My mother came to visit me in Vietnam and we went to Phong Nha to check out the caves and beautiful scenery. We decided to travel up by train from Danang, as six hours on a motorbike seemed a bit much and we were short on time.
The Danang train station as expected was rather chaotic and our train was delayed, but fortunately only by 20 minutes. Luckily I had booked ahead and we had two bottom beds in a first class 4 sleeper cabin, so we had somewhere nice to sit around the small table. I highly recommend booking ahead so you can get the bottom beds and paying the tiny bit ($1- $2) extra for first class 4-sleeper cabin so there is space to sit up. We weren’t actually intending on sleeping as it was an afternoon train, but all the seats were sold out so we had to take this. I walked down to take a look at the seat cabins and they are quite nice too, similar to reclining airplane seats so quite fine if you book ahead and want to save a bit of money. They are about $3-$4 less than sleeper cabins.
The view on the way through the Hai Van pass is spectacular, although unfortunately our window was tinted so it was hard to see, but it was still a very enjoyable ride. They have lots of food and drinks available on the train including beer, crisps, noodle pots and cooked food like spring rolls, chicken, rice and veg. Just make sure you check the prices on the menu first – they tried to rip me off!
The train doesn’t actually go direct to Phong Nha, so we had to get off at the nearest town which is Dong Hoi – about half an hour away and $20 by taxi. Fortunately the tour we had booked for the following day included a free pick-up from Dong Hoi, so we spent the night there at a cheap homestay near the station. This is a good option if you are travelling by train, however if you’re on a motorbike it works out cheaper just to visit the caves on your own rather than through a tour operator.
There didn’t seem to be anything worth doing in Dong Hoi so we got to bed early to be ready for our 8am pick up. The tour operator arrived in good time and we drove off towards our first stop – Paradise Cave.
Paradise Cave has only recently been discovered and opened to the public. In total it continues for 31km, but most people only explore the first 1km which has walkways, ladders and lightening to help navigate. We spent about an hour walking through to the end and back, marvelling at the incredible rock formations and underground rivers. Then we headed to a restaurant with the tour group to have lunch, which was very common Vietnamese fare – rice, spring rolls and various meat and veg dishes.
After lunch we continued on to Phong Nha cave, which you enter via a boat which then drops you off on an underground beach inside the cave so you can continue to explore on foot. In contrast to Paradise cave, Phong Nha cave has been explored for centuries by Vietnamese people and so has a rich history and a more authentic ‘ancient cave’ feel to it. There are a number of ancient staircases built into the rock and strange carvings and sculptures made by previous inhabitants. After exploring the caves for a bit we stopped for a drink and looked at some souvenirs before heading back on the boat.
That evening we had a drink and watched the sunset from our balcony before heading to dinner at a small nearby restaurant. Phong Nha town is tiny and there is really only about 5 restaurants and two bars. I briefly checked out the hostel bar at Easy Tiger where they were playing some live music but not much was happening so I got to bed early.
The following morning we hired a scooter and drove to the ‘botanical gardens’, which are really more just a walking pathway through a natural jungle with streams and waterfalls. There didn’t appear to be any manicured flowers like I’ve seen at other botanical gardens, which was nice because it gave it much more rustic and authentic feel. We walked around for about 3 hours, went swimming in one of the natural pools by a waterfall, saw some peacocks and then headed back to the car park. By some amazing coincidence I saw my old motorbike parked in the parking lot – the one I had sold in Ho Chi Minh city about two months before! I almost didn’t believe it at first but on closer inspection I confirmed it was definitely the same bike. They had repaired the broken clutch and put a new luggage rack on, but it was otherwise identical. Considering the number of bikes in Vietnam, the statistical probability of that happening must be astronomical! A bizarre ending to a lovely weekend…