We left Hanoi around 7pm to head to the train station for the overnight train to Dong Hoi, around 10 hours on the train. We had never done an overnight train before, but we had promised somebody very special that we would do one in Vietnam one day and this was to be the first. We were excited and nervous in equal measures, not really knowing what to expect, we even text the best friends to find out if they recommended beer to make the journey easier, of course they did so I headed straight to the shop to stock up.
The train was bumpy, rocked a lot when moving, stopped and started all the time and I barely fit in the bed so sleeping wasn’t very easy, and the toilet was the worst smell I’ve ever experienced, but overall it was actually fine and a good experience to have achieved (not like the next one we did, but we’ll come to that another day). Ten hours later we arrived in a town called Dong Hoi, knowing we had to catch the local bus to Phong Nha national park, we had no idea where the bus stop was, but we set off walking towards the bus station on the map. We got to a dual carriageway with no paths, so decided a taxi might be a better option than walking, as soon as we got in the taxi we both doubted he knew where he was going when he drove straight past the bus station and ignored our repeated calls to stop.
It turned out he was actually just taking us a little further to the next stop to make a little bit more money, but we got there and the bus came eventually. One and half hours on the local bus and we were in Son Trach village of Phong Nha National Park.
Phong Nha National Park is famous for its caves, and actually has the largest cave in the world here that only 250 people per year can visit and costs around $3000 each, so we decided to skip that one this time. One of the other famous caves is the Phong Nha cave, which we paid a small boat with six others to go to, they turn the engine off as you get to the cave because it is shallow, and then paddle through to the end of the cave so you see it all from the boat then let you get off to explore inside. This was really beautiful and was followed by walking up around 500 steps to get to another cave above, a little less impressive but still nice to see.
On this trip we met a couple of great friends from Brazil, Luiz and Marcela, which we spent the next day with exploring the countryside on scooters and visiting the famous Paradise Cave and Dark Cave. It was to be Dark Cave first, the adventure cave, which included zip-lining on the longest zip-line in Vietnam, kayaking, a swim in to the cave, then a walk through the pitch-black cave to get to the mud bath inside. Stac was less than impressed with the terrifying (to her) zip-line and the claustrophobia-inducing cave and mud bath. I really enjoyed it.
At the end you could do another zip-line and jump off in to the river below, that was really fun, Stac had done enough adventuring by that point she said, so sat that one out with Marcela and had a leisurely swim in the river (in life jackets).
In the afternoon we headed to Paradise Cave, one of the biggest in the area, at parts it is 72m high inside, there is a steep walk up the side of the mountain to get inside, but once you arrive at the entrance, the inside is spectacular, a walkway runs through the accessible part of the cave with lighting to produce spectacular views.
Unfortunately for anybody reading, it’s impossible for me to accurately describe the size and sights in words and the inside of the cave is so vast pictures don’t really showcase it that well either. All I can think of to say is that I think from now on, most caves we see in the future that would have been spectacularly large previously, will probably now seem small in comparison.
After an amazing scenic ride back to the village through the mountains, which included several bike problems including a petrol leak and a brief stop while a herd of cows moved from laying in the road, we decided that Phong Nha is one of our favourite places we have ever been. The scenery was stunning, the people friendly and the sights were spectacular, we could easily have stayed longer, but it was time to move on and keep heading south in search of sunshine and beaches.