Paradise is a cave called "Paradise".
Thien Duong Cave
By Wendy Merrett, February 2013
I have a bit of a confession to make. I'm a bit if a sucker for top tens. You know the ones you get at the front of a travel guide or the back of an airline magazine. "The top ten things to do in...", "the top ten things to do before...". Perhaps it comes from my need to write a list and tick things off. "Yay I've eaten 7 out of the top ten foods to eat off the street in Asia whilst wearing a sarong and standing on one leg." Or perhaps it is because of my inability to make a decision, if some else suggests it it must be good right?
So this is how we found ourselves trying to organise a trip to Phong Nha. Not only is it one of the travel guides top things to do in Vietnam (number 3 don't you know!) but it also number one on the list of 'what's new in Vietnam'. So they had to be good.
The cave system has only recently been opened to the public and on our trip this public was predominantly Vietnamese, there were only a handful of foreign tourists and most of those were visiting on a very rushed day trip. Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park contains the oldest karst mountains in Asia with hundreds of cave systems and underground rivers. Exploration only began in the 1990s led by the British Cave Research Association and in 2005 Paradise Cave was discovered and in 2009 a team found the world's largest cave - Song Don (not yet open to the public.) The closest village to the national park is officially called Son Trach but is known locally as Phong Nha. Here you can
easily access Phong Nha Cave, which is 55km long but only the first kilometre is open to the public. You will also get to visit Tien Son Cave, a dry cave in the mountainside above Phong Nha. Having read all of this I was convinced that my top ten was guiding us in the right direction. Now to get there.
We were staying in Hue and had read online that we could get a bus to Dong Hoi and then change there to a bus to Phong Nha (don't ask for Son Trach they won't know where you mean.) It all sounded straight forward enough but we thought we’d check with the guesthouse. The trouble with Vietnam is that although everyone in the hotels is generally very friendly, they become less friendly if you don't want to buy a trip from them. Trying to get information about local buses from local people can be very difficult and this time they told us in the hotel that it wasn't possible to take the local buses and even if it was it wouldn't be comfortable (less comfortable than Indian buses?? I think not!) We were then told that the train would take too long and in fact getting to the bus station to get the local bus (that doesn't exist) would be too expensive. Head, brick wall, banging. So we gave up on the hotel and went to a local travel agent. He told us there was a bus to Dong Hoi but we wouldn't arrive in time to get the connecting bus so would have to stay the night. This at least sounded plausible. In the end we negotiated a ride on his day tour. The problem with doing the caves as a day trip from Hue is that it is a 5 hour journey to get there and then you only have one hour to rush around Phong Nha cave and end up completely missing out on Paradise Cave. We had a feeling that we were paying through the nose at $15 each for the journey but we were on our way to paradise.
On arrival in Phong Nha we stopped for some lunch with the day trippers and then my other half headed off to check out the hotels. We had passed numerous places on the main road that was the extent of Son Trach village. It soon became apparent that there may have been hotels but there weren't any staff around. Reception desks were vacant and nobody seemed willing to take our booking. The last stop was Song Son, a hotel mentioned in the guide book and a little more expensive than the others at $12 a night but the only one that was open. The room was clean and airy so job done. The village was such a contrast to the rest of Vietnam. So far we had only experienced the busy tourist route of Saigon, Mui Ne, Da Lat, Nha Trang and Hoi An. This place was so incredibly laid back it was like a breath of fresh air but it was also harder work trying to communicate and trying to establish opening times. There were no travel agents or people trying to sell you tours or even maps. Restaurants it seemed closed early and this it turned out was anytime between 5pm and 10pm depending on the day of the week and the direction of the wind. But we managed to be fed and watered and tucked up ready for our cave exploration the next day.
The boats that take you to Phong Nha cave left a 3 minute walk from the hotel
and started from 07:00, so we headed there early before the tour groups got there. You pay 500, 000d to hire a boat (split between how many people are in it) and then 20, 000d each to go into Phong Nha cave and 25, 000d each to go into Tien Son Cave. We thought we'd splash out and have a boat to ourselves, which was worth the money as we didn't have to hang around for slower tourists or feel that we had to rush ourselves. As we sat back and were rowed towards the first cave the effort of getting here suddenly disappeared, the water was peaceful and the karst hills were beautiful. The river was full of daily activity, fishing, collecting reeds, washing
and bathing. Nothing contrived for tourists but real daily life. The caves were simply stunning, the limestone rocks locked like carvings and gave it almost an eerie feel as you spotted shapes around you. The biggest downside was the multicoloured lighting that was not necessary, white natural light would have enhanced the beauty even more. We definitely benefited from the early start as we passed many a full boat on the way back.
That afternoon we managed to hire a motorbike for our trip to Paradise Cave the next day. An old Vietnamese guy stopped us on the street and said "you want motorbike?" It soon turned out that this was the only English he knew. But after a 3 way conversation with his daughter on the telephone we agreed to hire his own motorbike for a hefty $15 a day. More than we paid elsewhere but no one else was hiring bikes. He turned up the next morning and seemed confused that we were both getting on the bike. This in a country when entire families of 6 are transported via motorbike. However we understood his concern as we rode through the national park to Paradise Cave up a ridiculously steep hill, how we made it I'll never know but we did. The park is quite stunning with lush greenery and steep karst hills. This time getting to Paradise Cave at lunch time was the better option as the tour groups were all at lunch. We paid 120, 000d each to go into the cave and if you are planning to do Phong Nha and here then definitely do this one second because although
Phong Nha is amazing Paradise is simply breathtaking. The lighting is white and sympathetic and the walkways and steps are wooden giving the place almost a cathedral feel. I could list all sorts of superlatives but none of them would do the place justice. Just go there, it is the most majestic place I have ever been. And it is also a great place for a picnic. You can pick up bread rolls and cheese spread (good old happy cow) from the market in Phong Nha and we had our Branston Pickle to hand for a perfect picnic in paradise.
The final challenge of our weekend was to get back to Hue. This time the hotel staff came into their own. The local bus to Dong Hoi came past the hotel at 08:00. So at 07:45 two plastic chairs were put near the main gate for us to wait and as the bus came the receptionist came running out to wave it down. From Dong Hoi we got a bus back to Hue. The thing with Vietnam is if you stick to the tourist route travelling is unbelievable easy. To venture a little further afield can be difficult but not impossible.
So is Paradise worth the effort? Most definitely yes!