We heard about Phong Nha from a few travelers and decided it would be worth the adventure to see some of the world’s largest caves. There wasn’t a direct bus or any accommodation we could find in advance–there was only a “side note” in the Lonely Planet. We found a bus to Dong Hoi that would drop us off about 1 hour from the caves. We didn’t realize we would hit a dog en route, come so close to crashing into an oncoming semi that our bus would have to slam on the brakes and everyone would be thrown forward AND that we would arrive in Dong Hoi at 4am. The moto taxis started circling the minute all 7 of us jumped off the bus. There is nothing more terrifying than a moto taxi approaching with a long cigarette hanging out of his mouth and dollar signs lighting up his eyes. Of course, we got ripped off by the taxi we shared with the other travelers. They decided to head to the classic, trusted Phong Nha Farmstay while we decided their attitude was too pretentious for our style and instead stayed in town with two guys at a family establishment (like the whole family also lived there while the mother rented out rooms). After a rest and a shower, we pieced together how to see the caves for 1/4 of the price of the tour Phang Nha Farmstay was offering by walking down to the dock and buying tickets.
Caves=amazing. Set in the green countryside of central Vietnam, the size of the caves is hidden by small and unimpressive entrances. This disguise allowed the Vietnamese to hide makeshift buoyant bridges to transfer ammunition, food and other supplies to troops during the war. Despite constant bombing, only one bomb ever made it inside the cave where it knocked a stalactite loose. We took a boat deep into the cave where we were dropped off and directed to explore by foot. There were very few foreign tourists, but several Vietnamese tour groups who wanted pictures with us. We happily obliged in between admiring the rock formations.
There are so many caves in the area. It would be difficult to cover them all in such a short period of time, so we decided on one other called Paradise Cave. There is no public transportation in the area so we had to get creative. Luckily, our German and Norwegian friends had just wrapped up their Easy Rider adventure where a local Vietnamese tour guide took them on a trip through Vietnam on motorcycles. Joshua and I have a crazy fear of motorcycles, but since it was the only way to see the caves, we decided to sack it up. It ONLY took us an hour to find someone to rent us motorcycles (which we had to negotiate down from $15/day to $10). We each jumped on with our fearless pro and sped off like the devil was chasing us down Ho Chi Minh Highway. We had no map and no one we stopped to ask had any idea where we were going…the tourists haven’t really bombarded this area (probably because the biggest cave in the world was only discovered in 2009). Once we finally arrived at the caves in the late afternoon, we had them to ourselves except for a rowdy group of Vietnamese ladies who all wanted Joshua to hold their hands and help them down the stairs. In the past I’ve heard caves described in length by number of football fields…this was so many football fields, it no longer is a good measurement tool–it would be like measuring a school bus in golf balls.
Because neither Joshua nor I can drive a motorcycle, we were both passengers. I’m embarrassed by how tight I was holding on to another man (for fear of death, of course). I really, really hated the experience as we sped around windy corners and then proceeded to drive even faster along the open highway. Just my luck, our moto ran out of gas just 500m before the end of our trip. We had to send Joshua to buy a water bottle full of gasoline and bring it back. We made it home, returned the motorcycles in time to the neighbor we had rented from and had a nice evening dinner of Bun Thit Nuong to celebrate making it through the day alive.