Designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 2003, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park borders the Laotian Hen Namno national reserve. The Vietnamese side is 340 square miles of near-pristine mountainous evergreen jungle. Formed 400 million years ago, the park sports hundreds of limestone cave systems and crystal clear underground rivers. New cave systems are being discovered annually. On your high-tech map above, the park is located just NW of the city of Dong Hoi.
From Hue, we drove (aka were chauffeured) north on the Ho Chi Minh Highway for 4½ hours. Formerly the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the highway was fully paved in 1995. One section is paved directly over an aircraft runway, visible on both sides of the road and serving as extended road shoulders.
We began and ended our four night stay in the National Park area at Chay Lap Farmstay As suggested by the name, accommodations are located in the heart of farmlands. Kayaks and bicycles are available for guest use. We paddled the river and rode bicycles along the country road. The Farmstay rooms are comfortable, the staff amazing, views to die for, decent wine and pretty good food. Locals found our photo op choices humorous.
After a night at the Farmstay, we embarked on a 3 day 2 night Wild Tu Lan Cave Adventure guided by Oxalis Adventure Tours. Once on board their van we met our fellow trekkers. Ten of us in all. Nationalities included French, British, Austrian, Australian, Vietnamese and two Geezer Americans. It was a compatible fun-loving group. Lot’s of laughter. Zero drama.
The 1½ hour van ride over bumpy rural roads ended at Oxalis Headquarters in Son Trach Village, pop. 3,000. We were briefed and suited-up. The adventure was billed as moderate fitness level. Little did I know…
We forded rivers, scaled mountains, squeezed through narrow cave openings and swam across deep cave rivers fully clothed, boots and all. I made the trip with help from the kind professional Oxalis staff and support of fellow travelers. Had I understood the physical challenges of the adventure, I would have said I can’t do it. But I did! I’m so proud — ripped pants, bruises, aching muscles and all. I learned I am much better at swimming than rock climbing. It was an experience of a life time.
Each of the 5 caves visited showcases a different personality. The magnificence is overwhelming. We took hundreds of photos. Here’s a small sampling that does not do justice to the overall experience.
We were pampered by a cadre of Porters and staff. Campsites were fully erected and our belongings already delivered when we trekked in. Meals were expertly prepared, delicious, plentiful and diverse. The toilets composting, using giant scoops of rice hulls to aid the process. I learned that night jungle rats have an affinity for rice hulls. Better to shine your flashlight and kick at the toilet before sitting down. Fewer surprises. All equipment was provided. Our job was to show up, rock scramble, swim, gawk, eat, play games and laugh. Applegate Glamping Ladies, we need to up our game!
After 3 days and 2 nights of being lulled to sleep by waterfalls, it was time to leave jungle paradise. We ended where we started. After showers and a chang into clean dry clothes we had a final group meal at a village restaurant. Here are a few photos of Son Trach.
Oxalis delivered us to Chay Lap Farmstay for our final night in the area. First thing, we delivered a giant plastic garbage bag filled with wet mud caked clothes to the hotel laundry. Two hours later, at a cost of $10, we got back a basket of spotless folded clothes. How they got the mud out, i’ll never know. Before bed we shared wine and a light dinner with our new Aussie friends. The next morning it was an early start to Dong Hoi for an eleven hour train ride to Hanoi.