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Phong Nha - Ke Bang highlights and travel guide

Phong Nha Overview

Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park has a beauty which is incomparable to any other part of the world. Below the rich primary and secondary forests, sits an underground prehistoric cave paradise which exceeds the powers of the imagination. It is one of the largest and oldest karst formations in the world. 400 million years of formation, erosion and tectonic activity have resulted in one of the most stunning cave systems of the world, the scale and beauty of which is almost indescribable. This is a whole underground world which stretches for over 100km. The labyrinth features stalactites and stalagmites of gargantuan size, pools, rivers, and even a cave large enough to house an entire New York City block.

Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
A view point from Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park

Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park takes it name from the magnificent Phong Nha Cave and the dense Ke Bang Forest which covers the land. It has been classed as UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2003 although the largest of all of the caves was not fully discovered until 2009.

Exploration of the park and caves has been ongoing and human inhabitance can be traced as far back as the Cham period. Until relatively recently, however, many of the caves remained elusive and unexplored. In the early 1990s, Hanoi Univesity worked with researchers from the British Cave Research Association to conduct a grand exploration of the hidden world below the surface of the park. Although by this point many of the caves had already been discovered, the group's discoveries were truly astonishing. Hang Son Doong Cave broke the record for the world's largest cave, measuring a staggering over 5 km long, 200 meters high and 150 m wide. Originally discovered by a local man named Ho Khanh in 1991, it was not fully explored until 2009 when a team led by Howard Limbert ventured deep into the incredible cave system.

Although much of what lay beneath the park was unexplored and undisturbed, the area itself has long been active, particularly during the Vietnam War when Phong Nha and Dong Hoi suffered heavy bombing at the hands of US troops. It is thought that the area contains a high number of unexploded ordinance making it imperative that people stick to known routes and follow guides.

 Son Doong cave, the world's largest caves in Vietnam
Son Doong cave, the world's largest caves in Vietnam

That being said, the areas open for exploration have been well maintained and having the chance to explore the otherworldly beauty of Phong Nha is really an unmissable opportunity.

The cave systems and covering forests create an incredible ecosystem in which many rare and endangered species can survive. Within the national park, there are Large-antlered Muntjac, Clouded Leopard and different species of langur to name just a few. The fauna and flora of Phong Nha - Ke Bang seems to be endless with new discoveries being made with further, in-depth exploration of the area.

Now there are daily tours which take visitors on a magical adventure through the elaborate and stunning caves. Although a trip to the largest cave in the world, Hang Son Doong is limited to 800 visitors per year and costs $3000, there are plenty of other incredible caves laced with stalactites, stalagmites and rivers waiting to be explored. Ke Bang Forest strives to match the beauty and wonder of the underground world and is perfect for trekking or exploring by bicycle.

Phong Nha - Ke Bang has a tropical climate and has high levels of rainfall year round, particularly from September to November when the area is prone to flooding. The dry season is from January to June with the driest months being February and March. In the summer months temperatures can soar as high as 41 degrees, and during the winter they can down to just 6 degrees. Phong Nha - Ke Bang is best visited during the dry season as some areas close as a safety precaution when there is heavy rain due to the risk of flooding.  

See and Do

The largest cave in the world formed approximately 3 million years ago, Hang Son Doong is the ultimate in cave exploration. It is more than a cave it is a whole other world complete with a jungle and a river and even its own climate. This secret world, however, remains out of reach to most with only 800 visitors admitted each year and at a price of $3000.

Hang En, the neighbour of Hang Son Doong, is the third largest cave in the world. Its cavernous mouth opens up on the side of the mountain, leading into scenes of breathtaking beauty. The cave encounter is part of a two-day trip including a trek through the jungle and Ban Doong Village to reach the cave. Inside the cave are azure pools to cool off in and sandy where explorers can camp for the night. At just a fraction of the cost of the Hang Son Doong tours, this trip is a more affordable way to see one of the most exquisite caves in the world.

The Tu Lan Cave System is made up of over 10 caves and can be seen as part of a two-day trip. To reach the cave, explorers must first trek through the thick jungle before climbing down into the cave. This trip will truly feel as if you are voyaging to a forgotten corner of the earth. This cave trip is for those who love adventure and incorporates swimming through the underground river systems to venture deeper into the cave.

 Hang Va cave, a famous for its elaborate rock formations
Hang Va cave, a famous for its elaborate rock formations

Hang Va is another remarkable cave which can be reached as part of a two-day trek. This cave is famous for its elaborate rock formations which change as you venture through the cave, each one the result of different forces acting on the rocks. The unique landscape in this cave feels otherworldly, the calcite cones are particularly captivating and make for some incredible photos.

There are also plenty of caves which can be explored in one and at have a much lower entry price. Paradise Cave stretches is open to the public for a small fee and showcases some amazing examples of different rock formations. It stretches 31 km under the national park and opens up into a grand chamber which is reached by a wooden staircase. The descent takes visitors past stalactites which drip down from the ceiling, some reaching right down into the cavern, dangling like tentacles. Although most tourists only see the first kilometre of this immense cave, the sheer expanse of the grotto and the elaborate formations which adorn every surface are enough to captivate the crowds. Each stalactite and stalagmite tell the story of millions of years of natural erosion, the rock surface seemingly alive shimmering and glinting in the light. This cave itself was only opened to tourists in 2010 and attracts more tourists each year. Paradise Cave's beauty, intricacy and accessibility make it a far more viable option than Hang Son Doong.

Phong Nha Cave is the cave from which the area takes its name and also the one of the longest established as an attraction. To access Phong Nha Cave visitors board small wooden boats and voyage down the poetic Son River. Surrounded by karst peaks and luscious green vegetation, it is the perfect beginning to a captivating trip. The name Phong Nha translates as wind and teeth, and as the boat slips into the mouth of the cave, the reference becomes clear. The stalactites and stalagmites cut through the cave as if teeth jutting from the jaw of a resting monster. It is easy to let the imagination run free as you drift further into the cave, the rock formations dancing in the coloured lights.

The boat ride to Phong Nha Cave usually incorporates a trip to Tien Son Cave. The boat waits at the bottom whilst visitors explore the 400 meters of the cave that is open to visitors. The rock formations create a unique soundscape with echoes and reverberations from the stalactites and stalagmites. The visual effect is equally as stunning with the gold and silver laced karst glittering in the lights and formations which take on familiar forms to fool the imagination.

 Paradise cave, the Phong Nha - Ke Bang cave's system
Paradise cave, the Phong Nha - Ke Bang cave's system

Hang Toi or Dark Cave has been transformed into an adrenaline fueled playground. Visitors can swoop down to the entrance of the cave Indian Jones style on a zip line before swimming into the darkness. The cave rewards those brave enough to venture through the narrow passageway with a bath in the thick oozing mud which sticks to everything it touches. The buoyancy inside the mud chamber is extremely high making for an altogether relaxing feeling of weightlessness. After floating effortlessly in the mud, there is a refreshing river to wash off in before boarding the kayaks for the return journey. The Chay River which feeds into the cave also has some other activities on offer such as an over river obstacle course and a flying fox zip line. Being surrounded by such incredible scenery makes any kind of activity seem infinitely more adventurous.

Phong Nha Botanical Garden is a fantastic place to admire the beauty of the area above ground. The rich natural forest has a fascinating variety of fauna and flora both wild and in the wildlife sanctuary. The routed through the park stop at the picturesque Thac Gio Waterfall and the peaceful Vang Anh Lake. 

Culture and Arts

Just outside of Phong Nha, sits the convergence of three roads which played a vital role in the Vietnam War. The Ho Chi Minh Highway East, Ho Chi Minh Highway West and Victory Road 20 all made up part of the iconic Ho Chi Minh Trail which served the Viet Cong troops. The route acted as a connection between North Vietnam and South Vietnam and was used to transport supplies and troops. This, however, was not Phong Nha's only involvement in the war as Phong Nha Cave, and it's neighbouring grottoes were used to shelter troops and supplies. The large enclosed caverns made for excellent safe havens, and Phong Nha Cave was even used as a military hospital. Many local people joined forces with the VC, and the area became an important part of the fight against South Vietnam and the US. This region is the narrowest part of Vietnam at only 42 km wide already making it a prime target for the US who wanted to cut off the supply route. Once they discovered the hidden caves, however, more extensive bombing began. The scars of these attacks still remain in the crater marked fields and some scarring at the entrance to some of the caves.

Those trekking to the park's larger more specialist caves Hang En or Hang Son Doong will also have the opportunity to visit Ban Doong Village. One of the smallest in Vietnam, this village is made up of just 40 inhabitants of Bru-Van Kieu ethnic minority. The village itself is a poor one with families surviving off the land. However, increased tourism in the area is bringing new opportunities. The small village is dwarfed in comparison to the immense surroundings. The modest stilt houses settled amongst fruit and vegetable plots are tiny in comparison to the towering peaks and thick jungle.  

Festivals and Events

On the 16th night of the first lunar month, local villagers from the Ma Coong community gather in Ca Roong Village to celebrate the Breaking of the Drum Festival. The legend has it that villagers were plagued by an evil monkey who brought misfortune and poverty. This evil monkey was overcome by Giang, a god who then declared that once a year the villagers should be able to show their love without restrictions. This festival declares that for one night only people are free to love who they want and can spend the night with anyone they choose regardless of marital status. This ritual allows free expression of feelings without the repercussions of jealousy similar to that of the Khau Vai Love Market. Before the night of freedom can commence, villagers must first make offerings to Giang and begin the ceremonial breaking of the drum. The drums are handcrafted on the day of the festival, and the aim is to beat the drum as hard as possible until the skin tears. It is only after the drum has been broken that lovers can disappear into the forest or nearby areas for their one night together. Come sunrise the festival is over, and people return to their husbands, wives and families to resume life as normal.
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