Cycling to Paradise Cave in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam
“Paradise Cave is a long way from here” warned the woman in the travel agency. We had enquired about renting bicycles to get there but she was adamant it was a bad idea. We did it anyway, as we don’t know how to ride motorbikes and we didn’t want to shell out for a tour. Cycling to Paradise Cave turned out to be really tough but also a lot of fun — here’s a quick look at what you can expect.
On the road: Cycling to Paradise Cave
We set out early on a hazy morning in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The first section was quite pleasant. We cycled alongside the Son River until we reached a sign pointing us towards the botanic gardens. We followed that road, occasionally pulling over to let a tour bus pass. So far so flat, but that wouldn’t last.
We were riding small, gearless bicycles that are found all over Southeast Asia. These are fine until you come to any sort of incline; when you do you’ll either destroy your delicate leg muscles or end up pushing your bike uphill. We ended up pushing our bikes a lot. Luckily the sky stayed grey — it would have been so much harder on a sunny day.
We eventually reached the top of the hill and were relieved to finally be back on our bikes. That relief turned to terror when we realised the brakes on our bikes didn’t work quite as well as we’d hoped. We both nearly crashed on one particularly steep, winding downhill section, which convinced us to push our bikes down the rest of the really steep stuff. I think it was the first time I’d ever pushed a bike downhill and it was quite demoralising.
After stopping to chat to a group of Americans who were travelling by motorbike from Hanoi to Saigon, we tackled another seemingly endless hill. Another group passed us on their motorbikes and one of them broke down soon after — maybe cycling to Paradise Cave wasn’t such a bad idea after all. A nice breezy downhill section followed and we soon came to the Paradise Cave sign. A few more hills followed but we eventually made it — we tried to forget about the fact we’d have another 20 odd kilometres of cycling to do after we visited the cave.
The only cheap food we could find close to the cave were cup noodles, so we wolfed down a packet each and headed for the entrance. We paid for the ticket (250,000 VND) and then walked the kilometre or so to the mouth of the cave. The last section was up a steep hill, which was the last thing we needed by that point. At last though, we were inside Paradise Cave, and the tough journey was more than worth it.
It has been described as the most beautiful cave in the world and it’s definitely the best that I’ve ever seen. The geological formations that give the cave such an artistic look have been shaped over millions of years. Some of them look like alien brains and some look like they would slice you in half if they were to fall on you. A wooden boardwalk stretches about a kilometre into the cave, and if that isn’t enough you can join a tour to explore the other 7 kilometres. There’s more than enough to keep most people happy without taking a tour though. A new scene waits around every corner and the surroundings are tastefully lit to allow for maximum surreal factor.
We spent over an hour in Paradise Cave and for most of that time we were all alone. Tour groups aren’t uncommon so try and get in just before or just after one.
The ride home
Luckily we didn’t have to take the same route back to town — we desperately hoped that the way home was easier and thankfully it was. There were some really long, smooth downhill sections and it was nice and cool in the late afternoon. We rode past tiny villages full of excited kids who screamed out “hello” as soon as they realised we were foreigners. We passed a teenager playing on rollerblades and a couple of minutes later he had caught up and proceeded to skate next to us for a while. Most people breeze past these villages on a motorbike or tour bus and don’t get to interact with the locals who are so excited to see tourists. The ride home was really enjoyable and it was much easier than our journey to the cave. We arrived back in town just as it was getting dark and we were completely shattered.
Should you ride a bicycle to Paradise Cave?
It was one of those experiences that are better in hindsight. I’m glad that we rode bicycles to Paradise Cave instead of taking a tour but there were definitely times that we wished we had chosen a different form of transport. The ride home was really enjoyable and it’s such a beautiful area — you’ll struggle to find a more scenic place to go for a bike ride. It is tough though and it’d be quite miserable if the sun happened to be beating down on you.
Phong Nha Cave
Thankfully Phong Nha Cave is a lot easier to reach. There is a dock close to town where you board a boat which takes you through the cave. It isn’t quite as spectacular as Paradise Cave but the fact you’re rowing (well, a small Vietnamese woman actually does the rowing) through an underground river makes it something you don’t want to miss. The cave costs 150,000 VND and the boat costs 280,000 VND which can be split between 12 people — just hang around near the ticket office until you find enough people.
Phong Nha is a young, dusty tourist town that makes for an ideal base for exploring the caves and countryside of the national park. Hotels and restaurants are spread out along the main street and all pretty much do the same thing: Cheap rooms (and dorms) and BBQ pork. Several of the restaurants claim to cook the best BBQ pork in the world, but the best (and cheapest) in town can actually be found in the restaurant opposite the market. The meals are huge and cost 35,000 VND, and ironically it is one of the few restaurants not to make outlandish claims about its food.
There’s no need to book a hotel ahead. We found a room easily even though several hotels were fully booked up by crew members of the new King Kong movie which had just started filming in the area. The scenery around town is also worth checking out — just walk down any road and you’ll soon be surrounded by mountains. This area is also home to largest cave in the world, Hang Son Doong, but at this point the tours there are very expensive.
Getting to Phong Nha
Phong Nha is around 4 hours from Hue and 10 hours from Hanoi and can be reached by bus, open tour sleeping bus or train (connecting in nearby Dong Hoi).
Cycling to Phong Nha Cave was a lot of fun and if you can handle the hills and low-quality bicycles it’s got to be the best way to explore the countryside. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is such a nice part of Vietnam and I’d highly recommend spending a few days to explore as much of at as you can.
Have you been to any caves like the ones found in Phong Nha? Let me know in the comments below!