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Exploring the Caves of Phong Nha | Vietnam

When looking at the map of Vietnam, we were alarmed by the fact our next stop along the coast would be in Hue and actually quite far down the country, pretty much close to the centre. We weren't ready to venture that far south yet, knowing there was more of the North of the country to explore, so after perusing the Lonely Planet we settled on heading to Phong Nha.

Phong Nha is further in land, close to the Laos border and also home to the world's largest caves. It's truly a magical place, but also quite a dangerous one with the most unexploded ordnance per square mile in the world! The cliff faces and mountains of Phong Nha national park were blown apart by bombs during the Vietnam/American war, and you are not allowed to explore the park on your own because of safety. It's a place with a lot of history and one we knew we were going to absolutely love.

We arrived in Phong Nha at about 5am, I had booked into a homestay in the closest town, where the bus drops you off. Our homestay was full when we arrived, but our hosts gave us their beds (!!!) in the front of the property and we managed to get a few more hours shut eye before checking in properly. The village consists of one small stretch of road that is basically just hostels and a few restaurants/cafes. There's seriously not much going on, but we knew we wouldn't be sticking around after we'd visited the national park so no big issue.

We decided to book a tour to the park, instead of doing it ourselves, having not really spent the money on a tour for a while, we wanted a bit of ease and to be shown around instead of fumbling ourselves. It's nice not to have to think about all the organisation sometimes. There's lots of different experiences you can pick from, but we decided to do a day trip which took us to the botanic gardens, then to see the 'Paradise Cave' which up until 2009 was thought to be the largest cave in the world, stretching 35km long, if my memory serves me correctly. If you're wondering where the actual largest cave in the world is, well it's next door. That's why this area is so special because so little is known about it, it's so untouched and undiscovered. Anyway, we walked up and up and up the side of a cliff face, to reach the entrance of Paradise Cave - named as such because it really is magical in there, the lighting compliments the structures beautifully and it's quite something to behold, especially when you think about how long the caves have been there, developing over hundreds of thousands of years.

After a walk through the first kilometre through the cave and back, it was time for lunch. We sat and made rice paper rolls in big groups which gave us all a good chance to swap travelling stories and have a good chat. I was conscious not to eat too much as we knew that after lunch wed be zip lining across the most vibrant, bright blue, jewel coloured lake into the Dark Cave, which we had to swim to and then get into the most ridiculous mud bath ever. When swimming to the cave, I thought the water would be opaque but it was the clearest water I've ever been in. And ready with our tunneling hard hats, we entered the cave. It was in all honesty a claustrophobic nightmare, squeezing through tight walls that as we ventured deeper and deeper through, got more and more slippery with mud. It sounds disgusting, and it was but because of the natural minerals of the mountains, it was pure and clean mud with no smell. We eventually got to what I can only describe as an opening that looked like it had tons and tons of melted Dairy Milk, so thick you could sit in it and not sink. It was quite an experience.

On the way out we slithered over to a mud slide that ended up in one of the pools where we could clean off and head back out and canoe back round to where we first zip lined across the water. This was all rounded off with a celebratory beer on the coach back to town. And you can bet we slept like absolute rocks that night after chowing down on some good grub at the Bamboo Cafe, which was next door to our homestay. Seriously good Vietnamese food, washed down with a couple of Bia Hanois.

We left the next day to head to Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam to continue our journey south, where it was quite quickly getting warmer and sadly getting harder to eat bowls of boiling hot Pho.