Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng is a national park with many cave systems and the most famous one is the Sơn Đoòng Cave, the world’s largest cave. I have to disappoint you. I haven’t been in that cave, but in another one in that area.
We took the SE1 night train from Hanoi to Phong Nha. It is not the cheapest option, but when we were in Vietnam, there was maintanance on the road and Oxalis, the tour operator to the cave systems, advised us to take the train. So that’s what we did! We’ve never took a night train before (anywhere in the world..), so we didn’t really know what to expect. There are several options: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, soft sleeper. The trip took about 10 hours and we choosed for a soft seat. When we were still home, we already bought our train tickets (vietnamrailways.com) which were sent to our hotel in Hanoi. Each coupé has its own train conductor. Show him or her your train ticket and ask the conductor to let you know when you have to get out the train. Our train didn’t had any delay, so our arrival time was exactly as what was shown on the ticket. So it will also help you to set an alarm. About each 2 hours there was one stop, so you won’t make the mistake to get out too early. To get in Son Trach (the town close to the National Park), we had to get out in Dong Hoi and take a cab to get there. Oxalis arranged a cab for us to the Easy Tiger hostel (we arrived at Dong Hoi around 5.30 AM) were we could get something to eat. On the internet it was quite hard to find accomodations in this area and the recommended accomodations in the Lonely Planet required to stay at least 2 nights, so Oxalis booked a hotel for us as well. We stayed at Thien Thanh, which is only two doors away from the Easy Tiger hostel for $14 a night. It is a simple 2* hotel, not the cleanest one (but not dirty as well) and with a free upgrade of the room, we had plenty of space for the two of us. (update: on the website of Oxalis, you can find the hotels in the area and Thien Thanh has its own website as well now :))
Tu Lan Cave Tour 2 days
There are several cave systems in this area and the most famous one is the Son Doong, the world largest cave. Oxalis offers a 7 days tour through this cave, but also one day trips to other caves. We didn’t had the money and the time to do the Son Doong expedition, but wanted to do a tour of at least 2 days. We were kinda afraid that by booking one day tour, it will be a very rush and crowded tour. Besides that, we wanted to stay overnight in the middle of the nature as well. I often enjoy the more-than-one-day tours more because you often get to places where there are less tourists.
First we wanted to book a tour to the Hang En Cave system. Unfortunately because of the high water level, the cave will be closed in the period we will be there, so we booked the Tu Lan Cave Tour. Oxalis picked us up from the Easy Tiger Hostel and drove us to Tan Hoa were we got a briefing about the safety. Oxalis will provide you shoes (we wore our own shoes, funny enough they were providing Palladium lookalikes), water bottle, wet and dry bag, safety jacket, helmet and a headlamp. We were in a group of 7 and we had 2 great guides: Ken and Bao. Besides the guides we also had 4 porters, people who carry the hammocks, cooking utensils etc. Only one of the three was trekking together with us. He carried our food, so also the lunch we had midway. We met the other 3 porters at the campsite, where they already boiled some water for some hot coffee (or tea) and made a campfire. We were there in December and the temperature was about 15 degrees. Not warm, but when you are hiking, a long sleeve with trekking trousers is sufficient. For the night, I wore a sweater with a lightweight down jacket. It is important to pack lightweight, because you have to carry your own stuff.
When we were packed, we were ready for the hike! The first 2km was through a rural area with farmers and buffalo’s. Magnificent! What we hoped for to find in Vietnam, places where the time stood still. Then we arrived at a cave were we had lunch. Baguettes with cheese, cucumber, ham, cookies and some fruit. Not bad at all! After this, the real adventure begins! Hiking, climbing and swimming through caves! It really was an adventure! On the website of Oxalis, they call this tour easy to moderate, depending on how experienced you are with outdoor activities. Well… We were not unfamiliar with outdoor activities, but sometimes you have to get over your fear. Swimming through a cave where it is quite dark (the water is clear) with a waterfall isn’t very hard, but mentally it can be daunting. Or when you are climbing in the cave, were it is slippery and hard to find the next place to grab on or put your feet on. There was one moment when I doubted if I could go further. But it was absolutely worth it. Worth the fear, the time, the money. I didn’t succeeded to make some good pictures, not only because it was too dark but also because I was so amazed and wanted to enjoy the time being there instead of worrying about getting a good picture.
When we arrived at the campsite, we had a short coffee break. After that, we explored another cave. We saw fossils, cave pearls and many many strange rock forms :). Just before sunset, we went back to the campsite to get some dry clothes on and had a very good dinner. The guides and the porters were very kind and loved to sing! We drunk some rice wine to get a bit warmer and after dinner we sat around the campfire. At the campsite, there is a ‘toilet’. A small cabin with a bucket with a toiletseat on top. When you are done, you put some mulch in the bucket. Not very attractive, but better then when everybody just find a random spot every time so it can get smelly everywhere.
For the ultimate experience, we slept in hammocks. The guides helped us to get in the sleeping bag in the hammock. They use hammocks with mosquito nets (yay!) and on top of that, there is some tent kind of thing in case it will rain. It was very nice to sleep in the middle of the jungle and to hear a waterfall in the background. Before I get into sleep, I was afraid I had to pee in the middle of the night. And of course, when you already thin about that and you hear the waterfall in the background all the time, of course you have to pee in the middle of the night :). But luckily it wasn’t very hard to get back in the hammock by myself.
The next day we had fried noodles with spring rolls as breakfast. We were quite tired, because we still had some jetlag and also the lack of a good sleep the night before wasn’t really helping as well. We explored one more cave before we got back. The way back was over the mountain, which was exhausting the first 30 minutes. Sometimes it was slippery. Halfway we had a simple lunch with sweet potatoes, fruit, candy and cookies. Once when we got back to Oxalis, we had time to take a shower and before getting back to Son Trach, we ate Pho at a local restaurant there with the guides and the porters. Thus, you don’t have to be afraid they do not feed you enough!
One of the best things? We haven’t seen any other tourists during the whole trip!