Paradise Cave – Phong Nha National Park
Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park is in the Quang Binh Province of Northern Vietnam and the main attractions are the very impressive cave systems. In terms of tourism, to Vietnam, the area is off the beaten track and still relatively undeveloped. Getting there is not too difficult though as there is regular bus, train and flight services into the nearest sizable city; Dong Hoi. Dong Hoi, by road, is approximately 450 kilometers south of Hanoi. By air, it’s a one hour flight with Vietnam airlines. The reason it seems slow is due to the fact that the plane, on this route, is a prop job. I’d planned my trip with the idea of hopping down the length of Vietnam, with the local carrier, from Hanoi to Saigon. My flights into, and out, of the country were with Thai and, instead of a round trip a singular destination, I’d flown into Hanoi and would be departing from Saigon. I’d booked my flight to Dong Hoi on my arrival from Bangkok. Unfortunately, the idea of hopping south to Saigon was brought to an abrupt halt when I was informed that the only two places I could fly out to, from Dong Hoi, were Hanoi and Saigon. The cost of domestic flights with Vietnam Airlines is reasonable; the flight to Dong Hoi was USD 70 one way.
If you are travelling to Quang Binh province with the specific purpose of checking out the caves then the best option, in terms of accommodation, is to stay at a cheaper hotel in Phong Nha Township. If it’s more of a general look around Quang Binh Province then Dong Hoi is the more centrally located option. I booked into the Saigon Quang Binh Hotel – http://www.sgquangbinhtourist.com.vn/EN/info.htm – where a nice room with a view across the river is USD 80 per night. After getting settled in I made arrangements with the desk staff for a hire car, and driver, for the following day to take me up to the caves area. The price for the 8 hour hire was USD 80. In hindsight – and I know hindsight is a beautiful thing – this was a logistical mistake. For future trips here I will go straight from the airport, by taxi, to the Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park. It’s approximately 38 kilometers from Dong Hoi airport to the small town of Phong Nha which sits at the entry point to the National Park. There are a number of guesthouses/backpacker hotels there and cheaper transport, including hired motorbikes, can be used for accessing the Park and surrounding environs.
The drive up to Phong Nha, once clear of the congested small streets of Dong Hoi, is quite sedate and is the typical rural backwater of S.E. Asia. Most of the arable land is devoted to rice growing although, being the cool/dry season, there was little evidence of that. In terms of economic development this part of Vietnam is some way off the more advanced parts of the country. Farming is still carried out using the old traditional methods with the fields being ploughed using water buffalo’s; full mechanization is yet to arrive. At present there are two caving areas at Phong Nha Ke-Bang. The more popular location, including the boat trips into Phong Nha cave, is within a couple of kilometers from Phong Nha Township. The other, Son Thien Duong (aka Paradise Cave) is more remote and is a 30 kilometer run beyond Phong Nha. I was going to try and visit both sites in the one day. For practicality I decided to do “Paradise Cave” first so that the second site would be looked at on the way back to the hotel. Unfortunately I ran out of time and wasn’t able to do both. In a way though I wasn’t too disappointed with that outcome due to the fact that Paradise Cave – according to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thi%C3%AAn_%C4%90%C6%B0%E1%BB%9Dng_Cave – is the more spectacular of the two caving sites. It also happens to be located in a much more picturesque setting.
As you go past Phong Nha the flat, arable plains give way to jungle covered limestone peaks where the morning mist, of the cool season, still hangs on the tree tops. The road winds its way up a spectacular ravine with sheer drops, in many stretches, down to a pristine river below. Traveling time from Dong Hoi, including photo stops, is roughly 1.5 hours; the distance is approximately 70 kilometers. On arrival at the parking area the driver informed me that “it wasn’t very busy because it was the cool season.” He was right; there were very few vehicles in sight. Because of the close proximity of the limestone escarpments the whole site is completely enclosed by lush, tropical jungle. There is also an open style, wood build restaurant – to fit in with the natural setting – right next to the car park. The fee to enter the cave site is 120,000 VND. This is paid at a check point situated fifty meters, or so, beyond the restaurant.
From the check point there’s a paved one kilometer track to the base of the cliff. For those who don’t feel like walking the one kilometer golf buggies, with a driver, will transport you for an additional fee of 50,000 VND (note: 20,000 VND = 1 USD). The one kilometer is an easy walk with plenty of shade provided by the enclosing tree canopy. At the base of the cliff there’s a small hut with drinks for sale and right beside a sign post giving you two options of ascending the cliff face to the cave entrance above. For those feeling energetic there’s the shorter 524 steps option. For those wanting to make a longer, more gradual climb there’s the 570 meters of pathway option. Whichever option you take you’ll get there in good time; all be it breathing a bit harder if you take the 524 steps.
At the top of the stairway (or pathway), and right in front of the cave entrance, there’s another wood build rest stop/restaurant giving splendid views out across the jungle topped terrain. Take a few minutes to get your breath back before entering the cave as there’s 275 steps down to the cave floor once you enter. If you are interested, cave guides are available free of charge; although a tip is greatly appreciated. I took the option of taking a guide with me and I’m glad I did as they can point out the more interesting features on the tour. The small entrance gives no indication of the sheer volume of the chambers inside; it is simply quite stunning and, it must be said, one of the most spectacular cave’s I’ve been into. The locals have done a fantastic job of setting things up for sightseeing without being overly intrusive on the delicate cave environment. The 275 steps inside descend down a series of landings to the cave floor where a boarded walkway, with safety rails, penetrates one kilometer into the cave system. There is adequate lighting along the entirety of the walkway and, if you have a good DSLR camera, a flash isn’t needed. I’ll let the pictures tell the story:
Allow at least 1 hour for the tour and certainly more if you are taking photos. As I mentioned, a guide isn’t necessary but they will point out the more interesting features and provide extra bits of information about the site e.g.; the age of the formations (stalactites and stalagmites) was quite astounding and, according to the guide, the growth rate is 0.001 millimeters a year. Most of the formations in Paradise Cave were 30 – 40 million years old.
Additional cave tour options:
The tour guides at paradise caves now offer an adventure guiding service. For 100 USD, and one day’s prior notice, they will take you 7 kilometers into the cave system (6 kilometers beyond the boarded walkway). Safety helmets, coveralls and lights are provided for the excursion.
Attraction: Paradise Cave – located within Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park
Distance from Phong Nha Township: Approx 25 km (35 – 40 mins travel time on motorbike)
Nearest Accommodation: Phong Nha Township
Recommended accommodation in Phong Nha Township: The Mid-town Hotel (prices roughly USD 15 per night). Motorbikes can be rented for 100k VND per day
Nearest ATM machine: Phong Nha township
Recommended restaurant in Phong Nha Township: The Bamboo Cafe (WiFi is free and good speed)
Nearest airport: Dong Hoi
Distance from Dong Hoi Airport to Phong Nha: 37 km
Taxi fare from Dong Hoi Airport to Phong Nha Township: 500k – 600k VND
Distance from Hanoi to Dong Hoi: Approx 480 km
Most crowded time of year: June – August (summer months) Note: at this time of year day time temperatures are often over 40 deg C.
Least crowded time of year: November – January (winter months). Note: January in the Phong Nha area can be wet and cold. Take a jacket, warm clothes and a hat.