The perfect New Years Eve – Paradise Cave, Phong Nha National Park, Vietnam

The last few years I’ve spent New Years Eve at Al’s house with an Indian takeaway, beers and a few movies and it’s been great. This year I’m many thousands of miles away from my old bah-humbug partner so decided to do something a little different – visit the place I came to Vietnam for. The place I’ve wanted to visit for a year and has been hyped up in my mind more than you can imagine. Did it match the hype though?

It’s all National Geographic’s fault

Late in 2010 National Geographic ran an article which showed the newly discovered Worlds Biggest Cave. The pictures it had were extraordinary from caves with jungles inside, caverns so vast clouds formed inside, salt crystals of staggering proportions and beautiful underground lakes running through huge empty spaces. I was captivated and showed everyone who would listen so that they too would be captivated. I came to Vietnam to see this area so there was never a question if I’d make it. Unfortunately you can’t get into the World Largest Cave just yet but, today, New Years Eve 2011, we went to Paradise Cave and as fortune would have it, we had the place entirely to ourselves.

Often places fail to live up to the hype you put on them, Phong Nha National Park * and Paradise Cave have left me speechless, made the trip to Vietnam worth it and I’m one very happy traveller!

* There will be a companion post in the future about Phong Nha Cave – the Disney version of Paradise cave.

The Tour

The tour bus collected us from the farm-stay at 9am and we headed off stopping a couple of times to look at a couple of hills that look like camel humps (they don’t) and a pretty little waterfall. The third stop is on a piece of gravel tarmac running down a steep hill. It looks like any other road here in Vietnam but it actually Road 20 – a 55km road which Vietnamese built in 4 months during the war so that supplies could continue to flow. It’s named Road 20 as the average age of the people building was 20 and the guide gave us a little emotive speech about why they had to build it. A little way along the bus stops again and we see an entrance to a 2km tunnel which one man dug so that soldiers could have refuge from falling bombs.

After a short drive we stopped at a cave entrance which featured a little memorial to the people who had lost their lives there. The story goes that the Americans were bombing the area so eight people hid inside the cave and a bomb landed sealing them inside – they obviously perished due to a lack of water and food. In the early nineties the cave was unblocked, the bodies removed and buried and a memorial built. We were asked to pop in three sticks of incense representing the past, present and future and to make a small wish – I won’t say what my mine was (selfish as it was), but I hope it comes true.

Another short dive and we got to Paradise Cave and we climbed aboard the golf cart which was to transport us to the entrance (oh dear thought I, this is commercial). As we exited the golf cart we started the 500 step climb to then start down wooden stairs into the cave. It’s impressively big, but it isn’t actually that spectacular. It’s a bit like the Grand Canyon in that it relies on it’s size rather than anything overly special.

Damn. Hype failure.

Turning the corner is important

This paragraph is brought to you by the words “wow”, “Holy Sh*t” and “bazinga”. Nothing, nothing at all, could have prepared me for the views offered at each new corner as the cave continued. It’s 31km long and whilst as you can only walk the boardwalks for the first 1km, it’s enough.

The roof plunges down from it’s huge heights to something visually manageable and the view is only interrupted by stalactites and stalagmites trying the hardest to reach the opposing surface. Grey, Blue, yellow, creams and white spotlights are reflected in the many pools of crystal clear water. Looking into the cavern that unfolded in front of me suggested I was stepping into the unknown and into an alien terrain (ok clever clogs, ignoring the wooden boardwalk). The most commanding thing was the silence, our small group of eight were the only visitors in the entire stretch of cave.

The best thing at this stage is for me to shut up with my terrible attempts at describing the cave and pop in some pictures, so here they some….

This pillar was full of impossible shapes

The lighting reminded me of dark forces!

Random pillars poked their ways roofwards

The whole wall was one a mass of stalactites and stalagmites

It just kept getting more extraordinary

This pool was completely still and reflected everything perfectly.

Some of the stalactites and stalagmites looked like droopy faces

 

A bitter sweet ending

I guess our timing was absolutely perfect as for about thirty minutes we had the entire cave to ourselves. No voices echoed. No people walked into whatever picture we wanted to take. No kids were stopping to shout hello at us and then ask our name. No one was bothering us to buy some tourist tat. No horns beeped. No-one bumped into us and then looked bemused as to where we came from. It was just the eight respectful tourists and the cave but as with all the best things it didn’t last.

As we turned back from the end the first voices filtered through. Then there was another. And another. And another…. It ended in a crescendo of noise which obliterated the peace and quiet we had all enjoyed. As we walked back we came across the culprits – a large group of Vietnamese tourists who were been walked through the cave complete with a tour guide shouting at them using a microphone and speaker system. It was bedlam as they all charged ahead to get their picture with the three sticks at the urn (the stick represented the past, present and future)

This place would be hell in the height of Summer when the boardwalks are full of people hollering at each other but luckily we weren’t there in summer. We had the place to ourselves for a short period of time and it was perfect.

This time the hype and the wait was worth it. Phong Nha had proved every bit as spectacular as I hoped.

The tour continued

We then went to the “Dark Cave” which is just that – a unlit cave with a short boardwalk for about 200m or so. To get there we needed to cross the river on inflatable canoes which are possibly the most unstable thing ever. For some reason Edo and I just couldn’t paddle in a straight line – as he pointed out it’s a good job we weren’t married as the arguments would have flowed as we failed to understand why we just kept spinning around!

The cave was quite cool but the pictures didn’t really come out and compared to Paradise cave, well, it was just an unlit 100m boardwalk.

Back to the hotel

I guess I should say that sometimes you can be too successful. Sometimes you realise too late that you’ve made a mistake and it’s impossible to rectify. This is one of those times.

Here in the hotel, at 22:00 there are 8 people and me on the other side of the room writing this here blog post. I’m acutely aware that an older lady has just walked into the room, put up a hammock and is giving everyone the evil eye for disturbing her sleepy time. I’m also aware that I’m missing the company of friends I’ve known for a while and I really want a party. I want what I had at Christmas, not this.

Still, Paradise Cave was awesome and there is always next year allowing me to learn from my mistakes.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year everyone. I’m guessing you all know that 2011 has been amazing for me and I hope it’s been brilliant for you too. I don’t know what 2012 will bring us or indeed where any of us will end up in 365 days time but there is one thing I’ve learnt this year – it’ll be fun finding out!

Click here to load a map showing you the location of this post and images from the digitallery taken nearby.