Did you know?
Did you know Vietnam is home to the largest known cave in the world? Its name is Sơn Đoòng, and it has been known to the wider world for less than a decade. Is that where we went?
Unfortunately the long waiting list and $3,000 price tag meant it was a bit out of reach for us. However, Vietnam’s cave country is extensive, and much of it is far more accessible. So rather than fixate on the ‘biggest’ moniker, we went out to experience some of the others the area’s limestone geology offers up.
The place to go, if you’re less than a professional spelunker is Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park. There you can find relatively easy access to a number of cave systems. None of them are free to visit, and for better or worse, most also require a tour. Typically we prefer to avoid tour groups and group tour guides – my experience with tours in Asia is that they focus on hitting as many sites as possible, stopping long enough for photos and vendor visits before piling in a bus to continue on. We prefer to focus on experience, even if it means we see fewer locations.
Fortunately, the tour package for the caves we visited (Phong Nha and Tiên Sơn caves) was a bit different. You’re required to buy a ticket to each cave and pay for a boat to get there and back. There was already a group of European and American tourists at the ticket booth when we arrived, allowing us to all share the cost of the boat. As it turned out, this was not a ‘guided tour’ in the sense that the guide explains the sights as we go. Instead, our guides were the pair of local women who piloted the boat. They do this as a part-time gig to supplement their income as farmers, and they spoke no English. As a result, Trang became the translator for our little boat full of Tây (Westerners). Our pilots didn’t have as much to say about the sights as a full-time guide might, but had plenty of insight on where to look for interesting formations and how high the water could get in the wet season.
Now, Phong Nha cave is something particularly special. I say our pilots pointed out rock formations, but they never actually left the boat. For this tour we literally sail into the cave. This short tour takes you 1.2 kilometers into the cave, and back, all by boat. It’s quite an experience to sail right into the side of a mountain and then under its depths. Reportedly the cave extends at least eight kilometers, but its full extent hasn’t yet been explored.
Before exiting the cave, our pilots dropped us off at one of the few walkable areas – a small section of stone and beach (yes, sandy beach inside the cave!) near the entrance. From there we were left to our own devices to wander about and walk out either to the nearby dock or up the long winding stair to Tiên Sơn cave.
Tiên Sơn is smaller than the more famous Phong Nha, and since it’s far up the mountainside it features no water, but is still beautiful. It’s worth the Lord-of-the-Rings-stair trip up to visit. Where the wonder of Phong Nha is primarily the interplay of river and cave, Tiên Sơn’s draw centers around the endless forms its rock formations take. Tall limestone pillars, flowstones, “cave bacon,” and other types of speleothems surround you as you walk through. At some point in the past the park managers had strung colored lights throughout the cave, but fortunately those have now been removed and it is lit only in a more natural color.
Once you’ve exhausted your camera’s memory in Tiên Sơn, you march back down the staircase and hop in your boat for the leisurely float back to town. I’d encourage you to try and save room on the camera for that cruise, because the masses of tall limestone mountains are especially breathtaking from the river.
One more spot in the area that’s well worth a visit if you have transportation is not part of the national park, but rather a restaurant and coffee shop outside of Phong Nha town called East Hill Coffee. Driving up, it merely looks like someone’s farm house, but around the side there’s a stone staircase up to the restaurant on their little hill. It’s the perfect vantage point from which to capture the sun setting behind Phong Nha’s layered mountain ranges. Sit, take in the sights, have a coffee, and maybe give their famous grilled chicken a try (fun fact: in Vietnam, free-range chicken is called “gà chẹ bọ” – “running chicken”).
But speaking of running, we have to be on our way. There’s much more to see in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng, but unfortunately not for us. We have a long drive ahead. Until next time!