Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park; a huge area in Vietnam, known for its extensive cave networks, underground rivers, tropical forests and ancient limestone karsts.
We took the night train from Hanoi to Dong Hoi, sharing a room with an extremely loud, elderly Vietnamese man who started watching TV on his phone at 5am. From Dong Hoi, we boarded a rather dodgy looking public bus, to travel the bumpy hour and a half to Phong Nha National Park. The day we arrived was, without doubt, the hottest weather we’ve experienced since arriving in Asia. We couldn’t even stand in the sun waiting for a cash point, we instead had to hide in the minute amount of shade provided by a pillar. We went out for lunch, completely unprepared for the weather that lay ahead (did you expect any less). Blue turned rapidly to black, and an almighty storm permeated the sky. We hid in the cafe for hours, drinking tea and watching people brave the waterlogged streets.
The only practical way to get around the National Park, without a scooter, is on a tour. As you probably know, we don’t love tours, but necessity compels. The first stop of the day for us was the Botanical Gardens; here we saw waterfalls, monkeys and a plethora of butterfly species. Apparently there are also a lot of poisonous snakes, but I wasn’t particularly sad about not seeing any of those. Next we entered Paradise Cave; a huge underground system of tunnels and caves, with astounding stalagmites and stalagtites. The size of the entire system is unfathomable; 31km of vast open space, all hidden inside a mountain. The last stop of the day was the Dark Cave. This was the activity part of the day, and the part I was most excited for. We started by zip lining into the water about 15m away from the cave, before swimming to the entrance. We had head torches, as the cave was pitch black (hence the name, presumably). As we walked further into the cave, the route became more and more enclosed; a little claustrophobic, but exciting nonetheless. It then opened up into an underground mud pool, which we bathed in, and Elliot kindly slapped mud all over my back.
It was a fun day, and definitely the best way for us to see the most of the National Park. We had incredible pizzas that evening; stone-baked with prosciutto and black olives (Elliot had bacon and caramelised onion). I really miss having easy access to nice pizzas. Onwards to Hue!