Thiên Đường Cave, or “Paradise” Cave known to tourists like me and you, is somewhat of a new discovery in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, in the Quảng Bình Province.
Approximately 500 km south of Hanoi, or 223 km North West of Huế (depending where you’re coming from) it was stumbled upon by a local man one day not so far ago in 2005, and what a discovery it was.
The British Cave Research Association caught wind and explored the first 5 km in the same year, but the full 31 km was not fully wandered through until late in 2010 – the same year it opened to tourists.
Reaching 100 m high and 150 m wide, it managed to take away the title of ‘Longest Cave’ from it’s predecessor ‘Phong Nha’ Cave, which doesn’t just reside in the same country but also the same National park.
These extraordinary measurements did not win it the ‘Biggest Cave’ in the world however – no, although a contender, considered to be the biggest cave in the world can also be found around here. Phong Nha is a cave gold mine, so it should be no surprise UNESCO knighted this a World Heritage Site.
It was my boyfriend and my decision to visit Paradise Cave, out of the spoilt for choice gigantic cave menu – we like caves.
However, what we didn’t realise how much we had to prepare ourselves before finally reaching it’s entrance.
We booked ourselves on a tour from Huế, that would take a grueling five hours to get there, and another five back – if you are unexperienced or not knowledgeable about Vietnamese roads and traveling within it then please read my post Nightmare Aboard a Vietnamese Sleeper Bus to understand why a distance that should take three and a bit hours to cover, in fact takes longer, much longer.
So it wasn’t a wise choice from me to stay out a bit longer and have a few more Beer Hoi’s the night before.
I fell asleep in the small tour bus on the way there, my boyfriend kindly filmed this and I was going to add it here for comedic effect, but sadly and mysteriously it has disappeared from his phone…
What I will provide is a fetching photo of me in one of the free tour caps that were provided. Cám ơn!
After arriving at the park we stopped off at a roadside restaurant for lunch, which was included with the price – like many tours in Vietnam!
Joyful at the sight of food in an effort to relieve my heavy hangover, it was soon interrupted by a group of loud chanting Vietnamese men at another table. Although I have no idea what was being celebrated, it was indeed being celebrated with taking a shot of rice vodka and much loud, but happy, cheering.
They couldn’t resist getting our tour group involved – although a large shot of eye-waterly strong rice vodka with loud Vietnamese men shouting in my face was the last thing I wanted at that exact moment; it was oddly enjoyable and I’d gladly do it all again.
It was not over yet, the next part was a tough hike up to the cave’s entrance in weather of high humidity – I can’t remember how long this took in total but I warn you now; do not go hungover and if you are not of reasonable fitness give up now.
The walk down is much easier, however.
The first 1.1 km of the cave has a built-up wooden platform for tourists – the further 29.9km is not reachable by untrained cave explorers like us, as the cave shrinks into small hollows making it a safety risk to the average man/woman.
The only safety risk there is to worry about is the wooden steps going down to the platform – these can be very slippery, so make sure you wear suitable shoes, but then again, even if you’re wearing them too you too can still slip – as my boyfriend did which prompted me to hold his hands down the steps as if hanging onto him like a small child in fear he may slip again (sorry David.)
Inside, you can’t help but wonder at the cave’s beauty. It is truly spectacular and the lighting along the platform and shining stalactites and stalagmites – the most magnificent I’ve ever seen – adds to the eerie presence of the cave, imagine stumbling across this!
The heat and the sweat you experience outside is now cooly fanned by the damp atmosphere of the cave. We stayed inside for around an hour long gazing in awe at some of the wax-like formations.
The five hours it took to get here, the shouty crazy Vietnamese men with their rice vodka and the uphill trek were all worth it. It looks magical. Here are a feast of my best pics, which I feel the camera did not do enough justice.
Vietnam. A country of extremes, you could say. Or you could say that’s a pretty cliché way of opening a post about Vietnam, or any country, in fact.
And it is. But now that I got your attention I can begin to tell you the horrors of Vietnam’s sleeper buses.
These monstrous things go up, down and all over Vietnam, for a price which isn’t bad, which is probably how they lure their victims in, and also because Vietnam is a very cheap country to get around in.
My boyfriend David and I, agreed to go for the cheaper option and opted for a sleeper bus when we left Cat Ba Island so we could get to Hué. 12 hours, the man said who sold us the ticket, 12 hours and you’ll be in Hué bright and early.
We didn’t know what to expect and had never seen a sleeper bus before, let alone been on one. It was your usual size coach but of course the chairs had all been stripped out and replaced by three rows of stunted bunk beds going vertically down the bus.
Our bed numbers were 1 and 2, printed on the ticket, but as we boarded we only found bed number 2 and no number 1. We consulted the coach driver, who wasn’t equipped with much English, but with noticing the size of David (a soon to be cumbersome 6 foot 4) motioned us to go to the back of the bus where three bunk beds had been pushed together creating a comfy little hideout corner.
When we clambered to the top it felt slightly hidden away from other passengers and was a step up in our comfortable factor than what the other beds would have been. We could lay next to each other and not be in the walk ways.
As you can imagine, the beds were very narrow and fitted for your average Vietnamese person, which by my size (5ft 2 and very slim!) was fine, but for David’s size, as the height I just mentioned and broad shouldered, they were very, very uncomfortable. I did feel for him, even at this point in our journey.
More passengers were piling on board and we began to notice three people, including us and one other English girl, were the only foreigners on board.
Eventually the bus began to move, not too slow but not at a fast pace either and we’d later find out this speed would not get much faster. About 15 minutes in, a very angry Vietnamese woman came up to us, she seemed to be some sort of ticket inspector, with a pink girly surgical mask covered over her mouth and who was now demanding our ticket. I got our tickets out of my bag to then have them snatched right out of my hands from her. She started shouting at me and pointing down the end of the bus. I tried to explain the driver sent us up here and there was no number 1, then she threw the ticket back at me and swanned off to the other end of the coach.
Not too long after, a Vietnamese man, who had boarded the bus with a group of Vietnamese men, came walking down to our end of the coach, looked up at me and David on hideout comfy spot and climbed up next to us. I noticed his fingernails were long and yellow and he was sort of laughing when he moved up onto our bed, and so were his friends.
We couldn’t dispute it; there were 3 bunk beds pushed together here, so, if his bed number was next to us we couldn’t have asked him to move.
I was on the middle at this point, sandwiched between David and the finger-nails-from-hell Vietnamese man. Regardless of which country I’m in I would rather not sleep in a bed right next to a male stranger. David of course courteously swapped with me, but this didn’t stop the newcomer from staring at me, almost constantly. Having been in China previously I was used to a degree of staring at me, the blond pale English girl, however, this still felt particularly creepy. He would look at my face blankly for a while, then down to my legs, than back up to my face. Even if I turned round and met his gaze to try and deflect his staring, which even that felt uncomfortable, he would still continue to stare.
The man tried to ask David a question in Vietnamese, but as we didn’t understand I guess he thought actions are understood in every language and so he started touching David’s leg and patting it. Eventually he started kicking his own leg, so we guessed he was maybe asking David if he liked football. After this language barrier failure he laid back in his third bed, nearest the window, with David now in the middle and me, on the opposite side.
The dread began to dawn on us, the roads were bumpy and the driver loudly and repeatably honked his horn every 5 minutes which reverberated through the coach – how were we ever going to get any sleep? If it was not the constant horn BEEP, BEEEP BE-BEEEEEP that would wake us up than it would be a bump in the road, throwing us back physically in this waking nightmare of a reality. The Vietnamese man then began listening to wailing Asian music on his phone, really loudly, whilst singing along to it too. Great.
It was getting late and I could bet 1 million Dong me and David were both thinking the same thing; should have got the train, should have got the train, should have got the train…
I went to the toilet, located next to our beds at the end of the bus, to be engulfed in the thick pungent smell of bleach as soon as I entered it. It was as if the toilet had been drenched in it, even filled with it! I swear my eyes begun to sting because of it, I’ve never been swamped in so much bleach flumes in all my life.
I got out and gulped for fresh, clean, non-chemical air and got back up on our bed. David’s face still looked the same as when I had left it – scared.
David went to the toilet after me and as he did one of the Vietnamese man’s friends he had boarded the bus with came down the bus and climbed up on a bed in front of us and the Vietnamese man. They chatted and the new Vietnamese man passed his phone to the first Vietnamese man, who was less than a metre away from me, on the same stretch of beds.
It was clear his friend wanted to show him something on his phone, a video it seemed, so he began to watch it. Then that’s when it happened; oh my almighty god, the noise, the very loud noise, blaring out from his phone was that of woman groaning in a porn video. Loudly.
David came back from the toilet and before he had the chance to moan about the bleach flumes clogging up his lungs whilst in there, I said; “David, I think he is watching porn.” I tried to whisper through my teeth and my disgust. “Huh? What?” He didn’t hear me. “He is watching porn…” I said again, David looked at me silent and listened. “Oh… God.” He said. Could it get much worse?
I saw other beds free further down the coach, the loud porn viewing accompanied with the constant staring at me and my legs was the last straw.
We found two beds next to each other and away from the public porn viewing going on at the back of the bus. The porn viewer himself laughed when we moved away, along with his friends.
We settled here for a little while and although the heavy bumps and blasting horn noises did nothing to relax us at least we weren’t as creeped out as we were a few moments ago.
But no, that ticket inspector Hitler woman came back to do some more shouting at us. More people were getting on the coach and she started screaming at us to return to the back, with the porn man. I refused, there was no way I was going back there so I showed her our ticket with beds number 1 and 2. She dramatically pointed towards beds number 2 and 3, like you would tell a toddler to go to their room, but as two people were already in those beds she made the whole bus have a reshuffle, making everyone move around back to their correct numbers, or nearest too.
So we were back in the beds I guess we were supposed to sleep in, but still no closer to sleep. I don’t know how long it was until the lights were turned off but when they eventually were we attempted to rest in hopes of dosing off.
It didn’t come quick; because I remember I was still awake when the driver must have changed as the first one, who sent us to the back, was now making a makeshift bed, right next to me, on the walkway. If I had done a 360 roll I’d have rolled on top of him that’s how close and narrow the walkways were. This is what I was battling to avoid with the porn man and there was no escaping this time; the Hitler ticket inspector lady would definitely have thrown my guts to the dogs if I started getting up and looking for another bed, so this time I just dealt with it.
I think I got an hour or twos sleep before sunlight flooded the bus and forced me awake. The driver in his makeshift bed next to me had gone and I turned round back to David’s bed and found him sat upright looking just as tired and rugged as I felt. Urgh. It was 8am and we were supposed to be Hué by now, surely we must be nearly there.
We stopped off at a roadside Vietnamese restaurant where we were served food. I couldn’t eat, I wasn’t hungry and I was beyond tired that the corners of my vision were beginning to go blurry. We didn’t get to Hué for another 6 hours and I wasn’t counting but David gave me an hour by hour update of how long we had been traveling on the bus for – the total? 20 hours. 20.
We’ve never been so glad to get off a bus in our lifetime and when we did we noticed not everyone came off of it, in fact a large amount of people stayed on. On the front of the bus’ dashboard we noticed the sign had been changed from Hué to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. Please see above map or I’ll just put it in perspective for you – that’s another 1000 km or so away. Another 15 hours according to google, but no doubt it would probably take a few hours longer than that. Adding this to how long it took us to get to Hué those people would have spent perhaps 40 hours on the same bus, losing fragments of their sanity by the minute.
I suppose what’s ironic about this post is that this wasn’t the last sleeping bus me and David endured, although we said it would be. But that was another story and in another country. For now I’ll stick with this one and advise you if you want an experience like the above whilst traveling in Vietnam; go for it. If you don’t – I compel you to get the train, or even the plane if you’ve got the extra dong in your back pocket, but never, never complain about your bus at home or the one that takes you to work taking a little longer than usual.
I started on a cliché and I’ll finish on one – but the one I’ve finished on was a yet another lesson learnt from traveling in South East Asia and one I will never forget.