Probably the most typical cliche in destination guides is the incessant shower of superlatives. Everything is "gorgeous", "breathtaking", or simply "the best". Well, for a change, in the case of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, it is fully justified: the park contains the world's largest cave, and then the 3rd and the 4th largest to boot. The rest of the park is filled, predictably, with more caves. A perfect sample of karst landscape, Phong Nha Ke Bang, is quite hard to navigate. Even though the jungle here shelters a lot of rare fauna, your chances to see it would be better elsewhere. But for caves big and small, dark and penetrated with light shafts, merely wet and partly submerged, there is no better place in Vietnam and few comparable areas in the world. The big deal, Son Doong Cave, can only be accessed with the help of an agency, which might be expensive and difficult to arrange, but other caves are just as good.
Sometimes size matters. Son Doong Cave is so huge that, as Wikipedia puts it, a Boeing plane could fly through it without risking scraping its wings on the walls. Its entire area is large enough to fit a small town. It is not only the biggest in the world but in fact twice as big as the next one. Inside is a separate world, with its own climate and biota. Alas, the only way to visit Hang Son Doong is to take an expensive tour from a monopolist travel agency. Look it up if you think it is worth it. Despite the price, also aiming to be the greatest in the world, the tours are so popular they are usually booked for a year or more ahead.
These two caves are the easiest to reach from the national park headquarters. Phong Nha Cave has a river flowing through it and can be visited by boat. Paradise Cave is accessible on foot. Unfortunately, both have been "developed" in the typical Vietnamese way - festooned with colored lights and glittering.
But despair not, since Phong Nha Ke Bang has hundreds of caves of every size and condition. The third biggest in the world, Hang En, will take days to explore. If that is not enough, continue to Pygmy Cave - "pygmy" is a misnomer, as it is actually the fourth biggest. Tu Lan Cave is probably the most variable, with wet, dry, semi-submerged and submerged sections. Hang Va has plenty of beautiful blue pools where cave pearls can be found. Tiger Cave allows one to swim in a subterranean river. You can even try to find your own - there is no way all the caverns, passages and other holes in the ground could have been mapped. In fact, new ones are discovered regularly. Of course, independent exploration will require spelunking skills, and sometimes, equipment.
If you are tired of caving or simply would not settle for any less than the largest cave in the world but cannot afford it, a hike amid the karst landscape may be a reasonable substitute. The tall limestone cliffs are inevitably photogenic. Wildlife watching in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is not bad either. One problem is extremely broken ground that makes it difficult to spot animals or approach them. For primates and other arboreal fauna, on the other hand, it may be an advantage: tree canopies here are located at different heights, creating "windows" in the foliage. There are three species of langurs in the park, a sizable population of gibbons, and of course, the ubiquitous macaques. The protected jungle also hosts the rare saola antelope and sun bears, but you are highly unlikely to see any of those.
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