Vietnam’s Hidden Treasure: Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
If you’re anything like me – when visiting a new country, you need to visit all those well-known attractions that have graced the covers of your magazine collection since you were a kid. But, you also like to adventure further to explore something a little less known. Beyond the glistening waters of Ha Long Bay and the picturesque buildings of the Hoi An Ancient Town, my partner and I found this place; Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park (Phong Nha). Home to the world largest cave, Hang Son Đoong, and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this amazing destination will soon be making its way onto every traveller’s bucket list.
We explored this stunning National Park through an Army Jeep Tour with an extremely knowledgeable guide from the Phong Nha Farmstay. Bouncing around in the back of this old Jeep, we were driven along the beautiful Ho Chi Minh Trail and Victory Road which wind through the tall karst mountains. These roads were once used as logistical supply routes to South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and as a result were heavily bombed leaving scars on the mountains clearly visible to this day.
These roads led us to Paradise Cave – an extraordinary cave system discovered in 2005 that extends for 31km! It’s a steep, winding walk to the entrance of the cave, which you can choose to have shortened by having a buggy take you half way. Once walking through the cave mouth, we were amazed for two reasons: the instant escape from the hot and humid Vietnamese weather and the beauty of the path we could see ahead. Paradise Cave will quickly become one of the most amazing places you’ll have experienced. Although among a swarm of other tourists, the cave is silent as everyone walks along the wooden walkway taking in the breathtaking stalactites and stalagmites found in the cave.
Another cave located along the Ho Chi Minh Trail is the Eight Ladies Cave – it’s definitely worth a visit. You pay your respects for the eight women that died during the Vietnam War here by lighting an incense at the small temple inside the cave. In 1972, the women were aged between 18 and 20 and were working on road repairs, they had retreated to the cave for shelter from dropping bombs when an explosion caused a large rock to drop in front of the only entrance to the cave. Attempts to move the rock were unsuccessful and after 9 days of crying for help, the women’s voices were no longer heard. More than 20 years later in 1996, the women’s bodies were removed for burial.
In Phong Nha a well-known spot for food is the ‘Pub with Cold Beer’, where you can experience a real Vietnamese farm-to-table experience – if you wish. This includes catching, killing and cooking your own fresh chicken to enjoy with a cold beer. You can savour this with a peanut sauce made from fresh produce from the property. While the fresh meal cooks, you can enjoy a bit of R&R in the hammock or a swim in the river nearby.
Phong Nha Cave was the final stop for the day. During the War, the Vietnamese used this cave to restore a floating bridge which they brought out during the night to avoid detection from passing aeroplanes. They also ran a hospital for the injured inside the cave. You reach Phong Nha Cave via long boat which departs from the tourist centre, journeying 30-minutes down the river past the local fisherman. The boat is engine powered until the entrance of the cave and then paddled while inside, keeping the experience very peaceful. The entrance is very small, but once you enter into this stunning cave it opens up to a large, amazing formation. This cave is very beautiful, and very different to Paradise Cave. The boat takes you 1.5km inside where you then disembark and walk through the cave back to the entrance where your boat will be waiting.
New caves are constantly being discovered in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and things can only get better for this small community. So, why not add this destination to your bucket list?