After the busyness of the cities in Vietnam and the heat of the costal roads we set off on our bikes for a two day ride along the Laos border in some of the most remote and beautiful terrain the country has to offer. Riding for hours along the jungle lined Ho Chi Minh trail without seeing another person before coming across several minority villages in the valleys before ascending back into dense fog and mountain passes. This unforgettable ride came to an end in the impossibly stunning Phong Nha Ke Bang national park, home to the worlds largest cave, here the adventure would continue in this otherworldly location.
Riding through the villages and jungles of the isolated Ho Chi Minh trail
On our way up from the coastal region of Hue to Phong Nha the two-day route took us through some of the most remote, challenging and stunning roads Vietnam has to offer. This was by far one of the most intimidating stretches for us, having to take with us extra fuel reserves and knowing there were no major towns for hours. Yet despite this, and the terrible weather in this region, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of our 7 weeks riding from Saigon to Sapa on the way to Phong Nha Ke Bang.
Setting off with a mixture of excitement and trepidation we couldn’t wait to get on to the historic Ho Chi Minh trail, once used to supply arms to the Viet Cong this narrow road runs along the Laos border through dense jungle. Over two days we rode along its improbably perfect surface. Gliding around the deserted roads for hour and hours on our own. Climbing through mountain passes that thick with fog we lost sight of each other and at times feeling totally vulnerable to the environment and fate.
Running out of fuel out here would have been a serious prospect, a crash even more deadly. We had to respect the road and the conditions up here; I’ve honestly never been in such an isolated position before. Often the only contact with other people would come in the form of tiny hill tribe villages perched in the mountains, sheltered from the outside world. Many of the villagers would come out at wave and the children run alongside the bikes. It was quite a special experience and a wonderful way to see a way of life so alien to ours and also so authentic and untainted by tourism.
Being in complete awe at the scale and beauty of Phong Nha Ke Bang national Park
Designated a UNESCO world heritage site back in 2003 the national park is still fairly off the beaten track in terms of the tourist trail in Vietnam. Few take the detour from places like Ninh Binh in the north and Hoi An in central Vietnam, but in many ways this is what makes it so special. With its popularity set to increase over the next 10 years visiting this picturesque and serine area should be a priority if you are in this part of the world.
The national park contains the oldest Karst Mountains in Asia, over 400 million years old. The frequent rain in this jungle region has carved out huge cavernous cave systems inside these mountains, creating hundreds of caves including the largest in the world!
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Many of course come here for the caves, who wouldn’t! But one of the unexpected highlights in what lies above ground rather than below it. The park itself contains hundreds of huge pyramid shaped mountains punctuating the skyline, rivers clearer than you could ever imagine and miles of thick lush green jungle covering the entire area. Add this to the fact that the Ho Chi Minh trail continues right through the centre of the park and is often only busy with the occasional wandering cow and you have yourself paradise!
Renting a motorbike and exploring the twisting and turning trail as it weaves its way around the park is one of the cheapest but most rewarding things you can do here. For around $5 you will experience some of then worlds most impressive and wild roads. But if two wheels and a motor isn’t your style then there are endless opportunities for trekking within the forest itself or instead using peddle power!
Exploring some of the worlds largest caves
Of course, most people are drawn here because of the world famous caves, the largest in the world, Son Doong, being discovered here in 2009. However tempting it might have been this gigantic underground world, which includes its own weather system it is so big, was a little out of our backpackers price range at $3,000 each!
Settling for an exploration of a less grand scale and yet still within a world class cave we headed out to Paradise Cave. Again, one of the largest and most impressive in the world. This mighty cave may have been tamed by the addition of a walkway and installed yet appropriate lighting but is no less impressive. As we usually find ourselves exploring caves on our hands and knees, on the end of a rope and by flickering torch light it was refreshing to be able to just concentrate on taking in the majesty of such a place.
Before the discovery of Son Doong, Thien Durong, or Paradise cave was considered the largest in Phong Nha Ke Bang national park at 31km long and 100m in height. Renowned for having some of the most beautiful and spectacular formations in the world we were in no doubt as to why the British team who opened this cave up decided on the name “ Paradise Cave”.
For us, as caving enthusiasts we were in two minds when exploring Paradise cave. It was undoubtedly the most spectacular system we had ever been in, the sheer scale and beauty here was beyond imagination. The alien like formations where like some fairytale land from another world. And yet, exploring in such a tame and artificial environment did take some of the adventure away from us!
Leaving with feelings of unfinished business due to the insane cost of this region of this budget country!
Phong Nha Ke Bang is a strange place, as is Vietnam. We fell for this country, but it was tough love for a while. In a country known as a budget location we often felt that as tourists we were exploited whenever possible. Even the simple act of buying water would turn into a bargaining game where often the price quoted would rival what we pay in England. Whenever there are tourists in Vietnam you can bet the price is inflated to extortionate proportions, often I feel they loose track of all kind of reasoning when quoting frankly laughable and western prices. Ultimately I think this will come back to bite many of the people here, backpackers will just refuse to pay these prices and stick to the real budget havens of South East Asia and even more so Eastern Europe.
Vietnam is like two countries in one at times. As soon as you leave anywhere they might consider of interest, or more accurately where the western world knows about, the prices drop and you pay what the locals pay. Anywhere else and you may as well be back at home!
And so to my point in question. Here in Phong Nha Ke Bang it is almost impossible to explore properly on your own. This is due to a combination of things, firstly the sheer nature of such a challenging jungle environment that often does require specific skills beyond simple hiking. But mostly this is due to the authorities here having the monopoly on anything worthwhile seeing, blocking up the entrances and placing ticket booths selling vastly overpriced entrance fees.
Then there are the rip off tours being peddled across the town, many that don’t even include the entrance fees with the ridiculous price! We could only realistically afford to see one of the caves here due to this and this was one of only 2 you can actually visit without a guide. (The gimmicky and frankly drab Dark Cave being the other, billed as an adventure cave its soft and overhyped at most. You can do everything included in here: Mud baths, ziplines, seeing inside an actual cave in better and cheaper places all across this region plus even better activities and adventures too!)
Whilst this does annoy us, mostly due to the insane prices, it also seems an unavoidable fact of Phong Nha Ke Bang now. Whilst touring the park on our bike did give us some of that adventure we craved here we were also left feeling like we didn’t see the best of such a magnificent place. Often in today’s world this costs and it singles out anyone with enough money as the only people worthy of visiting.
However caving and adventure trekking are a passion of ours and it is our hope one day that we can return to the park, maybe as a trip on its own, and spent longer in Phong Nha Ke Bang, taking some of the multi day tours which take you deep into some of the largest caves in existence. Hang En, the third largest cave in the world is a two day trek and overnight stay in the cave, camping on the sandy beach of its underground river. This would have set us back over $500, almost a month’s budget for one of us!!
So until next time Phong Nha Ke Bang, we’ll be back, this time with a fist full of dollars! :-p
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