A decade ago, Phong Nha was a sleepy riverside village and easily dismissed off most travellers’ itinerary. Beneath the surrounding mountains and the dense green jungle lies some of the world’s largest caves; discovered in 2009, Hang Son Doong is currently the biggest cave system ever found. It is believed there still many more caves yet to be explored, an uncharted underworld waiting for the next speleologist to unearth. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park (where these natural wonders sit) is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the village town is changing fast to accommodate the increase of visitors.
Phong Nha is situated in central Vietnam, not far from the old demilitarised zone that once split the country in two halves. From the north, we took the Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) southbound train to Dong Hoi – this is the nearest station to Phong Nha (28 miles away). From the station you have two options either to get the local bus or take a cab. We chose the latter, the journey took under an hour and cost 300,000 dong (£10).
THINGS TO DO
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is cave heaven, a playground for adventurers and nature lovers. There are a multitude of caves you can visit, some can be done in a day or three days. A small number of tour companies are spread out across the main road in Phong Nha town, normally the hotel where you’ll stay will also sell cave and trekking tours.
The most notable agent is Oxalis Adventure Tours, they are the only operator authorised to take people to see the great Hang Son Doong cave – this tour alone costs 3000 usd per person and the waiting list can be up to a year. For those whose pockets aren’t so deep, there are plenty of other caves on offer: Thien Duong (Paradise) Cave, Tu Lan Cave System, Hang En, Hang Toi, Phong Nha Cave, Tra Ang Cave, Hang Tien and Hang Tien 2 and Hang Va. Generally, the harder and further it is to get to a cave, the more expensive the tour package (some requiring porters and overnight stays). Tour packages normally combine swimming and trekking to ensure you get a maximum experience.
Due to our budget and the time we had in Phong Nha, we decided to do Thien Duong (Paradise) Cave. No tour was required, it is one of the most easily accessible caves and we got there ourselves via motorbike. The entrance fee is 250,000 dong (£8.50 per person), an additional 50,000 dong is required to park your motorbike (if you have one). A small trek and a climb up a slope to the actual cave entrance is required, it took us 30 minutes at leisurely pace. You can pay for a buggy style shuttle to take you half way (but you still have to climb up the slope).
The tiny entrance to the cave is deceiving, once you are inside the enormity of the cavern and its incredible rock structures was breathtaking and did not disappoint. Paradise Cave stretches 31km long, a wooden walkway takes you to the first kilometre only. To go beyond, this is where you will need to book a tour.
I spent the rest of the days cycling round the nearby villages and farmlands. I also rented a motorbike and used it to see more of the national park.
WHERE TO STAY & EAT
We stayed at the Mountain View Hotel located at the far end of the main road, yet still walkable to all the resturants and shops. Good value rooms, includes breakfast and working WiFi. They provide motorbike rental, and offer various activity tours and assistance in booking travel for your next destination.
The town is fairly small, there are only a handful of resturants on the main road. We recommend Phong Nha Bamboo Cafe, our favourite restaurant with a cool rooftop – the food is excellent a combination of Vietnamese and western style dishes on offer – do try the Banana Flower Salad.
- In high season, it is advisable to book some of the cave tours in advance (particularly the more challenging ones).
- Make sure you have the right clothing, the tour company will usually advise what you need to bring.
- If you are short of time and you can only see one cave – do Paradise Cave. Despite being the most popular cave it is impressive – best to go in the morning to avoid the midday crowds if you can.
- Apart from Paradise and Phong Nha Cave, most caves will require a tour guide or an expedition tour. This also applies to trekking in the countryside (you will need a guide). Unfortunately you cannot go and wonder by yourself as the area was heavily bombed during the war – there is a danger of unexploded bombs in the ground.
- Read tour company reviews on Tripadvisor.com, and ensure you have good travel insurance and that it covers you for the activities taken.
- New caves are revealed every year, it is worth checking an agent’s website what new tours there are.