Thursday, January 30, 2014

Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Parks cave tour

Day 17 - Thursday, November 21
Distance - 0 kms = total for day ~ 0 hrs by bike
Trip Odometer =  1843 kms
Route - Phong Nha caves tour excursion
Hotel - Phong Nha Farmstay (700,000d = $35)
Weather -  Dry and cloudy.

We had booked our cave excursion at the Farmstay the night before, therefore we were all set for our 8:30am departure with a few other travellers staying there.  We both loaded up on a delicious breakfast and promptly hopped on the passenger van which sat in the Farmstay drive.  Our first stop was in the village of Son Trach where we loaded up a bunch of other travellers who were staying at various hotels in the town.  Turns out, the owners of the Phong Nha Farmstay also own a travellers hostel in the town (the Tiger something??).  They recently turned their dorm rooms at the Farmstay into private rooms and suggested to folks who want more of a budget option to stay at their hostel in the town of Son Trach.

Amanda's new friend eyeing up her tasty breakfast at the Farmstay...

Our tour guide asked us why the cliff face above wasn't covered with thick foliage typical of Vietnamese hillsides, mountains and cliff faces.  Funny enough, I had just read the night before that US bombers would bomb the cliffs in order to expose secret cave systems.  The cliff above was bombed during the war and has yet to recover.

Above:  The River that flows with blood and diesel.

We had 2 tour guides for the day, a local Vietnamese guy named Hung, and a Vietnamese-American (above) named Dean who had been living and working at the FarmStay for a few years.  He is originally from Seattle and had a wealth of knowledge about the area, about the war, and about the cave systems alike.  Both of these guides were a pleasure to be around for the day.

We then stopped at a war shrine known as the Eight Lady Cave.  Apparently 8 people (turns out, they weren't all ladies) got trapped in a cave after a bomb blast and they died there.

Above:  Dean from Seattle was explaining details about the 8 Lady Cave.  The National Park had a monument made for the people who lost their lives.  It explained their ages and the villages they were originally from.  You can see a bomb casing hanging in the tree to the left:  Ironically enough, these were used as early warning signals, locals would hit them with a stick and they would send off a gong-like-sound that would echo through the jungle.  Vietnamese villagers would also not speak in the jungle as they heard rumours that the American military had areas wire tapped, therefore they used simple and effective techniques as an alternative to verbal communication.

When arriving to the Paradise Cave (one of Phong Nha National Park's premier cave systems), we were whisked off in 'Jurassic Park' style buggies which followed simple, concrete pathways to a system of stairs (just over 500!) which brought us to the entrance of the cave system.  We were both very impressed with how set-up and efficient this tour was.

The Paradise Cave was discovered in 2005.  It wasn't until very recently in 2011that it was opened to the public.  The cave system is over 31 kms in length and we were able to explore the first 1 km which was surprisingly vast.  Travellers were also able to book custom multi-day trips in this cave system with private guides.

Above:  This sign showed the 1km that we were about to discover with the inset map explaining the full 31.4 km cave system.

Upon entering, our jaws dropped with the size and scope of this cave system.  Amazing.  We followed a boardwalk style staircase deep into the main chamber and it was so large, it was breathtaking.  They had a great lighting system that followed the boardwalks, lighting the walls and features just enough to see the details.

Photographs really don't do this cave system any justice.

We followed a series of boardwalks the full 1 km into the cave.  It often pinched down and then would open up into another chamber and cavern, it was incredible.  The caves were extremely clean, with rubbish bins and seating areas with benches for tourists wanting a quick rest.

After visiting a few of the cave systems in the Ha Long Bay area in the north, we were both very impressed with the Paradise Cave in the Phong Nha National Park.  It was a tour that is not to be missed, well worth it.

I had also heard before our trip to Vietnam, that the longest cave system in the world was recently opened to public and it is also in Vietnam.  It is called the Son Doong Cave and it even has a fast flowing river within.  In early 2013 a group went into the cave system for 7 days, 6 nights at a $3000US price tag per person.  They are limiting access to the Son Doong Cave with a high price tag and a limited number of visits per year.

I found a nice, little, 2 smoker custom en route to the toilets after the tour.

Next up was the Dark Cave.  The Dark Cave was accessed by paddling inflatable kayaks along a mellow river to the entrance, entering via a boardwalk and then swimming into the cave with only headlamps for light.  It was a adventurous change from the lit-up Paradise cave system.

We were provided with PFDs, hard hats with headlamps, half-paddles ('cause thats all you need I guess) and sturdy one-size-fits-all Vietnamese footwear... we were SET!

'High-Ho, High-Ho... Off to the Dark-Cave we gooooooo!'

Entrance to the Dark Cave...

Our Vietnamese Guide 'Hung' getting down and dirty in the Dark Cave.

The Dark Cave was excellent.  We swam along sections to get deeper into the cave and then we were brought along narrow, muddy, off-shoot tunnels that brought us up into other room systems before descending back into the main cavern which eventually brought us back to the entrance.

The full-day tour was fantastic.  We arrived back to the Phong Nha Farmstay happy and spent.  I decided to go with a pasta special for supper and it was great.  The main hall (lobby, restaurant, bar, lounge area) of the Farmstay had a warm atmosphere complete with fire pit on one side.  Both nights we were there, we had nice conversations with fellow travellers about our various trips throughout Vietnam and where we were all headed to next.

We both would have loved another day at the FarmStay to unwind and relax, but tomorrow, we would be back on the road, back on the bikes and this time, heading east to the South China Sea and back to the coast which we last visited when we were in Ha Long Bay at the beginning of our trip.

A couple of the guys who worked at the FarmStay suggested a great route for us east into the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone), up past the Vinh Moc Tunnels and then south to Hue along a more rural route - rather than taking the busy, hectic Hwy #1.  We were pleased to get some good info and excited to follow this route.  

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