A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2003, Phong Nha should be on everyone’s Vietnam itinerary. Located about 500 km south of Hanoi on the road to Hue, this complex system of over 300 caves and grottoes makes a great landscape for adventure and exploration. In 2009, Phong Nha gained fame thanks to a survey that proved one of its caves – Son Doong – to be the largest on earth. Its biggest chamber is over 5 km long, 200 m high and 150 m wide – large enough to house a New York City block with 40-storey skyscrapers. It has only been open to the public since 2013 and five-day expeditions with Oxalis cost a staggering US$3,000.
The night bus from Hanoi trundles into Phong Nha at around 5:30 am, before most accommodation is even open. If you’re quick, you might be able to grab yourself a spot on the sofa at the bus terminal/tourism office/guesthouse next to where the bus stops. There are a few charging points there, as well as WiFi.
WHERE TO STAY
By far the most popular backpacker hostel in town is Easy Tiger, which is directly opposite the bus stop. Usually, they won’t take advance bookings unless you commit to staying two nights. If you only want one but you’re arriving in the early hours from Hanoi, then you might get lucky. Otherwise, there are plenty of guesthouses nearby that offer private rooms for the same price as a dorm bed. While you might feel like you’re missing out, you can always pop back for a drink and a party and at least this way you’re less likely to be disturbed by drunk travellers who don’t respect the ‘no noise after the bar closes’ rule.
Whether or not you’re staying at Easy Tiger, you’re still more than welcome to join their 9 am briefing on how to explore the area around Phong Nha. This includes detailed information on many of the local caves, entry fees and useful tips for visitors. It’s also a not-so-subtle safety warning. The first issue to be aware of is that many of the motorbike rentals aren’t great quality. The place next door to Easy Tiger (turn right as you leave) has the safest helmets and reliable bikes.
Another serious risk in the area is the high number of unexploded devices. The organisation MAG is currently working to remove, disassemble or detonate any mines that pose a risk, but despite their efforts, at the current rate it will take another 10,000 years to clear them all. The take-home message from all this scaremongering is that you should exercise caution when driving and stick to the main roads/paths.
WHAT TO SEE
PHONG NHA CAVE
The boat to Phong Nha Cave costs 320,000 VND, but has room for up to 14 people. Another good reason to join the Easy Tiger talk is that you’re more likely to meet a big group of people who want to do the same activities and split the cost. Allow 45 minutes each way for the boat ride and about an hour to explore the cave. Phong Nha Cave was used as a storage depot during the American war, and over 200 planes were shot down in this province alone. Interestingly, the Americans caused very little damage to the cave and parts of it are still so well hidden/inaccessible that more people have been to the moon than to the far reaches of its chambers.
TIEN SON CAVE
Tien Son has 450 steps, which makes for a tough climb, but this is rewarded with some great views. A boat ticket for Tien Son and Phong Nha combined is 350,000 VND split between all passengers. Allow an additional hour if you’re tagging this on.
Near the hostel is a museum with information on the war. While not much of it is in English, the pictures and artefacts paint an accurate picture of life during that time.
NATIONAL PARK TOUR
The ‘National Park tour’ is a day trip run by pretty much every tour provider in town. Easy Tiger offers it at 1,350,000 VND, but you may well find it cheaper if you shop around. The bonus of this tour is that the guides provide a lot of background information you wouldn’t hear otherwise. The downside is that it costs more than visiting the same places independently, gives you less flexibility, and leaves before 9 am (so you’d miss the Easy Tiger talk if you only have one day).
Taking in the same sights by motorbike, you’ll do a loop of about 65 km. This should use about 3 litres of fuel costing 60,000 VND. Do it anti-clockwise and visit the Dark Cave first to lessen the chances of being stuck in a huge group.
Dark Cave is the adventurous part of the day. Entrance and activities here cost 350,000 VND. After climbing a tower and zip lining across a river, you have the chance to splash around in the river and jump in from the tree branches, before following a guide deep into the cave to a chamber of thick mud. You wallow in this a while, and there’s no way to avoid getting dirty, so don’t wear your favourite swimsuit. Re-emerging beside the river, it’s a brief kayak back to the ticket booth and lockers. If you still have the energy, there’s another zip line that you can throw yourself into the river from. Showers are available, but they’re not very private.
After Dark Cave, most people visit Paradise Cave (entrance: 250,000 VND). This involves a steep climb up the mountainside and about 45 minutes of exploration inside the cave. The chambers are impressively large and ornate. As with many of the caves in the area, wooden walkways make exploration easy, and all of the formations are illuminated.
These gardens are a great place to spot wildlife. There are also treks in the area ranging from 45 minutes to a few hours, one of which takes in the largest waterfall in Phong Nha.
THE PUB WITH COLD BEER
Apart from the obvious, this place also serves up a traditional chicken lunch. It isn’t for the squeamish, as you have the chance to choose your own chicken while it’s still alive and then watch it being slaughtered. From here, you can admire the view and soak up the atmosphere in a hammock, or rent inner tubes and float downstream. You can reach it by motorbike or bicycle. The latter takes about five hours.
PHONG NHA FARMSTAY
Another good bike ride is to the Farmstay about 45 minutes away. This is a nice place to relax and play pool. The sunset is also pretty good, but you shouldn’t attempt to cycle back after dark.
PHONG NHA RIDERS
If you’re not comfortable driving your own bike and you haven’t found another traveller to take you, a fantastic alternative, which also provides employment to locals, is to get yourself a ‘rider’. These guys will take you on the back of their bikes for 300,000 to 350,000 VND. You can customise the tour and they’ll wait for however long you want to spend in each cave. Not only does this guarantee you won’t get lost, but you can relax knowing that your driver is experienced.