Tag Archives: Backpacker

The Discovery Caves Tour in Phong Nha

I had read that the caves in Phong Nha were a must see when traveling through the mountainous region in Vietnam. I asked our hotel what tours they recommended to see the different cave networks and they recommended a tour through Discovery Tours. Discovery Tours had a tour package that would take us to the Botanical Gardens, Paradise Cave, and the Dark Cave. It included hotel pickup, entrance fees, an english speaking guide, lunch at the Dark Cave Restaurant, zip-lining, kayaking, and a mud bath in Dark Cave. To top that off, at the end of the tour you receive a free complimentary cocktail. The tour cost Lisa and  I 2,781,000d ($122 USD) for the whole package. Discovery Tours would pick us up from our hotel at 7:30 and return us to our hotel at 16:00 making the tour roughly six hours long.

Check out our YouTube post on our Discovery Caves Tour Here.

What To Bring

-A swimsuit
-Change of Clothes
-A towel
-Waterproof Camera with floatation attachment (Our tour guide informed us that we wouldn’t be allowed to bring our camera into the dark cave unless it had those two features).
-Comfortable Hiking Shoes

The Botanical Gardens

The tour van picked us up from our hotel around 7:30, just late enough that we could still catch breakfast. After rounding up the other tour guests from their respected hotels, we headed north to our first destination; the Botanical Gardens. The Botanical Gardens offered us a glimpse of the wild life that inhabited Phong Nha. They had a monkey enclosure that provided refuge for local monkeys and protected them from poachers. We were allowed to feed the monkeys fruits that were offered at the general store. Lisa had saved a banana from breakfast and gave it to the eagerly awaiting monkeys. They were stoked for their treat! After viewing the monkey inclosure, our guide took us through a nature trail that cut through  deeper into the forest. On the trail, we encountered wooden bridges, streams, and tons of lush vegetation. Watch your step though! Due to the streams and vegetation it was easy to lose your footing or trip on a root. The trail ended at a scenic point that overlooked a beautiful waterfall cascading into the forest below. The whole tour lasted maybe twenty minutes total, making it short and sweet.

Paradise Cave

Stalagmite in Paradise Cave
Checking out a massive stalagmite in Paradise Cave.

Paradise Cave Pass

Our pass to enter the Paradise Cave.

The next stop on the tour was the Paradise Cave, one of the longest caves in the world. The cave from start to finish is a total of 31.4 kilometers, but the tour only  allowed access to the first kilometer from the entrance of the cave. The stairs leading up to the entrance of the cave was a journey and a half. It took about fifteen minutes for Lisa and I to scale the stairs to get to the front entrance of the cave.. We were allowed one hour and fifteen minutes to explore the cave, which our guide told us was more than enough time to walk the entire length and back. Entering the cave, we descended down a wooden walkway to the floor of the cave which is lined with lights illuminating the vast cavern. The sight was truly one to behold! Enormous stalagmites rose from the cavern that looked other worldly. The only thing to match the size of the stalagmites were the daunting stalactites that converged down from the cave ceiling. What caught my eyes though were the shallow pools surrounding some of the stalagmites that were so calm they acted like mirrors on the cave floor. It took Lisa and I about forty five minutes to walk through the entire cavern, and that included us stopping and taking pictures.

Dark Cave

The Dark Cave was our third and final stop of the tour. The shuttle dropped us off in front of the Dark Cave restaurant, where we had our complimentary lunch that was included in the tour. There our tour group was divided into two tables; one dedicated for vegetarians. Servers placed one large serving tray on each table that had enough food to serve 6+ people! The tray included fried pork, grilled chicken, BBQ pork ribs, long white noodles, an array of fruits and vegetables, noodles, white rice and sticky rice. Between the six of us at our table, there was still a ton of food left over.

Lunch at Dark Cave
The food they served us at the Dark Cave restaurant was simply amazing.

After lunch, we had the option of either kayaking to the cave entrance or zipline to it. I opted to zipline, because why not? Lisa and I changed into our swimsuits and put our bags back on the van. Once everyone was changed into swimsuit attire, our tour guide then took us to an area where we signed health wavers and got fitted with life vests, helmets, and zipline girdles. There we also had an option to buy a little foam floatation device for 10,000d that we could attach to our waterproof cameras ( they wouldn’t allow us to take our cameras in without one). Once we were all geared up we walked over to a tower by the Dark Cave Restaurant where we would take the zipline to the Dark Cave Entrance. The zipline is 400 meters long and 20 meters at its highest and, according to our guide, is the longest zipline in all of Vietnam. This was my very first zipline ever so I was nervous as hell walking up to it. When my turn came to strap in I took a deep breath, lifted my feet, and held on for dear life. The view was l breathtaking (literally and figuratively) as I zipped down over the river. Coming to a sudden stop at the bottom, I joined Lisa and the rest of the tour group.

Zip line at Dark Cave
I had such an amazing experience zip lining to the Dark Cave!

There was a wooden walkway just like the one we saw at Paradise Cave that we followed into the Dark Cave. We were instructed to turn on our headlamps and walk cautiously on the walkway. The water from the river had made the walkway so slippery that I was surprised that I didn’t eat it at certain points. The walkway ended just inside the mouth of the cave and we had to wade through water which ranged from knee to ankle deep. About 20 meters into the cave we were solely reliant on the light from our headlamps to see. Eventually we made our way to the back of the cave where we were lead by our guide through a narrow crevice on the cave wall. Be careful when walking through the crevice for there are rocks that protrude sharply from the ground. I learned the hard way when I stubbed my toe on one while I was taking a video. The crevice opened up into a small cavern that was filled with mud (this is the mud bath advertised in the tour). The mud isn’t thick like you would think and makes you very buoyant to the point where you can just lay on your back and float. We returned to the main cavern where our tour guide enticed us to slide down a slope into the water of the cave. I should’ve learned not to do that when I witnessed Lisa going down first and almost flew off the slope. It was fun, but left a bruise or two on my butt. In the water we washed off all the excess mud and dirt from the mud bath and headed to the mouth of the cave.

Dark Cave
Finding fun in the depths of Dark Cave.

When we exited the cave we were given kayaks to take back to the landing by the Dark Cave Restaurant. Our guide said we could swim back if we wanted to, but after the long day we opted for the kayak. At the landing most of us just hung out and swam in the river. They also had a small zipline that tour guests can use to jump into the river.  Once everyone had their fill of the river we went back to the restaurant to have our complimentary cocktail. Lisa and I talked with the other guests about the tour while we sipped on our rum and cokes. Definitely a great way to end a long day of exploring caves. When the rum bottles ran dry, we loaded up into our tour van and headed back into town.

The whole experience was amazing and I would definitely do it again. It was fun feeding the monkeys at the Botanical Garden and we learned a lot about the wildlife in Phong Nha from our tour guide. The breaktaking views of the cavern in Paradise Cave left us in awe as we snapped off picture after picture. The Dark Cave was definitely the highlight of the tour with the zipline, kayaking, and the plunge into the depths of the cave itself.

For more travel tips of Vietnam, check out my other posts Things to Know Before Traveling to Vietnam, How to Apply for a Vietnam VISA

Things to Know Before Traveling to Vietnam

Vietnam is one of the most sought after destinations in South East Asia by backpackers across the world. Here are a few tips and tricks for those thinking about making the journey to this beautiful country.

Lady Buddha in Danang, Vietnam.
The towering statue of Lady Buddha is one of the many sights to see in Danang, Vietnam.

Most Places Accept U.S. Currency

Most if not all places in Vietnam accept USD($)as a form of payment, but to get the most out of your money it’s best to use Vietnamese Dong.

Majority of Places will Charge 3% More if You Use Your Credit Card

Hotels, restaurants, and even some tour agencies will allow you to use your card, but will charge you 2-3% extra. As convenient as it can be to just charge things on you card, it’s still best to use cash to save the most money.

Look for Accommodations that include Breakfast

Breakfast in Vietnam

Booking a room that includes free breakfast can help save you tons of money. Plus, aren’t the best things free?

Arrange to Have Your Hotel Send a Car to Pick You Up

When arriving to a new city either by plane, bus, or train you will be bombarded by taxi drivers looking to rip off tired travelers. To avoid scams its safer to have your hotel arrange a car to pick you up.

Tipping is not Expected Except Near Tourist Spots

Night Market in Hoi An.
Walking the streets of Hoi An.

In general, most Vietnamese restaurants don’t expect you to tip. Due to the influx of tourism in the recent years, restaurants in and near popular tourist destinations have become more accepting of tip. An acceptable tip for good service is about 5-10%.

Bargain!

Bargaining down prices at street markets is widely acceptable and, if done right, can get the item down 50% of the asking price! A good technique to use is the “walk away”. Simply by saying that the item is too expensive and walking away from the merchant will usually cause the merchant to drop the price considerably. Even tours and accomodations can be talked down in price.  One exception to bargaining is never to bargain over the price of food. That’s just rude.

Take Overnight Trains and Sleeper Buses

Sleeper bus from Hanoi to Sapa.
I got some sleep on the overnight bus in Hanoi.

A great way to save money traveling through Vietnam is to take the overnight trains and sleeper buses. Like killing two birds with one stone, an overnight train or a sleeper bus takes care of both travel and lodging for the day. Be sure to stock up on snacks before getting on a sleeper bus because you never when the bus is going to stop and for how long. Also be conscious about your water intake during a bus ride; some sleeper buses do not contain bathrooms.

Download the Google Translate App

A shout out to Google for creating the amazing Google Translate app! This app has helped me out many times in my travels in Vietnam when it came to overcoming the language barrier. The app is completely free and will come in handy when trying to communicate to hotel staff, taxis, and merchants.

For a detailed list of Travel Apps check out our post Recommended Apps for Travel

Jaipur, the Pink City

Jaipur, also known as the Pink City, is the largest city in the state of Rajasthan. Jaipur gets its nickname due to the architecture having a pink hue. Nowadays, the buildings in the city have more of a salmon color due to sun damage. Some of India’s well known landmarks such as the Hawa Mahal can be found in Jaipur. While visiting the Pink City of Jaipur, Lisa and I explored these amazing places.

Hawa Mahal

Hawa Mahal
The pink beehive structure of the Hawa Mahal is nothing short of magnificent.

The first thing we wanted to check out was the beautiful Hawa Mahal. You can’t look up Jaipur without coming across a picture of the majestic pink structure. Built in 1799, the Hawa Mahal was constructed of red sandstone with over 950 small windows called Jharokhas. The reason for the Jharokhas was to allow the royal women to view the festivities of the streets below without being seen. If you wish to enter the Hawa Mahal, the entrance fee is 200 rupees for foreigners and 50 rupees for Indian visitors.

Travel Tip:

To get the best view of the Hawa Mahal go check out the Wind View Cafe which is located just across the street. There you can get incredible pictures of the Hawa Mahal from the rooftop cafe.

Galta-Ji Temple (Monkey Temple)

Located on the outskirts of Jaipur, the Galta-Ji Temple (also known as the Monkey Temple), rests within a crevice among the hills. The Galta-Ji Temple is well for its large population of rhesus macaques and langur monkeys which is why people have given it the nickname Monkey Temple. Keep in mind, the monkeys at the temple are WILD so please approach with caution. The Galta-Ji Temple is also known for its natural spring that fills seven large pools called kunds. Hindu’s from all over travel to Galtai-Ji to bathe in these kunds to cleanse their souls.

rhesus macaque
I somehow managed to get a rhesus macaque to chill with me.

Travel Tip:

When visiting the Galta-Ji Temple, be sure to enter on the Western Side. That way, you can also visit the Sun Temple and get a panoramic view of Jaipur.

The City Palace

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If you love learning about history then you better head to the City Palace located in central Jaipur. The City Palace hosts a marvelous museum that displays historical artifacts from previous eras as well as well maintained art pieces. There is an artisan section of the palace where you can purchase handmade crafts from vendors selling anything from jewelry to one-of-a-kind paintings. The City Palace still houses the Royal Family of Jaipur therefore some of the areas in the palace are restricted to visitors. The entrance fee for foreigners is 500 rupees and 190 rupees for Indian visitors.

If you like this post, check out my other posts about India Within the Walls of Agra Fort  Camel Safari in PushkarWhat to Expect When Traveling to India, and Common Scams in India.  

 

Our Stay at the Hoa Phong Hotel

Hoa Phong Hotel

Our stay in Phong Nha National Park was nothing less than amazing thanks to the wonderful staff at the Hoa Phong Hotel. Lisa and I had planned to go to Phong Nha to see everything the beautiful national park had to offer and after searching Agoda.com for a while we found the lovely Hoa Phong Hotel. The Hoa Phong Hotel rested beneath limestone mountains that surround Phong Nha and 200m from the Song Con River. We had emailed the hotel prior to ask for a pickup at the Dong Hoi Railway Station as well as a room with a double bed with a mountain view. Being surrounded by beautiful limestone mountains we thought why not be able to view them from our room? The Hoa Phong Hotel was quick to respond to us and were delighted to adhere to our requests (seriously it took less than 5 minutes to get a reply from them!).

Mountain view from our window.

We booked three nights for a total of 885,600d ($39 USD) which included a room with a double bed overlooking a behemoth limestone mountain. Free breakfast and coffee was included in our stay which was available from 7:00-10:00 every morning. The hotel also offered guided tours to the many caves that are found in Phong Nha. We decided to do the Discovery Cave Tour which took us to the Botanical Gardens, Paradise Cave, and the Dark Cave. The hotel gave us ample information about the tour and told us their favorite things about it.

On our last day, the Hoa Phong Hotel helped us find a bus that would take us back to the Dong Hoi Railway Station and even offered to let us keep the room for free until our bus arrived (which was not until 17:00 that evening). The Hoa Phong went above and beyond to make sure Lisa and I had the best experience possible in Phong Nha. I’m definitely going to stay here again next time I find myself in Phong Nha.