“Somebody ought to tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit every minute of every day. Do it, I say, whatever you want to do, do it now.”
— Michael Landon
(FYI, if for whatever reason some of the photos are very tiny thumbnails, just try reloading the page. Wordpress is being a moody bitch lately.) 😉
Never have I ever zip lined (how the hell has it taken me so long??), hiked into a dark cave, soaked in a giant mud bath with 50+ people, swam in an incredible turquoise clear river, or walked into a cave the size of an actual suburb (that’s an understatement, it’s actually bigger). You can do all of these things in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park… plus WAY more! With over 300 caves here, only a handful are actually open to the public. Phong Nha is also home to Sơn Đoòng Cave, which is considered the largest cave in the world!
We booked the Phong Nha National Park tour through our farmstay- costing about $79 AUD per person. Sounds like quite a bit for just a day tour in a very cheap country, but honest to god it was worth every cent! We awoke at 6:30 to enjoy our complimentary breakfast included with our room (Vietnamese coffee and beef pho… YUM) we then met up with our tour guide to go over our upcoming day. The shuttle bus stops at various places along the way to pick up more people for the tour. With a very full bus consisting of ( two Americans (us) two Aussies (hey fancy that!) Four Brits, and four French Canadians- it was a pretty full van! First stop: 8 Ladies Cave. In 1972, eight women were hiding in this cave from U.S raids, but when the bombs were fired it caused an enormous rock to fall and completely block the only exit out of the cave. With every attempt to save these poor women, there was no success. Soldiers nearby could hear these women crying for help, but by day 9 there was no noise left from them. For that, they have built this memorial/temple in honour of these women. Locals will stop by and burn incense and pray for these eight women. Such a horribly sad story! To show respect, you must cover your knees and shoulders. Have no fear, if you are wearing neither of these things (because why would you be, it’s freaking HOT here) they have adorable little skirts to put on. 🙂
Back into the van we go! Next stop:
Paradise Cave: As you enter the carpark, you hop aboard an electric buggy that will take you closer to the entrance. As you’re cruising along this speedy little buggy surrounded by lush forest, you feel as though you are in Jurassic Park… Surely there will be a dinosaur around any corner! You then walk up a fairly steep hill and a few sets of stairs before you are finally at the cave’s entrance. This immaculate and monstrous cave stretches for 31 km! Although you only get to see about 1 km on the tour. From the entrance you descend a few sets of wooden staircases before you are completely submerged in another planet. Literally, I think we have now landed on Mars , all we are missing is David Bowie… Besides the fact you are surrounded by hundreds of asians pushing and shoving you every which way and stopping to take a photo with you because you clearly look like an alien compared to them. Besides that. This hardly bothered me at all because I was completely absorbed in this fascinating cavern. I have never seen anything quite like this.
With so many tour groups here at once, it is more ideal to come on your own- preferably in the morning or late afternoon. That way you can take your time and have zero people in your photos. The tour guide gave us an hour to go explore, but neither one of us looked at the time when he said that. We were just to excited to go. Since I was constantly stopping for photo opportunities, and oohing and ahhing over every little thing, we were nowhere near the end and quite frankly we had no idea how long we had been down here already. Last thing we need is to get left by our tour and miss out on all the fun that lies ahead. We put a little hump on our current speed and finally made it to the end. From the beginning to the end you are walking along a large wooden pathway, so you definitely will know if you have seen it all (as much as this part of the cave will allow at least). By the time we were about halfway back to the entrance, we noticed the cave was completely empty except for us. OOPS. We frantically hoofed it up the stairs and found our tour group (PHEW they didn’t leave us) with only five minutes to spare, we purchased an 80 cent beer to quench our thirst.
Next stop: DARK CAVE…. the absolute highlight of our entire trip!
First, we were fed a delectable lunch to re-energise our bodies for the rest of our day! About half of the group were vegetarians (including Patty) so they served us two GIANT platters of food to share amongst each other. Meats, spring rolls, rice, tofu, sweet potato, fruits, you name it. Unfortunately I was so hungry that I didn’t take a picture until after half the platter was demolished by us. haha! Back to the van to strip down to our swimsuits AND to leave our valuables behind. With water, mud, and more water, camera’s were not allowed unless you have a waterproof one. I was extremely nervous and a bit gutted to leave my camera in the van.. But really I had no choice. They provide lockers for you to use, but our tour guide warned us that 1 key can open all of the lockers, so there’s really no point. Enough said.
Gopro charged and ready to go, lifejackets zipped up, and the zip-line harnesses locked and loaded…. LETS GO PLAY!!! We climbed up a tower where you patiently wait your turn for the zip-line. I truly can not believe this was my first time. I felt like a little kid at an amusement park… So many butterflies fluttering in my stomach, and a smile I could not wipe off my face. Zipping across the clear turquoise river in pure ecstasy… It was an absolute blast! It only lasts about 2 minutes before you land near the entrance of Dark Cave.
Once everyone has zipped across, you jump into this tantalising water, which was actually FREEZING, and swim towards the cave. Make sure your headlamp is turned on properly (I made this mistake) because you will truly not be able to see a damn thing. I wonder where they got the name “Dark Cave”? 😉 Again, another remarkable cave that will have you second guessing- “Am I dreaming? This can’t be real!”
We hike into the cave for about 20 minutes, slipping and sliding all over the place and laughing our asses off at one another. Before you know it, you’re slugging across knee deep mud. Mud is not the most realistic word to use though. When I think of mud, I think of very thick and dark brown consistency. This “mud” was like a gloriously soft chocolate milk. If I didn’t know otherwise, I probably would have dove in- head first- and started guzzling away. With how light and airy this mud is, you instantly float the moment you sit down. Another tour group was there as well, plus we somehow acquired more people in our group. It’s safe to say there were at least fifty of us in this extremely dark cave, floating in this euphoric chocolate-milk-mud, and laughing together. It was truly a moment I will never forget. I think we were there for about 20 minutes? It’s hard to say, it went by so fast. As we hiked our way back out, completely drenched and covered in mud, we took turns sliding down a mudslide. Once we were out of the cave, we all submerged our bodies into the turquoise heaven.
From here you can swim back or kayak. Unfortunately for me, I’m a terrible swimmer. I mean I think a cat could probably swim better than me. With that said, I somehow had a broken lifejacket that would not stay zipped. Instead, it would flare up like a giant pair of wings, which would keep my arms above water but the rest of me struggled. About halfway there, the tour guide gave me a lift on the kayak.. Bless his heart! He could clearly see I wasn’t getting very far, even with Patrick pushing and pulling me most of the way! HAHA.
Once back to the beginning, you are free to swim and play on a different zip-line and water obstacle course. This zip line was SO much fun. I honestly felt like a 5 year old child again. I was dreading the moment “daddy” (tour guide) would say “Ok guys, that’s enough… time to come in!” I still can’t believe what a little slice of heaven this place truly is. Earth porn is an understatement for this national park. After an hour of swimming and playing, we ended the tour at the same place we had lunch. Here, our guide treated us to rum and coke. I’m not really a rum and coke drinker (I think it’s actually disgusting) but I figured “When in Vietnam, why not?” Three bottles of rum later, we were locked and loaded in the van and heading back to the farmstay. I can’t say it enough, every single thing about this day/tour was incredible. I was on an absolute high that no other drug could come close to.
(FYI, this video is quite long for the average person’s attention span. This I do realise, but it gives you a real taste of what to expect on this tour… and it’s funny watching me drown) 🙂
Even though I still had remnants of mud on me, I decided I didn’t want to shower. At the time I felt like it was going to take away that moment that I wasn’t ready to let go of….. Not just yet. We enjoyed another happy hour by the rice paddies, photographing more water buffalo and enjoying some beers. Despite the fact we saw quite a bit of the national park today, I still wanted to see more, but more on “our terms”. We told the manager this and he said we could take a private jeep tour where the driver will take you wherever you want for the entire day (it was bloody pricey) or the scooter tour for half the price. The scooter tour entails two locals who pick you up at 8 a.m. and drive you wherever you want in the national park for the entire day as well. I believe this one cost $400,000 VND ($24 AUD each) so we decided to do this one! Not only because it was more than half the price of the jeep, but we have been dying to ride a moped here with someone that knows what they are doing. So lets rock it!
For the outdoor movie that night, they played “Good Morning Vietnam” with Robin Williams. I had never heard of it, let alone seen it, so I was really excited! Unfortunately I only lasted about 40 minutes before I was snoring so loud that Patrick said it was time for bed. Call me granny…. I think it was only 9 p.m. Knowing it was our last night here, I was really trying to stay awake to enjoy every possible second, but my damn body was saying otherwise.
Early rise, delicious pho breakfast, bags packed, check out of the room, cameras charged… we are ready for our last adventure in Phong Nha. The manager warned us that these two guys can’t speak a lick of English, so if we want to stop, just tap them on the shoulder. Interesting…. Sounds easy enough! In the first 15 minutes I was so caught up in the excitement and sitting back to enjoy the views, that I completely forgot I was supposed to tap him if I wanted to stop for pictures. I completely missed a spot where water buffalo were submerged in the river…. DAMN it Kylie. We literally drove through the rice paddies- passing local farmers working their arses off. When we approached a river, the drivers stopped, climbed off their bikes and enjoyed a cigarette. Two women on their scooters approached and did the same thing. We weren’t sure what we were waiting for. Sure enough, we were CROSSING that river… We were waiting for the ferry to come back! This was the most interesting and rustic ferry I have truly ever seen. Notice in the photos 🙂
The lack of communication really was a struggle throughout the day. We stopped at a local restaurant in town that sets alongside the river. We were nowhere near hungry, so we weren’t really sure what we were doing here. I walked around and snapped some photos and we met a lovely Vietnamese girl who spoke great English. As we were heading back to the scooters, I spotted the sweetest and most adorable old lady huddled beneath a hut, cooking over her own makeshift stove. I asked the girl if she would please ask the woman if I could take her photo. Anticipating the answer, I smiled at her and waved, and the girl said “Yes it’s ok if you do”. Ahhhhh bless this sweet lady’s heart.. She was so precious!
About 4 hours of riding, stopping, riding, picture taking, my butt being incredibly sore from those very uncomfortable seats, constantly feeling dehydrated, I finally saw the sign for PWCB (Pub with cold beer). The manager had mentioned that’s where the drivers would take us for lunch- which I was SOO excited about because I wanted to eat the fresh whole chicken. Instead of turning down that road, the driver went right past it. I tapped him on the shoulder, climbed off to “take a photo” when really I was asking Patrick what we should do. Patrick walked back to the driver and said “Bia?” (Beer) and pointed back to the PWCB. The driver nodded- “Bia” and pointed in the opposite direction. Not really sure what that meant, but we shrugged our shoulders and decided to see what he meant. We approached a wooden sign saying “Wild Boar Eco Farm”. I noticed these signs the other day when we were riding bikes, but I didn’t think anything of it. I was now thinking, “Why are we going to a boar farm?” Sure enough, it’s an actual outdoor restaurant (just like PWCB) but it has an even BETTER view. You can sit at a picnic table or lay in the hammock on a giant wooden platform overlooking a riverbed and lush green forest. The hammock is literally hanging near the edge, so it’s a bit daunting. We bought the drivers a beer to say thank you, which they didn’t even acknowledge. They drank the beer and passed out in the hammocks for the remainder of the time. We ordered roasted peanuts, sweet potato fries, stir fried veggies and rice, AND a fresh kilo of chicken. Don’t forget a few beers as well…. of course! Everything came out pretty fast and it was delicious. The chicken took quite awhile, which is completely understandable since it’s literally fresh from their yard. Holy mother of God…. this chicken was on a different level of delicious. Mouth-watering, delectable, juicy , flavourful, orgasmic, exquisite, bursting with flavour…. every possible adjective to describe a food orgasm meal. You can definitely tell the chickens are very malnourished here, because there was NOT much meat on this poor little carcass, but that’s how amazing the flavour was. I was literally sucking the bones dry… I couldn’t stop myself. YUMMMMMM!!! After our bellies were completely full, I needed to recover from the earth shattering orgasm I just had in my mouth. What better way then taking a cat nap in the hammock? As I was climbing in this very skinny hammock I thought “Man, that would royally suck if you fell out of this thing and toppled down the mountain. What a way to go!” As I was climbing in, Patrick was completely absorbed looking at photos and not paying attention to me.. next thing I know…. BOOM! I see my life flash before my eyes and then start laughing hysterically. Patrick completely missed it! Once he heard the BOOM, he looked up and said “What the hell just happened??” I’m that jackass that literally just fell out of the hammock. Thank god I caught myself before my “thought” actually came true. Oy vey! (No photos from that, sorry!) Needless to say, I’m not very coordinated. 🙂
Once we paid for our lunch and thanked the family profusely for our incredible meal, we were back on the road. The driver literally stopped in front of the PWCB and said “Bia?” Are you fucking kidding me right now? I am so full I couldn’t even suffice a beer right now. Plus, why would we go here right after we just left our lunch spot? I shook my head and said “No”. He sat there very confused while arguing with the owner of the pub. He then said “Farmstay?” In my mind I was thinking “I don’t want to go back already.. I thought we had these guys all day!” Not to be greedy, I mean we had already been out for about 6.5 hours, but I wasn’t ready to call it a day! Patrick felt the exact same way, but we didn’t know how to communicate that to these guys. So we just sucked it up and enjoyed our last 15 minutes cruising through the village.
Once we were back at the farmstay, we napped in the outdoor area for a little bit and then sorted out some last minute things with the front desk. A few phone calls made to some upcoming bookings we made, fresh laundry done (our clothes smelled horrendous), and train tickets sorted. The manager helped us upgrade our train tickets to a soft sleeper so we wouldn’t have to suffice on another 9 hour train ride in soft seats. I know, poor us. We savoured our last sunset in this serene spot, sipping on happy hour beers and eating our last meal. Our shuttle bus picked us up at 6:30 en route for Dong Hoi Railway. I truly did not want to leave. I felt like a child that wasn’t ready to leave their mom for the first time. I just wanted to kick and scream and say “I don’t want to go yet! I’m not ready!” Instead I put my big girl pants on and convinced myself that I would be back… Someday, somehow… I promise I will be back Phong Nha.
(You probably understand why I split this up in two posts now, right? :))
This 3 day adventure and luxurious stay was the most expensive part of our entire trip. Besides turning down the jeep tour because of its price, we didn’t turn anything else away. If we wanted 6 beers plus 3 meals just for dinner, we allowed ourselves to. (Fat-ass Americans) 😉 We completely treated ourselves and it felt amazing. I can not say it enough, I am IN LOVE with this place and it is definitely a MUST DO in Vietnam!
Thank you Phong Nha Farmstay!!!!! 🙂
Another overnight train ride lies ahead….. Next stop: Vietnam’s capital city: Hanoi!
Thanks for reading!