Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Once again, moving away from the busy, hectic coastline we moved inland to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park after very brief stops in Hue and Dong Hoi. Although the national park wasn’t too far from Dong Hoi, both the weather and scenery did change quite abit with the flat open fields covered in acres of rice paddys being replaced with beautifully impressive karst limestone surroundings on either side of the Song Con River. The small village of Son Trach located at the entrance of the park is where most travelers stay but more importantly was the most bombed area in Vietnam during the war. As well as being an extremely fascinating place, it is also in our eyes one of Vietnams most beautiful regions due to its picturesque backdrop and the impressive caves.
Here we found Phuong Nam backpackers as we arrived which was a good cheap hostel close to the few restaurants and travel agents if needed. With it being close to the large town of Dong Hoi, it meant many people took day trips and so evenings in the town were quite quiet due to a lack of travelers. As well as being inland up close to the mountains, being the end of January meant it was wet and dull most days and got quite cold in the evenings. With our hostel being a basic, cold place, we found the perfect local to keep warm and cosy during the wet and cold evenings; Bamboo Restaurant run by a really friendly Vietnamese guy with brilliant English. The food here was brilliant with a selection of both Vietnamese specials and western which we always had with a hot drink due to the cold temperatures.
With the National park having a good round route road network connecting to all the major caves, having our own bike meant it saved us a lot of trouble of either having to rent a scooter or joining organized trips to visit the sites as it was all within 40Km. Despite the very wet and misty weather, we cruised along the enjoyably winding roads surrounded by a beautiful mountainous backdrop to visit Paradise Cave which was well up in the mountains.
Words can’t really describe how impressive this vast 1km deep cave was as the combinations of its formations, colours and general scale were mesmerizing. Although only 1 out of the 31km is open to the public, you are able to get a real sense into the scale of this incredible cave.
Along the way during the round trip, you are able to visit a number of other caves including Dark cave which requires entering the water and so was not going to happen in such low temperatures.
Phong Nha Cave
Easy Tiger hostel, probably the most popular hostel in the area (slightly more expense for the two of us) would give a brief talk on the history of the area every morning at 9am followed by the option of renting a local boat to visit Phong Nha Cave. With many travelers interested in the arrangement, we easily grouped together 10 people to rent the boat which was then organized at the tourist centre, only a short 5minute walk away from the hostel. With the cave a 25minute ride along the river, we were able to enjoy the picturesque mountainous surroundings which lined both sides of the Song Con river.
With it still being relatively early when we made our way to the cave, we came across many locals on their small wooden fishing boats using long poles in the same manner as chop-sticks in order to collect boat loads of some sort of weed from the river bed.
Equally impressive for us as Paradise Cave, however Phong Nha Cave was a water cave whereby the river continued deep into the side of this karst limestone mountain. The entrance was a relatively small opening where the base of the limestone cliff face met the water which therefore provided the access for boats to be paddled inside.
The cave provided for this beautiful long underground river which was filled with many impressive shapings and colourings. Despite the beauty of the cave, the history behind it is even more impressive as it is of such significance for the entirety of Vietnam; it was the hiding place of Vietnams most important bridge during the war.
With a lot of ammunition and aid entering Vietnam in the North, a bridge that could not be instantly destroyed was needed in order to cross all the supplies over the Song Con River. With the entrance to this cave just about wide enough, a floating bridge was built, used only at night and then kept in the cave during the day. The Americans were unable to understand as to how both central and south Vietnam was receiving it supplies, and it was only when they used night surveillance when they witnessed the use of the floating bridge. From then on, the town of Son Trach became the most bombed town in Vietnam, so much so, that to this day unexploded ammunition is still found relatively frequently within the area. Despite the continual efforts of the U.S. Air Force, due to the small opening to the cave located in the middle of the river and at the base of a large vertical cliff face, only one missile made it into the cave but got nowhere close to touching, let alone damaging the bridge.