Travel for me has changed insurmountably since I started solo adventuring at the tender age of 18. Once guided by fashion and festivities (heck i’m still guided by those), my trips these days are peppered with treks and hikes and personal challenges (heights anyone?).
So when I arrived in the picturesque inland village of Phong Nha, a town which is famous for it’s extensive cave system, I immediately started looking up tours that would be just a little outside my comfort zone.
Checking in at the Easy Tiger, with its big pool overlooking the mountain ranges, it would be very easy to get stuck in this peaceful haven and never step foot in a cave. But that’s not what we’re here for folks. We’re here to see some nature!
Willing myself to do some morning exploration after my overnight train trip, and not just bum by the pool, I tagged on to the rather large group from that hostel that was going to visit the Phong Nha and Tien Son caves – both a short walk, then leisurely boat ride away.
You can see these caves separately (and save yourself a hell of a stair climb), but when in Rome! Boat trips like these are also a great way to make new friends and I found myself getting along swimmingly with a fellow Australian Jimmy, fresh from an amazing adventure in Europe. As we swapped travel tales, the boat came round to the mouth of the Phong Nha cave, an incredible limestone mountain formation, jutting out of the aquamarine water.
I was honestly not expecting too much from this cave (I’d had my eye on the famous Paradise Cave) but was completely blown away with the sheer beauty and scale of the cavern, the colours and the crisp air as we floated (actually raced – it seems the local oarsman have a small rivalry) deep inside.
Word to the wise: if you also plan to see Tien Son cave, bring your sneakers. That sucker is a good 500 steps due north, and man does it get sweaty! But once again, a little effort leads to rewards, this time with a slightly dodgy boardwalk that lowers you into the depths of this mighty cave system for another magical experience. Harry Potter would froth for this shit.
Fully inspired by what I’d seen and ready for a challenge, I signed up for the Abandoned Valley tour with Jimmy, located in a remote area of the world heritage Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. This tour takes in 12km of the Ho Chi Minh trail, through the Abandoned Valley, exploring the Vietnamese tropical forest and experiencing the history of the Vietnam-American war as you trek along the narrow track. Sounds like a riot, right?
The trek also promises to take you in the back end of the famous Dark Cave (most tours take you in the road-facing entrance for mud baths and kayaking), and explore unspoilt Hang E where you can swim in a crystal clear natural spring.
Slightly nervous (not about the trek itself, but more about the inner-cave rock climbing in the dark), but knowing this would be an experience like no other, I paid my fare and tried to get a good night’s sleep.
Fresh with enthusiasm and a little bit of adrenaline, we were escorted the next morning to a seemingly random spot on the side of the road within the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Due to the location of this trek, you are required to have a member of the national park team with you, hence the price of the trek (around $90AUD, much of which goes to supporting employment for the local people). We were also supported by a team of local porters who practically ran the trail carrying out lunch suppliers while we stumbled along behind.
This trek is challenging but definitely not out of the realm for most semi-fit people. Besides a short, sharp climb at the beginning, you’ll enjoy a downhill roll for the first half of the trek. But remember, you have to return from whence you came.
The Ho Chi Minh trail was a logistical system that ran from North to South Vietnam, a pathway providing support to the North Vietnamese troops in the South during the war, in the form of supplies and manpower. In its entirety, the trail runs for around 1000kms and as you walk through the dense jungle, you only but think of what it would have been like to have to risk your life running supplies along this path, amidst bombings and disease and wild animals and everything else that comes with war.
First stop on our journey is the Dark Cave, not discovered like most of the caves in the area until 1994, and encompassing 6kms of total darkness. The dark doesn’t worry me, it’s the slippery-ass rocks and my unsure footing that have me in nerves as we enter the abyss. There are a couple of hairy moments, mostly of my own doing, but it’s also a thrill scrambling over formations that are no less than 3million years old.
A relatively flat walk, past poison ivy mind you (wear pants!), takes us to Hang E cave, one of the most beautiful river caves in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. I have maybe seen water this colour once in my short little life, such aquamarine beauty is a sight to behold!
But prior to dipping our toes in the chilly bliss, we are treated to quite possibly one of the best meals of the trip (yeah yeah I know I’ve said that more than once already). Chunks of freshly barbecued pork are placed atop personal mounds of rice, lettuce, herbs, crispy tofu and cucumber, which we then fashioned into our own rice paper rolls – this is definitely a technique I’m taking home with me. Topped with a sweet green chilly dressing and salty as hell peanut this must be what heaven tastes like.
Note: would someone please tell the adults of today (apparently that’s me too) that you do not need to wait 30minutes after eating to go for a swim. Lies I tell you!
Kitted up in life jackets, that suspiciously had straps that went round your undercarriage and made for a rather uncomfortable wedge experience, we splashed roughly about 300m into the cave, taking in the sheer magnificence of nature, before the chilly water got the best of us and we scrambled to shore.
If you’re up for a little adventure, a big sweat and an experience that you can not get anywhere else, I would HIGHLY recommend taking on the Abandoned Valley Trek, you won’t regret it.
Worked up appetites deserve a delicious and entertaining dinner, both of which were found at the Vietnamese barbecue joint two doors down from the hostel. While both my dinner mates, funnily enough a male and female Jimmy, indulged in the DIY barbecue number, I was craving noodles. And having trouble cooking your barbecue? Never fear, Son the waiter is here! I’m still not if he was actually allowed to make himself at home at our table, but that he did while he cooked (female) Jimmy’s food for her and practiced his English. Legend.
Phong Nha, put in on your must-see list, in permanent marker, and get there before the rest of the tourist world finds out about it!