Discovered in 1935, but only opened to tourists in 1999, Phong Nha Cave was made a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 2003. Compared with its fellow Central Vietnam Sites – The citadel of Hue, the ancient town of Hoi An and My Son Sanctuary – Phong Nha has remained largely off the beaten track at least for international tourists.
In part this has been due to its comparative inaccessiblity/ however, the opening of a regular air service from Hanoi to the city of Dong Hoi, some 40km from the caves in September 2008 has changed all that. Now the caves are a 45-minute flight away from the Vietnamese capital.
Like Ha Long Bay’s rocks, the caves date back to the Palaeozoic period, some 400 million years ago. indeed the limestone karst formations will be familiar to most visitors to Vietnam’s most northerly Heritage Site. The main difference lies in the vast scale of the cave. The whole complex is some 65kmlong stretching towards the Lao border.
In the past, Phong Nha has received a bad press for being messy and full of “noisy” Vietnamese tourists. Now the local authorities seem to have pulled their act together. A daily clean-up of the site has left the caves free of rubbish. Additionally, if you time your trip for the afternoon, the cave is largely empty. An added bonus for latecommers is that the sky at sunset as you motor back along the river to the small village of Son Trach can be quite spectacular
What is unchallenged is Phong Nha’s beuty. The large chambers posses the solemnity of a cathedral, but on insprired by Dali in his darkest modments. As your boat paddles along the slow waters the scale and subtle colours of the massive statlacitites and acoustic rock formations are overwhelming.
Boats stop at the large chamber at the end of the cave that was used by the North Vietnamese in the American War as a hospital and munitions store. It also has engravings from the Champa people who occupied the cave in the 9th and 10th centuries.
The cave’s status as Quang Binh Province’s major tourist attraction is now under threat. In April 2009, a team of British cavers discovered Son Dong Cave. Some 200m high, 140m wide and over 5km long, Son Doong is reputed to be the largest cave not just in Vietnam, but in the world. A six-hour walk from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the cave is currently inaccessible to tourists.
The village of Dong Hoi itself is a pleasant fishing village. The Nhat Le River snakes through the town to the sea. It is not theonly serpent in town. At sunset locals sit by either the river or the sea and enjoy a glass of snake wine – a combination of snake blood and vodka – which locals claim is good for your health. They drink it with banh loc a local cake made with glutinous rice paper and filled with cassave. Looking very much like a translucent revioli, it makes a great accompaniment to the wine.
Stretching for miles into the horizon, the town’s Bao Ninh beach is largely deserted. A few fishing boats bod up and down on the horizon, and locals flock to the beach around sunset. It works equally well for a late evening swim or for watching the sunrise.
Dong Hoi is also a good base for visiting the DMZ. It is closer to many of the sites than Hue, for instance the underground tunnels at Vinh Moc are only some 70 km away