Exploring Vietnam’s Paradise Cave
Featured destinations: Vietnam
Published 10 May 2016
“Woah…” my voice echoed out. Looking around in awe, I was overwhelmed with the extra-terrestrial scene ahead of me. Stalactites hung down like petrified icicles in their thousands, and stalagmites reached up from the ground like ancient teeth, glittering off the dim lights. Vietnam’s Paradise Cave had lived up to its name.image:Helen Winter
Finding Paradise Cave
The Paradise Cave, near the city of Dong Hoi, is the longest dry cave in the world. It was discovered in 2005 in the picturesque Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park. Home to 300 caves and grottoes, this park mesmerized me with it’s a green, luscious rainforest, hiding a secret gathering of wildlife beneath the bushes.
As incredible as it seems, Paradise Cave was found accidentally by a local Vietnamese man. The same man actually found the nearby Son Doong Cave in 1991, which is believed to be the largest cave in the world, but it can only be accessed by 224 experienced cavers each year for the lofty price of US$4000 per person. After discovering Son Doong, the Vietnamese man lost it again and when searching for it for the second time, stumbled across Paradise Cave instead. I was told all of this on one of the many cave tours available in Dong Hoi.
Reaching the cave
Once we arrived at the Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, we boarded an electric caddy, and then climbed up and up and up to the cave entrance. We arrived at the top to glance at the barely noticeable cave entrance in front of us. I couldn’t help but wonder how on earth this cave was found by accident; apparently the cool breeze blowing out of the cave was the clue.
Inside Paradise Cave
My guide informed the group that we had an hour and a half to explore the first kilometre of the cave. Descending down levels of wooden staircases, I stopped to take in the sight in front of me.
A cavern too huge to be described by English vocabulary opened out in front of me. The ceiling loomed over like a giant concert hall, gloomily lit. I walked down further and faced the colossal stalactites and stalagmites. Running into the guide, she informed me that they were likely to be 2.5 million years old. Looking back at the towering compound of minerals, it was hard to grasp how long they had stood there.
As I walked along the wooden platform, the scenery before me became more surreal. It is what I imagine the inside of the moon to look like; it was as if I was discovering a completely different world.
The view from the cave
After my hour and a half was up I climbed to the top and let my eyes adjust to the daylight. The view from the cave is almost as rewarding as below the earth; green trees stretched for miles, with vines hanging like telephone wires. I had found a real rainforest.
Phong Nha cave
After a lunch of steamed rice and friend beef with vegetables, it was time to discover another cave. Climbing aboard a green and blue boat we settled in the river. The ride was about 30 minutes but the view along the way was an impressive display of Vietnam’s notoriously magical countryside.
Rowing through Phong Nha Cave
As the boat’s motor churned, the views of mountain and rural riverside villages came into view, passing fishermen and women harvesting riverweed to feed their livestock, whilst children played football in the fields.
Entering the long opening of the cave, we moved into darkness. The engine of the boat shut off and an elderly Vietnamese woman on board began to paddle with her feet. Above us was a sight like nothing I’d seen before. It felt like I had entered a vortex into a magical world. Above us stalactites protruded from the walls, one was called the ‘elephant’ and when I squinted I could kind of see it. Maybe with a touch of imagination too.
History of the cave
Unlike Paradise Cave, Phong Nha cave has more of a history. The rooms in the cave were habited by tribes in the 12th century and later used in the Vietnam War to store weapons, and as a stable for horses. After a tour of the caves, we pulled up a beach bank to walk out, passing more otherworldly rock formations on the way.
Reintroducing myself with the now waning day light, I followed a sign pointing towards a small Buddhist temple. Climbing to the top a signed informed me that the Phong Nha caved was used to perform rain ceremonies here many years ago, where drums were beaten, songs sung, and haunting sacrificed made.
Each cave taught me more about Vietnam than I had expected. The newly discovered Paradise Cave showed me that Vietnam is more than a country with a tragic history but also a place we outstanding natural beauty. Contrasting this was the Phong Nha cave full of tales from modern history and ancient traditions. In a day I had experienced the real Vietnam from above and below.
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