Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is our new favourite place in Vietnam. We’ve backpacked through Vietnam several times in the past, the first time in 2003. Back then, Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park had only just been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But we hadn’t heard of it and tourists were yet to really discover it. Had we managed to find out about it, we would have spent at least six hours bumping along dirt tracks on the back of a taxi moped trying to get there. Once we’d arrived, the scenery would have made the journey worthwhile, but with no hotels, restaurants or any form of organised tourist industry, our options for staying around would be have been pretty limited unless we spoke Vietnamese and could have blagged ourselves a homestay. Fast forward thirteen years, and the addition of a proper road and the discovery of the world’s largest cave, Hang Son Doong, in 2009 has completely transformed the area into one of the best places we’ve visited in Vietnam. I strongly suspect this area is destined to become one of the biggest tourist attractions in Vietnam. Hotels are springing up everywhere and Tour Agencies are multiplying fast! So don’t leave it too long to visit!
We caught a ten hour sleeper train down from Hanoi, and arrived somewhat jaded just as the sun came up at Dong Hoi. A forty minute minibus journey later and we stumbled bleary eyed into the inappropriately name Phong Nha Farmstay. I say inappropriately, because even though the place is surrounded by the most picture perfect farmland, it’s not actually a farm at all. What it is, is an awesome slice of western luxury surrounded by what feels like authentic Vietnam. The mists were down close to the ground as we checked in and had breakfast, but as the sun rose, and the cloud burned off, the mountains were revealed and our collective gobs were well and truly smacked. The colours, the sounds, the people and the sheer scale of everything in the area defy belief.
We spent four spectacular days borrowing rickety old bikes and exploring the area, but I’d have been happy to spend four weeks nosing around. We cycled to Phong Nha town and jumped on a boat into (and I mean into) the fabulous Phong Nha Cave, with it’s amazing rock formations. We explored the town and crossed the river on the local river ferries. We cycled to ‘The Pub With Cold Beer’ where we lounged in hammocks and ate the freshest BBQ’d chickens ever (clucking to served-up-on-a-plate within an hour) with freshly made peanut sauce and a cold beer. I have to say this was an eye-opening experience for us non-vegetarian Westerners and a valuable lesson in where food comes from for the kids.
The caves here are amazing and we chose to join the highly recommended the ‘Phong Nha National Park Tour’ from Phong Nha Farmhouse as we were short of time. This tour consists of temples, spectacular cave systems, zip lining and mudbaths. What’s not to love? There are loads more tours available, ranging from customised tours in jeeps to hardcore three day cave explorations.
Words and pictures can’t really do Phong Nha National Park justice, and the more you see, the more you want to see. Tourism is still in its infancy, and we were clearly a novelty as we bounced down the mud tracks beside the paddy fields; having the kids with us made us feel like celebrities. It’s such a contrast from Hanoi and Halong Bay that it’s hard to believe that you’re in the same country. We loved every adventure packed minute of our time here, and I’d say that it was the absolute highlight of our time in Vietnam.[the_ad id=”4595″]
Phong Nha Ke Bang is about 500km or twelve hours south of the incredible city of Hanoi. If you’re arriving in Vietnam, you’re most likely to be landing in Hanoi and travelling south, or landing in Ho Chi Minh City and travelling north. Either way, a stop off at Phong Nha is super easy to arrange as it’s just a small detour from the traditional north-south route that almost everyone follows.
For me, one of the most exciting ways to travel as a backpacker in Asia is on a sleeper train. The trains in Vietnam are plentiful, clean, reliable, and cheap enough to be able to afford to travel in relative comfort. For full and up to date information about the train schedules, your first stop should always be at the excellent www.seat61com.
If you’re taking the train, then the SE1 from Hanoi is your best bet. The train sets off at a very civilised 19:30 from the main Hanoi train station (not Long Bien or the Sapa train station) and arrive at Dong Hoi at a much less civilised 05:45. It might sound unpleasant or a bit of an ordeal, but I guarantee that for the kids, it’ll be one of the highlights of the trip. The SE1 has four-berth sleeper cabins which are comfortable, air conditioned and secure. And there are guards patrolling the corridors throughout the night. As is the case all over Asia, the toilets are always an adventure. You travel through some breath-taking scenery on the way down, and seeing that in the early morning magic light is an experience that can’t fail to move you.
If you’re travelling up from Ho Chi Minh, then you’ll almost certainly be getting on the SE2 at Hue at 15:31 to arrive in Dong Hoi at 18:45. Again, if you’re travelling with kids then splashing out on a sleeper cabin is a worthy investment. You can relax watching the world trundle by, and the kids can have a nap, or turn the place into a private playground.[the_ad id=”4595″]
Once you get to Dong Hoi, there’s about an hour’s cab journey necessary to get into the heart of Phong Nha. If you’ve booked ahead, then the easiest option is to ask the hotel or guest house to organise a taxi for you. Coming down from Hanoi, you’re going to be tired, and the kids are going to be grumpy. Don’t make things harder than they need to be.
If you’re travelling independently, then taxis are available to hire at the train station. Haggle, and you should be in business for around a million dong.
The beauty of Phong Nha is that it’s so rural. The access road is only a few years old but places to stay are popping up all the time. Accommodation can be found in the centre of the town or out in the countryside surrounded by rice paddies and buffalo.
We can recommend staying at the Phong Nha Farmstay. It’s a bit of a mis-nomer, as it’s not actually a farm at all. But it is an amazing oasis of western luxury surrounded by the most amazing landscape of paddy fields and mountains. The food is great, the rooms are lovely, and they’ve got free bike hire – which is absolutely the best way to explore this amazing place. The pool is pretty small, but it’s perfect for a slightly chilly dip to wake you up in the morning. The Phong Nha Farmstay is a couple of miles from Phong Nha town, about 40 minutes by bike along dirt tracks by the river. It feels like you’ve earned that cold beer while relaxing in your hammock listening to live music. They also have a particularly impressive range of tours to choose from, which was one of our main reasons for heading there, as well as the fantastic reviews. [the_ad id=”4595″]
If you’re looking for somewhere a bit more happening, then Easy Tiger Hostel caters for the younger, backpacking crowd. With dorms and a lively bar, this is a friendly backpacker’s hostel right in the middle of the main street in Phong Nha town. There’s a good vibe here and we’d recommend popping in for a beer and lunch if you’re passing, even if you don’t stay.
You won’t find either of these places on any booking search engines, they prefer you to book directly. Their websites are here and here. There are loads of other places to stay in Phong Nha though. There are lots of homestays, hostels and guesthouses popping up all along the riverbank.
Check out prices and availability for Phong Nha accommodation on Hotelscombined.com where you can compare prices from loads of sites, except Agoda.
Back in 2016, Vietnam introduced a 15 day tourist visa which you can pick up at the airport when you arrive. These are super useful, and a really efficient way to see the country. There’s no need to trouble yourself with agencies or sending off your passport. You can arrive at the airport. Hand over $50 and you’re free to explore. Fifteen days is the real minimum that you should consider for Vietnam though. It’ll be a real whistle stop tour. If you can manage to arrange the full 30 day visa, then you’ll get to see much more, and have a much more relaxed time of it.
Having said that, I’d still recommend that you plan to spend four nights in Phong Nha. Halong Bay used to be the highlight of the country. But having revisited it recently, I’d say that it was well past its best. If you have to make the choice, save your money and choose Phong Nha while it’s still undeveloped.
If you can only spend a few days in Phong Nha, then the absolute must see experiences are:
It’s easy to borrow or hire a bike in Phong Nha, and it is the absolute best way to experience the landscape and the people. Give yourself a full day to explore, and set yourself a relaxed target to reach the infamous “Pub With Cold Beer” sometime mid afternoon. Before you get there, make sure that you’ve worked up an appetite by working your way through this list:
If you’re not seduced by the idea of the “Pub With Cold Beer” then the Botanic Gardens about 2km out of Phong Nha town come highly recommended. It’s a bit of a trek to get there, and quite a hike once you’ve arrived, but the waterfall, the scenery and the wildlife all make it well worth the effort.
Some of the caves within the national Park can be visited independantly and some require booking onto one of the many tours. Tours come in all shapes and sizes from one day to many days. The tours will get you around all of the must-see caves and give you a bit of a commentary on the area and its history, but they can be a bit pricey. Depending on how much of a cave lover you are, they can feel a bit rushed – especially with respect to the time you get in Paradise Cave. There’s a bit of hiking and clambering involved, so wear something sturdy and grippy on your feet and drink lots of water – the tour should supply it, so make sure that it’s included. New tours and caves are opening each year, so ask around and see what’s available and don’t be afraid to do some haggling.
The area is home to Hang Son Doon, the largest cave in the world. It’s five kilometres long and big enough to fit skyscrapers in. Don’t expect to just turn up and see it though. The tour costs around $3000 each and the waiting list is at least a year long. What an amazing experience it would be though. If you can’t plan that far ahead, then there are a whole series of absolutely astounding caves that are scattered across the limestone mountains.
Phong Nha Cave is the first cave that was opened to the public and it’s well worth a visit. You don’t need to go on a tour to see this one. It’s easy to hire a boat to show you around the Phong Nha cave. The service is well organised and controlled. Buy a ticket from the slipway in Phong Nha town and hop on your allotted boat. All the boats are numbered and regulated. There’s no haggling, no need to pay the ferry man and no stress. You get chugged down the river and then rowed into the caves.
These caves formed part of the famous Ho Chi Minh trail, and were used as a hideout and as a hospital during the American war. If you look carefully you can still see rocket damage at the mouth of the caves where the Americans tried (and failed) to collapse the cave entrance. The cave is huge and seemingly endless. The boat drops you off on a beach inside the cave and are given time to explore on foot before making your way back to your boat. There are plenty of opportunities for snacks or ice-cream on the way to meet the boat that will take you back to the jetty. The whole trip lasts a couple of hours, and it’s easy to fit it into a day’s cycle adventure if you’re pressed for time.
Paradise cave is stunning. Sparkling rock formations tower above you in this spectacular underground cathedral. If you can only visit one cave, this is the one to see. A boardwalk runs the first kilometre of this 30 km cave. Anyone can visit this first part by just turning up, and if you book onto a guided tour, you can spend a day trekking 7km into the cave.
If you’re looking for a bit of an adrenaline rush, then sign up for a zip-line adventure and a trip to the Dark Cave. Zip-line or kayak across the river to explore the Dark Cave and venture deep inside mud-filled tunnels, ending up in a huge mud bath. Kayak back across the river and spend an hour or so washing the mud off by playing on inflatables and more zip-lines. Lots of fun. You’re swimming trunk will never recover.
Don’t believe the blurb, this isn’t exactly suitable for all ages, but if you’re not a small child, an pensioner, claustrophobic or terrified of the dark, then you’ll be fine. We took a five-year-old who loved it, but he is quite a hard-core five-year-old! There are minimum and maximum weight limits for the zip-lines, so our kids couldn’t do the big zip-line. They did love the kayak trip to the dark cave, and completely adored the Dark Cave itself. You can visit the Dark Cave as part of a tour or get there independently. Check out this post for more info on Phong Nha’s Dark Cave.
Hang En Cave is currently the third largest known cave in the world. This is the one I really want to see. It’s not far from Son Doong and is part of the same cave system. The cave is massive and beautiful and has its own river, lake, jungle and climate. Tours take you on a trek through jungle and villages, and into the cave, sleeping in a tent on a beach in the cave.[the_ad id=”4595″]
These are just the best known caves in Phong Nha National Park. Others include Hang Tien cave, Tien Son cave, Hang Va cave and the Tu Lan cave system, and there are more under there! They just haven’t been found yet. It’s only a matter of time.
Vietnamese food is pretty brilliant wherever you end up eating. It’s easily available, healthy, delicious and cheap. As ever, if you eat where the locals eat, you won’t go far wrong. If you’re going for a “street food” adventure, then pick somewhere busy and you’ll be sure to find an authentic Vietnamese meal. Vegetarians are well catered for too. Vietnamese spring rolls are fantastic, and something that you’ve got to try. Many larger places offer a “roll your own” platter.. You’re presented with the ingredients, and you get to build your own ideal spring roll.
Exploring can be hard work, especially if you’re doing it on a bike. There are lots of places to be able to stop off for a snack. Stopping off regularly for a cold drink and taking the opportunity to keep your sugar levels up is essential.
The aforementioned “Pub With Cold Beer” serves the freshest BBQ chicken and peanut sauce in the world, and is a fitting reward after a hard day’s cycle ride.
Once your time in Phong Nha is up, then the train is again the best way to get away. A taxi back to Dong Hoi gives you plenty of opportunity to continue your Vietnam adventure either north back towards Hanoi, or South to Hue or Hoi An. If time is short, then spending a few days in the beautiful city of Hoi An is a perfect way to end your time in Vietnam. It’s only a couple of hours south of Phong Nha, and getting an internal flight from Danang up to Hanoi or down to Ho Chi Minh is easy. You can keep your options open, and book the through the Skyscanner website a day or two before the flight. It’s cheap and is way quicker than chugging on the train if you’re working to a deadline.
If time is on your side and you’re heading south, then you absolutely must stop off at Hue for a day or two. It’s a beautiful place with plenty to see and do. If you’re heading north, then Hanoi will keep you busy for a couple of days, and is your gateway to the stunning north of the country. Consider some trekking around Sapa, or a short trip up to Halong Bay – the place is stunning, but tourism is now fully industrialised and completely sanitised.
However you do it, wherever you go and whatever you see, Vietnam is an amazing place that can’t fail to make an impression on you. Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is destined to become a major tourist attraction. With tours and accommodation increasing every year, this stunning area is changing constantly. This version of Phong Nha won’t be around forever so get to Vietnam soon for some truly remarkable experiences before Phong Nha becomes Halong Bay.