Until a couple of years ago, the problem with heading to Phong Nha, the home to the largest cave in the world, was the lack of cave visiting options that were available. There were a couple of two-, one- or half-day alternatives to Son Doong — Phong Nha Cave, Dark Cave, Paradise Cave and Tu Lan — the two-day trip to the third-largest cave in the world, Hang En, and of course the visit to the monster cavern itself, a five-day tour that costs VND67.5 million. Yet places are so limited that getting on this trip is a lottery.
Fortunately, with new caves opening up to the public, the travel industry has found a remedy. Caves such as Hang Va and Hang Tien can now be visited with local tour operator Oxalis, and other trekking-cum-caving options are on their way.
A day trip that has received rave reviews is to the Abandoned Valley. Once an integral part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the supply line used to transport supplies and soldiers from north to south during the war, when the trail was paved in the early 2000s, this little section was left off the grid, leaving it to merge back into the jungle.
The tour includes four hours’ worth of jungle trekking, a 300-metre foray into the front end of Dark Cave, a barbecue and then a swim into E Cave, one of the most accessible river caves in the area. Based on my own experience of visiting the Abandoned Valley, it’s one of the best tours around.
I’ve now done four treks in the Phong Nha area and each time I ask myself the same question: Why am I paying to put myself through such pain? Described in the brochures as “challenging”, the trek in the Abandoned Valley requires descending and then at the end, ascending the side of a mountain, while the 300-metre excursion into Dark Cave sees you scrambling over razor-sharp rocks and through a murky underground river.
It requires a reasonable level of fitness. Yet despite bring drenched in my own sweat (my body doesn’t do heat), it’s worth every laboured step, every moment of wondering how you are going to make it back to the top. As I discovered, it wasn’t just me who was having such thoughts.
The game-changer here is the river cave. Normally groups of between eight and 10 people reach the cave by 1pm, just in time for lunch. But we were in a group of 16 and the going was slow. When we arrived at the river cave, Hang E, just before 3pm, we were ravenous, hot and exhausted. Trekking during the middle of the day, even with the jungle for shade, is hot work.
Yet the river is icy cold, and that plunge into its depths and then later the swim into the pitch-black cave is the perfect tonic for both the heat and exertion. There is a reason why marathon runners like to submerge themselves in an ice-cold bath after 42.195km of pain — it cools the body and relaxes the muscles.
I had been dreading the final ascent out of the valley, but after the ice-cold river I felt so refreshed that it was easy. Three years before I had tried a similar ascent at the end of a three-hour trek coming back from Hang En. My knee collapsed. Ashamed and broken, I crawled my way to the top. This time I finished the trip with energy to spare.
On Our Doorstep
People travel thousands of miles to experience the tropical lure of Vietnam, yet most who live here have never heard of Phong Nha, let alone been there. The experience — the jungle trekking, the caving, the swimming in crystal clear pools and rivers, the lure of rural Vietnam — is the ultimate tropical adventure that this country has to offer. Yet it is mostly the travellers who are taking advantage of it, not the expats or locals.
Now that there are more cave and trekking options available in Phong Nha, the hope is that people will start swapping their urban jungles for the real thing. It’s something I try to do a couple of times a year and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
The Abandoned Valley tour is organised by Jungle Boss and costs VND1,500,000 per person. The fee includes safety equipment, lunch, pick up and drop off at the hotel, snacks and water. Due to poison ivy along one part of the route, Jungle Boss recommends that trekkers wear long sleeves and long trousers. For more information click on junglebosshomestay.com or call 094 374 8041.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is located in Quang Binh, about four hours north of Hue. Regular daily flights with Vietnam Airlines, Jetstar Pacific and VietJet Air now serve the main provincial city, Dong Hoi, from both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Alternatively, you can take an overnight train from Hanoi or hop on the Open Tour bus from Ninh Binh or Hue. The cost of a taxi from the airport to Phong Nha is VND500,000.
Phong Nha has some beautiful countryside accommodation a few kilometers away from the main town. A couple of stand-outs are Phong Nha Farmstay and The Pepper House (facebook.com/PepperHouseHomestay). Both are set in a rural environment to a backdrop of one of the most beautiful areas in Vietnam. Another well set-up option is the recently revamped Chay Lap (chaylapfarmstay.com), now run by the travel company Oxalis. Chay Lap is the closest accommodation to the National Park. In town the options include Easy Tiger (easytigerhostel.com), a hostel catering mainly to the backpacker crowd and a number of homestays including Ho Khanh’s Homestay (phong-nha-homestay.com) and Jungle Boss Homestay (junglebosshomestay.com).
Photos by Nick Ross / August 2016