I am sitting in my bunk bed in a dorm in Dong Hoi, on the central coast of Vietnam. It is the start Vietnamese New Year day week long holiday. Most of the restaurants are shut, and their owners are with their families. I am here, reflecting on my past few days in the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. What is so special about the national park? Well it is home to the largest known cave in the world: Son Doong. Son Doong was discovered by a local man in 1991, who would take shelter in the cave from time to time. However, the full scale of the cave was not realised until 2009 due to a 60m high wall near to its entrance, known as the Great Wall of Vietnam. Once passed, researchers then knew of the cave’s shear size and soon after named it as the worlds largest cave. Only in 2013 could expeditions be conducted by the general public, and only one agency has permits to run tours. This cave is very remote, and costs $3,000 USD for a guided tour. In addition to Son Doong there are many more accessible caves to be visited. I went to just one, as I am on a budget. But it was a breadth taking experience. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to partake in a multi-day expedition through a save such as Son Doong. Maybe one day I can stomach the high sticker price.
To get in to the caves entrance I rode on my motorbike for forty minutes away from the main town through Karst mountains lined with evergreen jungle. It was a misty day, with the constant threat of rain. Chilly too, in a way that you don’t expect from South East Asia. I was trembling on my bike while riding through the fog, all the while staring up at the stunning mountains around me. Behind me was a french family of four on two scooters. I found them lost on the highway and was leading them to the caves. It was nice to meet them as we had some good conversations once we arrived.
Once reaching the cave park it was a forty five minute hike up to the entrance. The hike climbed up the side of a small mountain, through thick forrest. All about was lush tropical flora with broad leaves, winding vines, and snagging roots. The trail switched back and forth, hugging to the edge of the mountain, before eventually meeting the cave door. Rather than walking in to the cave, the entrance descended down; I had been walking on the roof of the cave for all this time. Looking down in to the gloom were timber stairs, at least four stories high before reaching the cavern floor. Slowly as I descended did I came to understand the full expanse of the cave, large enough to fit an aeroplane, perhaps bigger. Within was column after column of white, carved stone; formed millennia past by an endless drip from the roof overhead. Some columns were relatively new and only reached a few meters from the floor, others old and had grown all the way to the ceiling. These were the constructions of the endless drip. Some columns had been abandoned thousands of years ago, as some unknown event had caused the mother water source to change its course. These stone projects often had a delightful symmetry, others were ungainly and lurched from side to side, forming shapes, such as animal faces, or carved in to the likeness of a Buddha. Some were smooth to the touch, others rough under your skin, but still beautiful nonetheless.
I walked through the gloom for more than hour before reaching the end of the path, photographing much of what I saw. Stopping for a moment, there was silence, complete aside from the unseen drip. Voices would break the silence, from half a dozen languages, whose owners you could not find, but their words would make their way to my ears nonetheless, by echoing off the caverns walls.
Sometime later I emerged in to the misty jungle, collected my scooter and rode away from the stunning Paradise caves. Apt.
National Park Touring
From the caves I took the long way back to my hotel. The road was narrow and often hugged the cliff edge, with a shear rock face towering overhead. In these places I made sure not to linger, as in parts the road was shattered where boulders had fallen down from far overhead, with chunks of road cast around as if someone had dropped a cup. The traffic on the road was very light, to the point where I pulled over for five minutes, setup my camera on a tripod, posed in front of it, then packed it all up again - without seeing a single other person. I briefly considered riding up to the Laos border to see what it was like, but thought better of it for the light was fading from the sky. I will see it soon enough. The “frontier” signs which I saw around put me off as well. Soon enough I was back home, enjoying a pineapple rice from a local restaurant.
Thanks for reading. I definitely recommend visiting when travelling through Vietnam. One of my highlights for sure. Consider subscribing or following me on Instagram or Twitter to stay up to date.