their tour of the cave for a small fee and it made sense to agree. Following that, they would drop us off at our hotel in Phong Nha.
Along the way to Paradise Cave, a group of four back backers were dropped off at the Dark Cave, where they could engage in a series of adventure activities, including sailing a flying fox across a gorge, cavorting in a mud pile and falling into rivers. We thought we had fared much better when we got out of the bus at the Paradise Cave to be transported in electric buggies the 1km to the entrance. Then the truth came out. It was a further 520 steps up a mountain to the cave entrance. It was a hard slog.
The cave itself was staggeringly beautiful. The Paradise Cave is the final 1km of a 31km long cave system through the mountains, the longest cave system in the World and discovered as recently as 2005. In places, the cave ceiling is more than 80metres above the floor and yet stalactites seem to nearly reach the floor from the top. These are caves that put the others we’ve visited to shame.
The walk down the 520 steps from the cave was probably harder than the climb up, certainly for Christine who’s knees appreciate stepping up far more than a downward motion. Once back in the bus, we stopped again at the Dark Cave to pick up the backpackers. A young German couple joined us on the back seat and immediately became entwined like a couple of snakes. The girl must have assumed I liked her because she had no issues about spreading herself evenly between her friend and me. She just had ways of taking over space with her body. Fortunately, it was only twenty minutes or so back to Phong Nha and we surrendered the whole back seat to the Germans.
Our hotel, the Mountain View, was a small family run business and very good value at $14 a night. The room was basic but spacious and clean. A highlight was the way the network cable ran in through the bathroom window, disappeared into the wall for a metre or so then emerged again to cut through into the bedroom. The view from the windows was wonderful, with a single row of buildings across the road backed by the sheer rise of a line of limestone mountains. In the morning, the mist pouring down the mountains created a picture postcard view. We wandered down through the small town and found some food, washed down with a glass each of Vietnamese Dalat wine. Either the Dalat Wine has improved or our tastes have deteriorated because we have not been able to drink it before. Now it is passable without being great.
In the morning, we endured the hotel breakfast of flat omelette and baguette. Once we had figured out that the butter was rancid and scraped it all off the baguette, we at least managed to eat something. A banana was the highlight.
A short walk took us down to the dragon boat area where we could purchase tickets to tour the Phong Nha Cave and Tien Son Cave. The price of the cave entrance was cheap enough but to get to them meant hiring a dragon boat at 400,000 dong ($23). The boat took up to 14 people so it meant forming our own group. A few more people came along and Christine went into tour guide mode, gathering money from four young Spanish guys and a father and son French pair. Sharing costs between eight brought things back to a good price and together we made a cheerful group, especially since the others had a standard of English far surpassing our French or Spanish.
The boat trip was a noisy half hour affair down a river full of life and activity. Many small boats were engaged in raking the river boat for weed, which was piled up on the boats. The final purpose of this venture is to provide food for fish farming and fertilizer. Eventually, our boat turned into a smaller stream and deposited us on the bank near the point that the stream disappeared into the cliff face. We followed the signs to Tien Son Cave. Mostly, the signs pointed upward and we followed a tortuous set of steps worse than the climb up to Paradise Cave. Reaching the top was an achievement in itself. The cave was glorious, far smaller in scale than the Paradise Cave but even more spectacular for its amazing formations.
We explored the interior of the Tien Son Cave for a while then made our way down the steps. The Spanish guys stopped halfway for a beer but we didn’t trust ourselves to make the bottom in one piece so resisted and opted for an icecream at the bottom instead.
When the whole group was at the bottom, we got on board the boat again and entered the Phong Nhu Cave with the engine off and the two crew paddling using long flat oars with rope rowlocks. The girl at the bow weighed about the same as one of my legs but still managed to labour on the oar for the next hour or so as we glided through the beautiful cave. It was so restful that at one stage the soft creaking of the oar and gentle surging of the wooden craft lulled me off to sleep.
Eventually, we were dropped off on a sandy shore within the cave and we followed the well-made walkways back to the entrance and daylight. By Vietnamese standards, entrance fees to the caves are quite high but they reflect the effort and money that has gone into providing safe and secure infrastructure. The walkways are superb and can cater for the large crowds they get. The lighting in the cave is excellent and is aimed at providing a natural looking enhancement of the features rather than a gaudy light show. Work is underway to open up more of the 31km of the Paradise Cave system and the people of the area can only benefit from the increased employment opportunities that such a wonderful natural feature provides.
The morning cave tour had taken up four hours and we didn’t have a lot of time to spare getting back to the hotel to pack, check out, have lunch and catch the mini-bus for the return to Hue. The drive back was a little worse than the outward trip because the last hour or so was in rain and darkness, which made it appear certain that many motor bike riders would die because of us. Somehow, the driver managed to avoid them all and we arrived back in Hue around 8pm, tired and stiff in the legs from all the climbing but well satisfied with our trip.