After staying in Dong Hoi for two more days than we’d planned to, we were finally headed out to Phong Nha. We packed up and waited at a bus stop for maybe 5 minutes, when a man came up to us and shook his head, pointing to a different bus stop across the street.
We’ve become quite wary of strangers, because people’s first instinct sadly seems to be to scam you. The last bus stop we were at, moto drivers tried to tell us that the real bus stop was 2 kilometres away and that they would happily take us, for a price. Not believing a word they said, we walked maybe 5 minutes down the street to the right bus stop. But this man didn’t seem to have anything to gain, so we crossed the street and waited in front of his house for the bus. His wife kept lookout for us, and waved excitedly when the bus came. Thanking them, we got on and were on our way to Phong Nha!
After a very bumpy ride (tip: don’t sit in the back row, it’s the bounciest!), we arrived in Phong Nha – a literal one street town. The town itself is really only sustained by tourism to the caves, and so every business is either a restaurant, travel agency, a hotel, or all three in one. With nothing else to do here, we weren’t planning on staying the night, and immediately booked our sleeper bus to Ninh Binh once we arrived. We left our bags at the travel agency, and went off to explore the caves!
Some of the caves are really expensive, with one costing literally thousands of dollars for a several day trek and caving combo. We’re still students, so that clearly isn’t in the budget! Instead, we opted to do the Phong Nha cave. The entrance fee was 150,000 dong, with a boat costing 360,000 for 12 people. We met a French couple who also wanted to do the cave, and soon after a Vietnamese family of 8 came along. It only took about 5 minutes to collect enough people to fill a boat, lowering the price to 30,000 per person!
After a bit of a kerfuffle (the Vietnamese family tried to smuggle on another person without paying, which didn’t go over so well), we were off! The boat puttered up the river, past green mountains and alongside other identical blue boats. Soon we were at the mouth of the cave.
The engine turned off, and a young teenage girl took the front oar to row us through the cave. The cave was spectacular.
What looked like nothing more than a hole in a rock from the outside, gave way to a massive cave with high arched ceilings. The rock formations looked like chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceilings, the stalagmites emerging from the black water like statues. The walls were painted with marbled white salt crystals and rusty orange streaks, the stone pillars looked like rivulets of water paused in time.
It was like we were floating through nature’s throne hall in an underground castle – impressive, to say the least.
We were rowed through the caves in almost complete silence, with no sounds except the rhythmic splashing as the oar hit the water. Even though we were far from alone – there must have been a dozen other tourist boats in the cave with us – nobody dared speak a word. Vietnam is a loud country with very loud people, so this stillness was warmly welcomed.
We reached the end of the lit section of the cave (I have no idea how far in the cave still went afterwards, it was pitch black) and turned around. On the way back, the boat let us off to explore some beautiful rock formations on foot. We walked through stalactite forests, and over underground rivers.
I could have spent ages wandering along those paths, admiring the intricate patterns sculpted by years of water droplets leaving their mark one at a time. Unfortunately, our tour group was intent on marching through the cave without so much as turning their heads. Another good reason why we’ve tried to do mostly self-guided tours!
We were brought back downriver, and left with well over half a day to kill in the one street town of Phong Nha. We got milk tea (of course), hung around in restaurants, and explored around the town. Finally, at 21:00, we boarded our overnight bus to our next destination: Ninh Binh!