Prior to my arrival in Dong Hoi, I had spoken on Facebook with Mike (Le Minh Hieu) and asked if he could arrange a couchsurfing host for me. He did and I spent two nights with the lovely Sarah Ha, who showed me some of the local food joints and looked after me during my stay, despite her busy schedule. Thanks again Sarah.
Dong Hoi became my base to explore the beautiful Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, wherein lies not only the largest cave in the world – Sơn Đoòng, but also the caves of Phong Nha and Thiên Đường (Paradise Cave). I did a little research on the internet and then spoke with other travellers and the decision which one to visit was obvious. While it would be a dream to explore and trek into Sơn Đoòng, because it is so newly discovered, the cost is prohibitive for all but the extremely wealthy. Of the two remaining, it was unanimous that Paradise Cave was the most beautiful.
I had two reservations: 1. It was a Sunday and the place would most likely be packed with local and foreign tourists, despite the still drizzly rain. It was. 2. I only had my iPhone to take pictures with, having broken my camera lens in two. Despite this, in the end I’m pleased I came away with usable images. As for the cave itself, it’s quite simply breathtaking and I’m glad I made the effort; it is certainly one of the biggest highlights of my trip to date.
The entry to the park was just 40 Dong (less than $2) and as I viewed the Karst mountains beyond the rice paddy fields it looked like something out of a Jurassic Park movie!
Vietnam has 9 world heritage sites and this National Park is one of them. The dark clouds gathered overhead as I made my way towards Paradise Cave, which lies a further 17 km inside the park. I was surprised when I came across the first Catholic church I have seen (close up) here in Vietnam, which looked totally out of place in it’s surroundings.
Thiên Đường (Paradise Cave) is the largest ‘dry cave’ in the world at 31 km long and in places 100 metres high. Sadly (or more probably wisely, given the rubbish I saw not put in the bins provided) only 1 km is available and open to tourists. It’s a 1.6 km walk from the car park, but they have electric golf cars to transport those not able or wanting to walk to the entrance. I walked of course.
Here are several more images taken inside the cave and it’s worth remembering these were taken with an iPhone 4s, which is awful in low light. We have Lightroom 4 software to thank for bringing you these images!
When you think there is another 30 km of this fabulous cave which we are not allowed to see, you begin to imagine what it must have been like for the original explorers. Given a choice of discovering a cave like this and walking on the moon, I know which I’d choose.
Next up I’d visit caves of a totally different kind, as I made my way to the man made tunnels of Vinh Moc lying just 80 km south of Dong Hoi. I took the AH14 route as I knew it would be quieter than the Ho Chi Minh trail, which to my horror I’d discovered was now a major highway and the sections that I explored were pretty uninspiring. It was another good move and I really enjoyed this quiet road which offered many opportunities to wild camp. The plan had been to camp and then visit the tunnels the next morning, but as I’d arrived pretty early in the afternoon I decided to use the time wisely and made my way there.
It was another popular tourist destination, complete with tour buses. A group of monks caught my eye as they posed in the gateway for pictures and I couldn’t resist snapping one of my own. Then I quietly left the organised parties to find my own way into the tunnels. Had I wanted to I could quite easily have joined one of the many English speaking tours instead of doing my own thing, but having done my research I was happy I wouldn’t be missing anything.
The tunnels had been left in the original state they were built and when you see them you realise how a small and beleaguered nation like Vietnam could overcome the greatest military force in the world. The American forces believed the villagers of Vinh Moc were supplying food and armaments to the North Vietnamese garrison on the island of Con Co which was in turn hindering the American bombers on their way to bomb Hanoi.
The idea was to force the villagers of Vinh Moc to leave the area but as is typical in Vietnam there was nowhere else to go. The villagers initially dug the tunnels to move their village 10 metres underground but the American forces designed bombs that burrowed down 10 metres. Eventually against these odds, the villagers moved the village to a depth of 30 metres.
It was constructed in several stages beginning in 1966 and used until early 1972. The complex grew to include wells, kitchens, rooms for each family and spaces for healthcare. Around 60 families lived in the tunnels and as many as 17 children were born. It’s a testament to the courage and tenacity of the Vietnamese that no villagers lost their lives.
Tunnel entrance No.10 brings you out into lush green vegetation, where a pathway leads to the beach. I imagine this pathway is a somewhat new addition and therefore the entrance would have been concealed pretty well.
I visited the on-site museum before calling it a day and collecting my bike from the car park, where I noticed one of my water bottles missing. This is the first time in Vietnam anything has been taken from the bike and it’s not as if it was hot! I’m pretty sure another tourist will have taken it.
Camping was a delight as I found a quiet spot further down the beach area, out of sight. I wanted to make an early start the next morning to call in at the Citadel in Quang Tri, another famous military landmark. I would not be visiting other sites which are considered part of the DMZ (de-militarized zone) tours here as without a guide to explain them they are not just difficult to locate, but it would be pretty pointless simply looking at ‘a rock’ without someone to explain it’s significance. I’m not sure the internet would suffice in this instance.
The history behind the Citadel is too rich and complicated for me to explain here, so I’ll give those interested a link to the Battle of Quang Tri (< click here) to get them started. It is a very important and interesting part of the story about the Vietnam War, which has captivated me ever since I visited Dien Bien Phu to learn more about this proud nation’s history.
I wanted to arrive in my next destination Hue with time to spare before the light faded and also I planned to find a hostel, so why I didn’t just ride down the (much shorter) Highway 1 will never be known. As it was I chose to take the more scenic route of the TL 68 and TL 4 which totalled 70 km, as opposed to 57 km for the above. Not that it mattered, because being flat I ticked it off fairly quickly anyway.
And that’s it for this instalment. In the next blog I’ll tell you about some nice friends I met in the hostel, my trip around Hue, then how I rode over the Hai Van Pass to Da Nang and met a most wonderful couple from my home town of Huddersfield, who are now living here. As I’m behind, this will be posted soon. Stay tuned…