We arrived at our hotel in Dong Hoi very early in the morning… like 6am early which to me is a horrible time to arrive at a hotel. Any time you deal with early check in, you risk having to pay more money. Money that I don’t want to pay but will if it means I get some sleep. So far Southeast Asia has been good for not charging extra. Lucky for us, there was no charge here. In fact, because people weren’t checking out until noon and our room wasn’t available, they moved us to their nicer hotel 300m down the street for no extra charge. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that we’re early. Turns out the room we have at the Nam Long Plus hotel is one of the nicest we’ve stayed in on this entire trip so far.
Dong Hoi has nothing really to offer. It’s a sleepy beach town where most things don’t open until the evening… restaurants included. Your lunch options are very slim. However, if you want to relax and enjoy a quiet beach, this is a great place to be. There is no sense of urgency here. Like most people, we stopped here as it’s a good outlet to do some caving.
Roughly a 40 minute drive north of us is Phong Nha National Park which is home to some spectacular caves like the Phong Nha caves which the Vietcong used to hide and hold storage. There is also Paradise cave that is a narrow entrance and opens up into a massive cavern. They also have Son Doong Cave, the worlds largest cave! Found in 2009, this cave requires a 7 day expedition and $3000usd to visit. They only have a few hundred people visit it yearly.
However, we are not here for any of these. To be honest, they sound really cool but we are kind of tired of seeing caves but since we are here, we should pick one. The most unique of the bunch is the Dark Cave. We negotiated a price of 650,000vnd each to visit this one cave. Included in the price is pick up and drop off from the hotel, lunch, park entrance, tour cost and an amazing experience. Though it’s still more than we want to spend, we agree to the price.
The following morning, our bus is late. It as supposed to pick us up between 10:30-11am… it showed up at 11:45am and then hung out for 20 minutes while everyone on the bus went pee. Turns out the bus started in Hue and has been an awful ride thus far considering it left at 6am. We arrive in Phong Nha for lunch. Kristi had told the guide she doesn’t eat pork or beef and the guide said no problem. When lunch came out in a buffet style, there were 6 pork dishes, 1 fish dish and 1 vegetarian dish. Kristi ended up going to the vegetarian table and ate there. Lunch was okay. People on Trip Advisor have spoken like it’s something spectacular but really, it’s quite average.
It’s now time for the groups to split up. 8 people are off to Phong Nha Cave, 10 are going to Paradise Cave and 3 of us are off to the Dark cave. Small group = Awesome! The third person joining us is an American girl who’s been traveling almost a year now. Very quiet and humble… she doesn’t seem to be very American. She’s just optimistic and looking for a fun adventure. We get along great!
Our bus driver drops us off and tells us he will be back in 2 hours. The way he says it makes it seem like if we aren’t back in 2 hours… he might leave us there. We have a big group in front of us and have to wait for equipment to come back our way. We get helmets with headlamps on them, harnesses and life jacket. We look super hardcore.
We walk down a path and up a big tower where they hook us up to a zip line. The girls go first and I come in last. As I head down the line, you get a beautiful view of the lake that leads into to cave. A feeling of being free. The zip line takes us near the mouth of the cave, maybe 100m away. I have a lot of speed and I’m going backwards. The guide isn’t paying attention. I hit the dirt and skid along my ass to a stop. It wasn’t a nice feeling.
Down at the water our guide, Ting, who speaks almost zero English tells us we will swim up to the mouth of the cave from there. Swimming with a lifejacket and a hard hat on is terrible. I’m not a good swimmer but I can get from A to B on my own without much issue. The lifejacket just makes it very awkward and I feel like I have to use double the energy to go half the speed and distance.
They have built a boardwalk into the cave which makes it easy to get around in bare feet. 100-150m in the boardwalk ends and it’s just your bare feet vs the jagged rocks as you wade through cold ass cave water. I might be too delicate for this.
Headlamps on, we catch up to the big group. There is a long line of them as we walk through a narrow tunnel and the ground has turned from rocks and water to mud. Smooth, slippery mud. We climb over a big rock and carefully down a muddy hill that has seen more than it’s share of wipeouts. We may not be a graceful group, but we managed to avoid bruising our tailbones.
Deeper into the cave we go. Sometimes the mud is getting to our knees and deeper. If we had been wearing shoes, surely we would not exit with them. Before we know it, we are all piling into a massive waist deep mud pit. We lay down and enjoy the mud bath. I can’t help but think “people pay good money for this kind of treatment in a spa”. We turn off all of our lights and sit in the pit in the pitch black. It’s pretty amazing.
The big group leaves and we look around for our guide to follow him out… He’s nowhere to be seen. He’s actually gone. We head out of the mud pit and start to retrace our steps out. We come to a fork and can’t remember where to go. Another group comes by and points us the right way. The guide there doesn’t seem to be concerned about the 3 white people wandering alone in the cave. We come to another fork but this time we recognize the route we take. A bit further and we’re out. Our guide comes paddling over to us on a kayak… he points at the big group and tells us to follow them. Worst guide ever. The other guide appears to speak fluent English. He’s giving information about the cave, when it was found and the different types of bats that live in there. Of course he’s just finishing talking as we get close enough to hear him. Our guide is kayaking alone in the cave.
We have to swim back out of the area we’re in. The guide tells everyone to turn off their lights and there is a little bit of natural light coming in. We all swim towards it. This swim feels like it’s taking forever. I hate this lifejacket. It’s pushing my helmet forward and covering my eyes.
We get to water that is waist deep and are able to walk out the rest of the way. When we get to the end of the boardwalk there is a bunch of kayaks waiting for us to load in to. We kayak back to what appears to be a big water jungle gym. They have oversized floaties that a bunch of people can climb on and 2 ziplines for you to hang off of and drop into the water.
We play here for about 30 minutes before heading back up to dry off and change. We check the time… it’s been 2 hours and 20 minutes… Our bus isn’t here. We start to wonder if they came and left or if they are still just running late like they have been all day. 20 minutes later we learn that they were just running late. We head back to Phong Nha where we meet the rest of the people coming back with us. Nobody seemed nearly as excited about their caves as we were. They all said the caves were nice and pretty cool to see but they definitely did not have an experience like we did.
40 minutes back to Phong Nha, I can’t wait to shower and jump into my big comfy bed. I’m exhausted!
The dark cave was an amazing decision and I’m glad we chose it over doing the others.
Turns out you can get similar prices whether you book from Phong Nha, Dong Hoi or Hue. If you book from Hue, remember that it’s a 6 hour bus ride and 2 hours of caving. Most people pay around 800,000vnd for the tours. Some people on our bus booked just the Phong Nha Cave for 430,000vnd. Prices online are all expensive, it’s just a matter of talking to the right company.
You can also just go on your own on a motorcycle or take the public bus. You will then need to pay a park entrance fee and will have to negotiate a price for a guide on the cave(s) that you want to see. The Dark Cave front desk has a big sign saying it’s 350,000vnd to do. We saw it as we paid 300,000vnd each for travel too but the local bus from Dong Hoi is 35,000vnd each way. But it takes you too Phong Nha Town which is a 20 minute drive from the dark cave so you will have to find your way from there.
Next stop is Hue where we are looking to see some tombs, pagodas and the demilitarized zone.