Sunrise in Phong Nha illuminates the misty, jagged contours of the surrounding sheer-limestone rock formations. Vietnamese kids are dressed in uniforms smiling and wide-eyed as they chase motorbikes passing by. The landscape glistens with bright green rice paddies, rivers, and flowing mountain formations.
The town of Phong Nha encompasses only one main road with a scattering of hotels, guest- houses, and restaurants popping up as the tourism flame begins to catch fire. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National park was officially established just 15 years ago in 2001, and began to attract universal attention in 2003 after it was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage. The cavernous area located 500 km south of Hanoi is home to over 300 caves.
According to a local entrepreneur who has been a part of building up the area, “This town was literally cut off from the rest of the world 7 years ago with no electricity, no television, and the people were at high risk for famine due to the yearly floods.”
This seemingly ‘untouched land’ was not only touched during the war, it was pummeled. It is hard to imagine that 50 years ago, this peaceful and pristine landscape was a high-priority war zone due to its crucial role in the transport of resources in the Vietnam War. Phong-Nha was the previous starting point of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail- the series of underground networks created by the North Vietnamese to transport important resources, goods, and people down the coast into Southern Vietnam.
But, the prettiest sunrises emerge from the darkest nights, and present day Phong Nha is the sunrise after the storm. Phong Nha has something for everyone, from the intrepid cave dweller, to the backpacker on a budget. Here’s why you simply can’t skip Phong Nha…
The adventure begins with a zip line ride over a turquoise river leading you into the dark mouth of the cave. Then the real fun begins with a 1 km trek through molasses-like mud, leading you into a pitch-black mud pit. This was definitely the most expensive part of the trip, but so worth it!
Price: 350,000 VND includes headlamp, mud fights, zip-lining kayaking, and swimming through the cave.
This recently discovered cave (2005) holds the record for the longest dry cave in Asia, spanning over 31 km in length. “So big are these mammoth, sunlit caverns that there is room enough for an entire New York City block of 40-story buildings.” – Nick Ross
Cost: 250,000 VND
This limestone cave is one of the oldest in Asia, as the ancient karsts can be tracked back over 400 million years. The impressive, grotto-filled cave can only be reached by boat which you can pick up from the Phong-Nha Tourism center. The boat takes you down the Son River passing locals wading in knee-deep rice paddies, motorbikes with pigs strapped on, and grazing water buffalo, leading you into the mouth of the cave. From here you can reach the Tien Son Cave by climbing 330 steps straight up.
Cost: 150,000 VND (Phong Nha cave)80,000 VND (Tien Son cave) +320,000 VND to rent boat for up to 14 people to reach caves
And we made it after…
wrong turns taking us 50 km in the opposite direction of the caves,
lost keys falling out of the bike ignition mid-drive,
and local detours through dirt biking roads leading straight into wild boar’s butts.
Let’s just say we took the long way in, so getting to this hilltop place filled with hammocks, chickens, and cold beer was especially rewarding.
Ms. Nue opened this hillside hangout about four years ago, and has been allowing guests to kill their very own chickens ever since. The entrepreneurial mindset unfolding here is incredible. It is captivating to be at the forefront of a new tourism hub.
Ho Khan is a local Vietnamese man who stumbled upon the now largest cave in the world, the Han Song Doon cave. He currently runs a home stay and riverside cafe which is infamous for chocolate coffee, which can best be described as liquid Toblerone, served with a beautiful layered bottom, and a bowl of ice. YOU HAVE TO TRY IT!
Easy Tiger is an Aussie-run hostel with an amazing menu, clean rooms, and the best (and only) nightlife in Phong Nha. Easy Tiger was one of the first westernized hostels, and the entire staff is incredibly knowledgeable about the area. At 9 am everyday they provide a free hour meeting discussing tour options, navigating the caves, and provides an in-depth history lesson of the area.
“I don’t want to compete with the local people, I want to offer something different.’-Easy Tiger Management
Cost: 160,000 VND/person with breakfast included
There are dozens of guest hoses and hotels popping up along the main road that don’t show up on an internet search, so I would suggest just showing up and bartering for a room if you’re not dead-set on anything else! Thanh Phat Hotel, right across the street from Easy Tiger, offers an entirely spacious room, and a great place to crash for the night.
Negotiable Price: ~100,000 VND/person
The Phong-Nha Farmstay is the first western-run guesthouse in the area, and is owned by an Australian & Vietnamese couple. It has incredible reviews, but is for the mid-range traveler due to the higher cost and more tailored experiences available.
Price: 700,000-1,200,000 VND
The Pepperhouse is another option for those looking for a little cheaper option, but wanting to stay outside of the main town and in a personalized setting.
Price: 200,000 VND/ dorm bed
If you want the real Vietnam, come to Phong Nha. Phong Nha is doing tourism in a whole different way- responsibly- and hopefully, for the sake of the locals, future visitors, and stunning landscape alike, it will stay that way. Don’t skim over the magic of Phong Nha, there is just too much waiting to be discovered.
From Hue: There are many bus options including tour operators that will take you directly from Hue (17:30) and continue onto Hanoi for around 220,000 VND. (Be sure to call a night before your continued departure from Phong-Nha to Hanoi as they might rip you off and make you buy a completely new ticket).
Check out Easy Tiger's 'getting here page' for two other local bus options from Hue.
From Dong Hoi: According to Wiki Voyage, a local bus goes from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha for 40,000 dong. It departs at 14:00 from Nam Ly bus station. The bus back to Dong Hoi leaves Phong Nha at 8:00, so you have to either stay overnight or try to go back with one of the tour buses.
Have you ever been to Phong Nha? What was your favorite cave? Did you get into any insane motorbiking situations? I’d love to hear 🙂