As we enter highway 20, part of the famous Ho Chi Minh trail, in Phong Nha Ké national park thousands of colorful butterflies swarm around us. Butterflies in Vietnam are often seen as spirits of the deceased. And indeed many Vietnamese have died maintaining the trail and defending this area against the U.S. armed forces in the Vietnamese war. Peaceful as the national park appears, only one generation ago the earth here was scorched and all nature, infrastructure and houses destroyed by bombs. Bomb craters still remain visible today as large holes in the ground filled with water. Fortunately nature has shown its resilience and so have the Vietnamese. Trees, bushes and flowers have grown back and houses, schools and infrastructure were rebuilt. And Phong Nha Ké national park has great potential. Hidden caves, underground lakes and the hillside landscape of a ‘resting dragon’ : all ingredients for a grand adventure!
The Ho Chi Minh trail and highway 20 is a famous road in Vietnam. During the Vietnamese war this road was essential for transport of food and supplies to the Vietnamese in combat with the U.S. military. Because the national park contains natural save havens against air attacks, such as large caves with clean water supply, these were used to store ammunition, as bomb shelters or as hospitals for the injured.
While staying in a farmhouse in the national park I encountered an old Vietnamese lady. She looked frail and did not speak any English. Her son did though and told me her story. She was an honored war veteran who fought with anti-aircraft artillery defending one of the secluded caves filled with ammunition. During the war men, women and children as young as six years old all fought together. Children often being the ones carrying out tasks such as disabling (naval) mines by throwing stones onto the mines to make them go ‘boom’ or collecting bomb remainders to turn these into weapons or booby traps. Being a mother of a young child myself I can only imagine how desperate times must have been to allow the most precious thing you have, your child, to undertake such missions.
Her son told me that one of the American pilots who partook in the bombings during the war returned to the area a few years ago with the intent to meet up with some of the Vietnamese war veterans. And although his mother did not speak a word of English and the American did not speak any Vietnamese they managed to understand each other. Two people that tried to kill each other once in the past, now both not comprehending why anymore..
Phong Nha Ké national park
Phong Nha Ké national park contains many opportunities for adventurers. Tourism is relatively new in the area and you are met by friendly smiling locals wherever you go. What sets the national park apart are its extensive cave systems, its underground rivers and its jungle. The Lonely Planet refers to this area as: ‘a speleologists heaven on earth’ . The national park is home to a few of the biggest caves on this planet. The biggest, Paradise cave, has a cave system that extends for 31 kilometers. Wooden stairs and walking paths have been constructed in the cave for you to walk around and take in the sights of enormous stalactites and stalagmites.
Visiting additional caves in the area such as the Hang Toi (Dark cave), Hang Tam Co (Eight lady cave), the Tu Lang cave system or the Hang En cave (third largest in the world) ask for a more adventurous approach. Do not expect any constructed pathways here except rope ladders (without a safety rope!) to climb further down into the caves.
Several tour companies in the area offer one-day , two-day or even three-day cave visit tours often including jungle hiking, ziplining, swimming in underground rivers, adventurous cave visits and kayaking on lakes hidden in the jungle.
Not a fan of tour companies and want to discover the national park on your own pace? We rented a scooter in Son Trach for a few Dong.
Where to stay?
Easy Tiger hostel
Son Trach, Bo Trach, Quang Binh, Vietnam
Phone: +84 (0)232 367 7844
Phong Nha Farmstay
Phone: +84 (0)232-367-5135