The word ‘awesome’ gets bandied around a lot these days; usually in the sense of something being ‘pretty good indeed’. It’s rarely used to describe something that has actually inspired real awe.
Believe me, the caves at Phong Nha National Park are actually awesome.
Phong Nha National Park
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, which covers about 85,754 hectares of northern central Vietnam along the Lao border, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List primarily because of its ancient and massive collection of limestone grottos and caves.
Formed over the past 400 million years or so, they include the largest cave in the world, the recently discovered and unfortunately off-limits Son Doong Cave, along with the still impressively large Paradise Cave and the longest river cave in the world, Phong Nha Cave.
The area is also one of the most beautiful in Vietnam. The approach to the park is postcard perfect with seas of glossy emerald rice paddies (and ponds created by B-52 bombs during the Vietnam-American war). Drawing closer to the national park’s boundaries, karst mounds rise out of the fields like enormous anthills before growing more numerous and closer together to form the mountain range dividing Vietnam from Laos.
The big highlight of the park for me was Paradise Cave. And when I say ‘big’ I mean unimaginably, jaw-droppingly humongous. The biggest chambers are up to 100m high and 200m wide; large enough to hold a city block of 30-storey buildings. It’s the John Holmes of caves.
Paradise Cave was discovered by a local man in 2005 and the first 5km were explored by the British Cave Research Association later that year. When they came back in 2010 they explored the rest of it – all 31km
About a kilometre of the cave was opened to the public 2010 and made accessible by a wooden boardwalk. Lighting was also installed to give visitors a sense of the caverns’ scale and surreal beauty.
I’ve seen caves before but that vast subterranean landscape was something completely different. It was like arriving on an alien world.
The rock formations’ diversity was incredible; fluted columns, dribbley mounds, corally growths… everywhere you look is a different bizarre texture or shape.
They were reminiscent of surreal/horror artist HR Geiger’s work. I half-expected to see babies’ heads emerging from the gooey-looking walls.
Phong Nha Cave
I also visited Phong Nha Cave, a river cave just a few kilometres downstream from the village where I stayed, Son Trach.
Boats boarded at the village take visitors about 800m into the cave where they can disembark and explore a dry branch corridor of the 44.5km tunnel complex. Phong Nha Cave’s chambers are not nearly as large as the big chambers in Paradise Cave but they still reach about 30m or 40m high.
The lighting in Phong Nha is also a lot less elegant – utilising a lot of red, blue and green gels which make the scene even more surreal.
As I was travelling north up Vietnam along the backpacker trail I asked almost everyone I met what their highlights of the their visit had been. Not a single one mentioned the caves. It seems a lot of people skip them because the national park is a little bit more difficult to reach than, say, the beaches at Nha Trang.
It’s a real shame for them. The national park was easily the best thing I saw in the whole of Vietnam.