It could be a scene straight out of a Jules Verne novel. Gigantic stalactites, lit up in fantastical green and bluish hues, mushroom out from a slippery, dripping canopy. The natural detail of each limestone formation is extraordinarily surreal; similar to a 3D sci-fi flick, causing you to think for a moment you’re on the set of ‘Forbidden Planet’ or are, in fact, journeying to the centre of the earth. It’s difficult to describe how infinitely impressive this cave – without drawing from the works of fantasy authors or filmmakers – actually is. And it’s just one in a cluster of caves found within the forestry reserves of Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park. Aptly called ‘Paradise Cave’ it is the most stunning of the gargantuan, record-setting caves in the area that is also accessible to visitors.
While most Vietnamese are now familiar with the popular Phong Nha Cave, Paradise Cave (called Thiên Đường in Vietnamese) only became open to visitors in late 2010 and has been tastefully – and sustainably – structured with tourist walkways that serve to conserve its awe-inspiring, calcified walls. While it is certainly gaining more attention from tourists, the ticketing structure and well-guarded wooden pathway and platforms that give visitors access to the cave, also manage to maintain a reverent, whispery atmosphere that is deserving of such a sacred site. Having been in this country for well over 4 years, it’s a rarity to find such a spectacular natural attraction that has not been exploited and partly ruined by the over-population of tourists (both foreigners and locals). I have to give credit to the Truong Thinh Group who built the roads and exceptional tourist facilities at the cave.
Paradise Cave was discovered by Ho Khanh – a local who would often trek into the jungle in search of rare medicinal plants – in 2005. Ho Khanh also found what is now known as the world’s largest cave – Son Doong – in the national park. He actually stumbled upon the mouth of Son Doong back in 1991 but couldn’t find it again until a lucky rediscovery in 2009. Son Doong gained the title of world’s largest cave late 2010 (surpassing the Deer Cave in Malaysia) after a report was made public by the British Cave Research Association and an article published in National Geographic. It is not yet open to tourists. However, Paradise Cave is the second largest cave (so far among those found in the region) and is more impressive than the Phong Nha Cave, which seems to be teeming with tourist boats going up and down the accessible river route.
The walk into Paradise Cave is pleasant; a woodland rainforest trail, with a few steep stairs that take you up to the main entrance point. Reaching the peak before the entrance can be exhaustive in the heat, but as soon as you enter the cave’s mouth, a cool misty air envelops you, offering perfect reprieve to enjoy the sights. The interior of the cave is lined with stalactites and stalagmites that range in height – many that I saw were as high as an Olympic pool. The lighting, which I would normally be sceptical about in the land of all things garishly neon, is actually well-chosen and creates a fitting ambiance. There are ample platform areas with seats to stop and take photographs or just admire the tremendous setting. I also appreciated the fact that security guards were not shy to quietly reprimand those who attempted to step off the walkway – and on one occasion, I saw a guard make a tourist pick up their abandoned water bottle and put it in the recycle bin. I gave the man a big smile and nod of gratitude – again, it is not common to see such dedication to preserving nature in this part of the world – and those who do should be acknowledged and appreciated.
The deal with any of the caves or sights within the Phong Nha–Ke Bang national park is that you have to go with a licensed tour operator. As fair as I’m concerned, it’s best to make arrangements with Ben and Bich at Phong Nha Farmstay (and stay with them – they seriously have the best accommodation in the area). Our tour costs were way lower than a competing tour company and our guide, Dave, not only had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Phong Nha (including a number of insightful war stories – it was one of the most heavily bombed areas in the country), but delivered his repertory with good-humoured Aussie aplomb.
While Paradise Cave was the highlight of the day trip, we visited many other notable attractions – my second favourite activity being a swim in a beautiful turquoise pool. The water was that gorgeous ultra-marine colour typical of an area scattered with limestone karsts and caves (the region has a number of them – Halong Bay and Krabi are a few that come to mind). It is magical to swim in this type of water and my photos unfortunately do not do the billabong we visited proper justice.
Along the way, Dave further indulged us with cultural stories and stop-offs for photos of the countryside and people. We also managed a kayak trip and swim into the Dark Cave, another cool little adventure in our day trip and we ended our sojourn aptly with a cold brew back at the farmstay. Or course it was perfectly timed so that we go to watch the sunset over the pristine, lush green rice paddies in front of the guesthouse.
You can head out to Phong Nha a number of ways – by private car, a train to Dong Hoi (and then a private car or motorbike transfer), motorbike (DIY or with a tour) or by direct mini-van from Da Nang to Phong Nha Farmstay.
For more information about the area and its tour visit: http://phong-nha-cave.com/ You can also contact Ben or Bich directly at Phong Nha Farmstay: 094-475-9864 (Ben’s mobile), 097-642-5332 (Bich’s mobile), 052-367-5135 (Office) or [email protected]
Originally published in Live Hoi An