Vietnam’s complex cave systems

By Matt Tewhatu

Vietnam's complex cave systemsFamous for its culture, people and its food, Vietnam has very much established itself as one of the most chic and trendy destinations of the 21st century. Experiencing a rather troublesome past, thousands of tourists now flock to the country to explore what was previously the unknown and destinations that are still, rather shrouded in mystery.

From Sapa on the Vietnam’s northern border with China to Ca Mau in the slender country’s southern tip, it is, by all accounts, a treat for the senses. Offering a tremendous variety of contrasting environments, the country offers a cultural scene that combines its French and English influences and a culinary scene rivalled by no other country.

Situated 188 miles north of Da Nang in Vietnam’s centre, the UNESCO World Heritage site Phong Nga-Ke Bang National Park contains the oldest karst mountains in Asia which has become the most intriguing, mysterious and most popular tourist attractions on the continent. The mountains contain hundreds of cave systems, many which are of extraordinary scale and length, contain spectacular underground rivers and are virtually unmapped.

Interestingly, exploration of the caves have only been rather recently commissioned with the British Cave Research Association and Hanoi University beginning research in the area in the 90s. Since then, incredible, almost entirely independent ecosystems have been found with Paradise Cave being discovered in 2009 followed by the world’s largest cave, Son Doong in just 2009.

With the cave system large enough to have its own climate, a trip to Phong Nha to experience them comes highly recommended, not just to wander through them but to roam the untouched rainforest that covers the caves above.

Access to the region has been controlled by Vietnamese military in the past so it has been quite restricted. Whilst this probably would have been expected to change as the region got more popular, access is still tightly controlled because the national park is riddled with unexploded ordnance. This means that officially, visitors aren’t allowed to hike here without a licensed tour operator. You can, however, travel independently (on a motorbike or car) on the Ho Chi Minh Highway or Highway 20 which cut through the park.

If you’re expecting for the main town near the caves to be as touristy as some of Vietnam’s other cities, you may be slightly disappointed. Son Trach village is the main centre and only has a population of 3000. However, it does have an ATM, a growing range of accommodation and eating options, and improving transport links with other parts of central Vietnam.