Last time I wrote we had just arrived in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park after a long, tiring day of driving. We were absolutely beat and it was already getting dark when we arrived, so we grabbed some dinner at the hotel where we were staying (one of the many almost identical places along the main drag in Son Trach, all charging about 200,000₫/room), and went to bed early.
Son Trach is the small town right inside Phong Nha-Ke Bang, where Ho Chi Minh Highway drops you off after miles and miles of lovely park scenery. Last time I wrote I might have been a bit grumpy and sore from the ride, but Kevin wants me to make sure to say that Ho Chi Minh Highway is absolutely fabulous: a wide, empty, flat road winding along beautiful highland countryside. It may be a bit long and boring at points, but it beats the HELL out of the “roads” up north (as much as we enjoyed the adventure ) and the scary/dirty/dangerous Highway 1.
The next morning we grabbed an extremely average breakfast at one of the restaurants with a Western menu. The greasy eggs and veggies were forgettable, but afterwards we went to a little coffee cafe and had some amazing strong, cold Vietnamese coffees that really hit the spot. I love adding condensed milk to mine– I want to bring this tradition back to the states!
We saw that the weather, once again, wasn’t going to cooperate for us as the thick gray clouds showed no sign of lifting. Blah. We had about two sunny days when we first came to Vietnam, but since then it’s been nothing but gray. It rained on us at BaBe National Park, on Halong Bay, and now at PN-KB. I’m starting to really feel like blue skies and sunny days are a myth! But, we made the best of it and carried on despite the spritzing all day.
We got the impression that PN-KB is more geared towards pre-organized tour groups. There is almost no info, or even English for that matter, within the town, and we couldn’t for the life of us figure out how to hike without a expensive tour or a guide. They had some pretty cool offerings for several day treks but (especially given the crappy weather) we weren’t up for spending that much time or money. The two main attractions, though, are the caves: Phong Nha and Paradise Cave. The biggest cave in the world was actually recently discovered in this park, but I don’t think you can visit it yet.
Visiting these two caves is actually pretty easy to do independently. The boats that take you to Phong Nha Cave leave right next to the town. We got directions to Paradise Cave from the kind people at Oxalis Adventure Travel (a few minutes outside of the town, but easily found thanks to huge signs everywhere) who were also offering awesome tours that we wish we had the time/money for.
We chose Paradise Cave because it is largely favored in most trip reports as it’s bigger, gets less tourists (supposedly) and has less gaudy lighting. The fact that it was significantly cheaper was a bonus. We missed out on the boat ride (meh- it was raining anyway) and hopped on our bike for the ~20 km ride to Paradise Cave (120,000₫/person + 5,000₫ for parking).
We steered around the tour groups, electing to skip the buggies and walk ourselves on up to the cave. It was a pleasant enough little stroll, although not the trek we were craving in such a beautiful area. Oh well. We practically ran up the ramp to the entrance and successfully avoided a massive group pulling up behind us in buggies. Phew. For the most part, we had the trail and the cave to ourselves, even on a weekend!
The cave was amazing. Totally huge. Walking deeper inside, away from the entrance, gave me claustrophobic shivers, but it was worth it. You can walk for almost a kilometer into the cave, passing some really amazing formations. Cool, cool stuff.
When we finished up the rain had pretty much stopped, so we took our time driving back. It was our only real chance to see the park. We stopped several times to take pictures, hang by the river, and enjoy the gorgeousness! I wish we could have taken a day hike, but it was a beautiful area just to pass through. Highly recommend!
Dinner was actually pretty tasty; we wised up and found a place with a handful of locals. We were served a tasty plate of fried chicken and rice and a bowl of bun bo, the noodle soup of Central Vietnam and pho bo’s spicy cousin. It was all pretty delicious.
The next day we went to a little chao place for breakfast (one without an English menu!) and decided to try to popular Vietnamese comfort food. It’s a savory rice porridge with added toppings; Kevin got beef and I got chicken. Very, very tasty. Chao has replaced noodle soup as my new favorite breakfast item (okay, noodle soup hasn’t been my favorite in a hot minute) because it’s so comforting, mild, and filling! Love it.
We had to get one more coffee before getting on the road because it’s so cheap and so tasty ’round here. Afterwards, we packed up and carried on our way.
We only had a ~150 km drive to Dong Ha, the jump off point for touring the sites of the DMZ. That’s right people, we crossed the DMZ and are officially in the South now! Crazy how far a few 7 hour days of driving will get ya! The ride was super easy (on HCM Highway, of course) and we got here before 2 even with our lollygagging in the morning.
Tomorrow we will visit the DMZ sites and maybe make it all the way to Hue if we’re up for it. Either way, should be a fun, not too strenuous day. Updates soon! Xo.