Phong Nha Cave is the best known and most popular of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, as it was the first cave to be opened to the public and the way in is pretty darn cool. Opened to tourism in 1995, Phong Nha Cave requires a boat journey from town up the Son River. Once the boat slips inside, motors are turned off and the crew paddles you into an eerie, mysterious and beautiful underground world.
The lovely, scenic boat ride upriver is part of the enjoyable experience. As the wooden dragon boat putters along, you’ll pass fishermen, the town dotted with colourful churches and kids splashing in the water, all against a backdrop of karst that dates back more than 400 million years. After 30 minutes you’ll reach the end of the underground Chay River, which is the entrance to the cave.
The entrance is fairly nondescript: a wall of rock and a dark hole where the river flows out. Once the boat is plunged into darkness, the roof of the boat is rolled back and your boat team, usually a family duo, quietly rows you deeper. Let your eyes adjust and soon you will absorb what is happening as you glide along: low ceilings suddenly give way to enormous caverns dripping with stalactites. Slip through narrow passages past formations born by eons of geological forces, nature’s patient artist. Each drip of calcite, every few minutes, over a million years has built an empire. The bad disco lighting of years past has been done away with. Now white lights tastefully highlight certain features – crystallised faces and figures appear at every turn, all while your boat crew manoeuvres tricky corners and rocks lurking in the dark waters.
When you reach the 1.5 kilometre mark, the furthest point tour boats are allowed to venture, remember that Phong Nha Cave is more than 44.5 kilometres long.
Boats will turnaround at this point and return. Near the end of your journey out of the cave you’ll be allowed to disembark and walk a set path through the first cave called Court Cave (cung dinh), so named because the formations bring to mind the king and his royal court, including elephants flanking the throne. It takes a bit of imagination but you can come up with your own fanciful interpretation. You can also appreciate what a refuge the cave was during the American War as it was used as a hospital, shelter and ammunition storage, making it a special piece of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Please remain respectful so everyone can enjoy this area. This means no littering, loud talking, smoking or touching the formations that took millions of years to grow. And please no urinating. We actually saw someone do it. Now really.
Nearby Tien Son Cave became known when it was “discovered” by French archaeologist Madeleine Colani in 1935 and it’s worth seeing too if you’ve got the extra time. The cave is higher up in the karst and requires a climb up stairs. From outside you get a beautiful view; inside, it is lit and a wooden walkway leads throughout in a similar fashion to Paradise Cave.
Visiting Phong Nha Cave is a fairly straightforward do-it-yourself venture; there’s no need to book a tour through your hotel. Head to the Phong Nha-Ke Bang Tourism Centre on the main street, which has the ticket office and boat landing. It’s open daily 07:30-16:00. The entrance fee is 150,000 dong and the cost of a boat is 360,000 dong, which can be shared with up to 14 people. There’s usually enough people showing up so you don’t have to wait long for a shared boat, but the process can be sloppy as the ticket seller assembles groups in her mind and demands money without really communicating what is going on. But once everyone has a ticket and a boat, it’s smooth sailing. This cave is great for most ages and abilities as you can remain seated the whole time and aside from a few steps down at the boat landing, there are no stairs or steep walk, like in Paradise Cave or a full trek like Hang En.
A note to avid photographers: it’s not a bad investment to hire a whole boat privately so you are free to move around for photos.
You’ll need at least two and a half hours, round trip, for Phong Nha cave, with an additional hour to add on Tien Son Cave. The boat fee for Phong Nha and Tien Son combined is 400,000 dong, the admission to Tien Son is 80,000 dong. Finally, we’re sure a tip to your boat crew would be greatly appreciated. One of ours was a petite elderly woman. Rowing 14 passengers in a heavy wooden boat in the dark is not easy.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 15th February, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.