After landing at the tiny Dong Hoi regional airport, we took a makeshift taxi towards the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, home to the world’s largest cave. Tourism in this area is still relatively new, with only half a dozen nearby accommodation options. We stayed at a farm stay surrounded by rice fields and owned by an Aussie who has been rightly credited with driving international tourism to the area.
On our first afternoon, we visited Phong Nga cave, which although relatively small and old news compared to some of the other caves in the National Park, is still spectacular. Seeing the cave means hiring a long boat for a fixed fee, so the more people you can find to share the boat the cheaper the trip becomes. Having round up a multinational group of 10 people, we started the slow scenic journey towards the cave. After arriving at the cave’s dramatic mouth the engine was cut and we were paddled through the beautifully lit flooded cave. The experience was so beautiful and romantic that it almost seemed fake (if you’ve been to Disneyland, imagine a much grander version of Pirates of the Caribbean, minus the queues and pirates). At the end of the tour, we were dropped off and allowed to explore the front of the cave by foot.
The largest cave in the national park (and the world), Son Doong, was only discovered in 2009 and requires a multi-day trek, several months’ planning and some serious rock climbing/abseiling to gain access, so we gave that one a miss. The nearby Paradise cave, which was also discovered in the last decade and is almost as big, is much more accessible. Paradise cave is deep within the national park, and in a sign of how immature tourism is in the area, there are only really three ways of getting there; a single overpriced tourist minibus (which included other activities we weren’t interested in doing), hiring a motorbike to try to self-navigate there (which Sam ruled out after seeing dozens of tourists with cut up legs over the preceding couple of months) and jumping on the back of a non-English speaking local’s bike. We decided the last of these options was the least unappealing so we went with that.
After an hour long motorbike ride and a half hour walk, we arrived at an entrance so tiny that its a wonder the cave was ever discovered at all. Once inside, the sheer scale of the cave is breathtaking. The cave continues for 31 kilometers, but we just walked the first kilometer along pristine wooden staircases and walkways. As spectacular as that kilometer was, it was enough for us, so we made our way back to the farm stay and on to Dong Hoi in time for a late afternoon walk on a nearby white sand beach.
The next morning we took a train through the former demilitarized zone (that separated Communist North Vietnam from the South) to Hué, a 19th century imperial capital that is now a popular World Heritage site. That afternoon we toured the expansive and heavily fortified Citidel, focusing on the inner Imperial Enclosure (which at 6 square kilometers requires a fair amount of walking). A lot of the buildings were a little worse for wear, courtesy of heavy bombings during the French and American wars, but ongoing restoration works are slowly repairing the damage.
From Hué we took a scenic train ride south to Da Nang, before arranging a makeshift shuttle on to Hoi An. Hoi An’s World Heritage protected Old Town is not huge (you could walk it in an afternoon) but it is really pretty and unique, and on the recommendation of family and lots of backpacking friends we set aside three full days to enjoy it. We’d been told that Hoi An is the best place in Asia to get clothes tailored, and after spending a lot of time shopping around and kicking tires we were really happy with the results. In between clothes/shoe fittings, we had some fantastic food at a few pretty restaurants. Our favorite meal though, was a street-side Banh Mi from a nice old lady who has developed a cult following on trip advisor, and we ended up going back there every day.
Hoi An was at its best at night, when the temperature drops a few degrees and a combination of candle and lantern lighting gives the old town a beautifully romantic feel.
For our last full day in Hoi An we rented some bikes and rode through rice fields to the nearby beaches (which although pretty didn’t quite stack up to the ones we’d seen Thailand a few weeks earlier). On the way back, we stopped for lunch at a cute restaurant that grows all its vegetables on site.
From Hoi An we took a short flight to our final Vietnamese stop, Ho Chi Minh city (formerly Saigon). A reputation for chaos and crowds had tempered our expectations, but we really enjoyed our two-night stay in the buzzing district 1 at a hotel owned by the family one of Cindy’s Californian friends. While there, we visited the War Remnants museum, Independence Palace and a busy souvenir market. We spent our last night in Vietnam at a local bar watching Australia win the Asian Cup. The following morning we caught a flight to Singapore, the last country we visited in our year-long adventure.