Today we spent the day driving around the park with Tony. Park tours can be quite expensive starting at 45 dollars. Luckily Tony approached us on our first night at the Lake House and offered to be a tour guide for 50 dollars for the two of us which we happily accepted.
We drove off at 10am. First stop: Dark Cave. This is a relatively new adventure tour where you kayak or swim to the cave, wade through mud and then swim back to the cave opening in complete darkness. You can’t do the tour on your own so you have to pay 400, 000 dong for a guide at the docking station. This can be shared between a group of people although there is a limit to the group size. Equipment (life vest and head torch) costs an extra 80, 000 dong per person. It’s one of the more expensive caves but definitely worth it if you’re of the adventurous kind. They are currently installing a zip wire down to the cave which should be fun once completed. The park really is getting prepared and ready for large amounts of tourists from all over the world. If you want to be ahead of the masses, now is the time to go.
Our next stop was Paradise Cave which is 35km away from Son Trach and unless you’re confident to ride a scooter or motorbike you really need to book yourself on a tour or get a private driver. Ask at your hotel/hostel whether they can arrange it for you as the cave is worth every extra effort you have to put into getting there. Talking about effort, the cave opening is about a 15 minute level walk away from the ticket office. You can also take a buggy (100, 000 dong both ways; 60, 000 dong one way) to the foot of the mountain. However, the big struggle is getting yourself up the hill to the entrance. The signs say it’s a 500m walk uphill (quite steep) or you can take the approximately 500 steps. I would think walking uphill is easier but that’s your decision. Point is, bring water with you. The heat and humidity at this time of the year make every single step you take more and more difficult so it’s important to keep yourself hydrated. We are generally quite fit people but it wasn’t an easy climb. We saw a number of people really struggle to get up, but as I said before, the reward at the end is so worth the effort.
The cave opening is invitingly cool and extremely refreshing after the steep climb. To get down to the cave you take the wooden stairs which can be quite slippery so mind your step. The wooden pathway takes you about 1km into the cave. It’s obviously a lot longer but if you want to go in deeper you will need to book an extra tour which we didn’t. To be fair the first km is so magnificent you probably don’t need to spend the extra dong. In my opinion, the cave is by far more spectacular than Phong Nha. The rock formations are more varied and there are less people around (apart from the Vietnamese tour groups that appear in herds, are loud but disappear quite quickly as their tour guide who speaks through a megaphone is on a tight schedule). The whole “leave no trace” concept of eco-travelling is unknown to the tour groups so don’t be suprised to see people discarding their rubbish in the middle of the path rather than in the bins provided. Also, Vietnamese love photographs! So you may have to halt whilst a group of twenty people is shuffled around for the perfect picture. The groups are generally friendly and a lot of them come from remote areas of Vietnam. Some will take pictures of you or shake your hand. Just be nice and smile. After all they are on holiday and excited that you’ve come all the way to experience their country.
Our next stop was the Eco-Trail which was a rather disappointing item on the itinerary. The trail takes you around some forested land, across streams and the river. The bridges are made of bamboo. It could all be really scenic if it wasn’t for the litter left by day trip tourists all over the trail. Considering this is an eco trail we were really quite appalled. There were empty polystyrene boxes, cans, left-over food and cutlery everywhere even in the river designated for swimming. Maybe if you come during the week you won’t find as big a mess as we did and I hope that if you decide to do the eco trail you’ll have a better experience than us. The entrance to the eco trail is 50, 000 dong which hopefully pays for the staff that has to clean up the mess.
To get back to the Lake House we took the long way round the park which tour buses usually don’t take. The road is amazing though and brings you to the cross road to Laos and the Ho Chi Minh Highway. The Ho Chi Minh Highway is supposed to be one of the most beautiful routes in the world. So if you have the time and riding skills do take the trip. Our journey back took us over narrow mountain roads and rocky terrain which might be difficult to pass with a motorbike. It took us along rice fields and small villages. It’s just such a beautiful part of the country; it almost leaves you speechless.
Our last night in the national park was spent on the terrace of the Lake House. We met a really interesting Australian guy who is currently employed by the park and lives in a village nearby. He talked to us about conservation of the park and how tourism changes the local habitat. It was a pleasant and insightful last evening and we couldn’t have spent it with better company. Cheers Joel! 🙂