Over the last few years, Phong Nha has gone from a sleepy, outpost on the border with Laos to a full-scale destination. The reason? The spectacular limestone, jungle-covered scenery, and in particular the discovery and then opening to the public of Son Doong, the largest cave in the world.
But people travel to Phong Nha for more than just Son Doong — entrance to the cave is restricted to a lucky 200 or so cavers a year who travel on tours organised by Oxalis. There are a host of other outdoor-based activities available in the area. When it comes to unadulterated nature, and getting off the beaten track and onto the not-so-beaten trail, Phong Nha stands alone. Even Lonely Planet likes the place — they now rate it as the second best destination in Vietnam.
Here is a lowdown of what to do in the area. Most of the tours include the caves. And for those who aren’t so into dark, confined spaces, there are other options to while away some time.
Phong Nha and Paradise Caves
This is the basic for anyone visiting the area. Phong Nha Cave, long open to the public, is reached by boat from the main town. Lit up with coloured lights, it’s a nice introduction to everything there is to come, with rock formations given names like Buddha, Lion, Fairy Caves and Royal Court. Please note, the boat trip is non-negotiable and costs VND350,000 for up to 14 people. Paradise Cave (Thien Duong in Vietnamese) is a step up in terms of the wow factor and requires an on-foot climb, but is worth every bead of sweat. The rock formations are spectacular, with wooden steps taking you down into the depths of the connecting caverns. Entrance is VND250,000 per person. The best way to see Paradise Cave and the National Park in general is with the one-day National Park Tour — the day’s activities include kayaking, ziplining into Dark Cave and swimming.
Run by Oxalis
The third-largest cave in the world can be reached by regular, two-day trips that include sleeping on a beach inside the cave beneath 100,000 swallows, traversing rivers, trekking through jungle, and clambering over rocks. There are impressive views, particularly the one of the cavern as you look through the far entrance of Hang En. There’s something prehistoric about this place, as if you’re walking into a land once inhabited by dinosaurs. Visitors will be struck by the grandeur of the caverns. They are enormous.
Run by Oxalis
The ultimate tour, of course, is the five-day, four-night trip to Son Doong. However, this is oversubscribed and booked up well in advance. The other options, while not as spectacular, are breath-taking. Part of the Son Doong cave system, Hang Va and Hang Nuoc Nut share the same water flow. The landscapes and rock formations are remarkable, too. Two-day tours cost VND8 million per person. The four-day, three-night trip to Tu Lan, a collection of both dry and river caves in a cave system just outside the national park, includes dark-cave abseiling, bouldering, climbing and swimming through caves. All the food and accommodation for the expedition is carried by porters and there are chances for some epic photography.
The Abandoned Valley
Run by Jungle Boss
We’ve done a few of the caving day trips, and in our opinion, this is the best one day trip available. Taking you to a valley that was once incorporated into the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the guides lead you through jungle, past poison ivy and then into the back entrance of Dark Cave. Here you travel 300m or so into the pitch black-cavern, with head torches, safety equipment and guides.
The trip then takes you back through the jungle to E Cave where you have lunch — a BBQ cooked over hot stones — before swimming 150m or so into the depths of the cavern. It’s echoey and scary being in the dark, but the water is fresh and cold, the ideal tonic in the tropical heat and sweat of the jungle.
Phong Nha Botanical Gardens
Home to Gio Waterfall, Vang Anh Lake, an exhibition house, an animal rescue zone and pristine forest, the gardens’ diverse flora provides a rich habitat for a range of bird and mammal species. A 3km trek takes you through the 40-hectare gardens, and there are spots to camp out at dusk to observe wildlife as night falls. However, to fully appreciate the botanical gardens, it’s best to get yourself on the highly rated, one-day eco-conservation tour run by Mr. Hai. Taking you through the gardens themselves and to the animal rescue centre, the tour includes swimming in a natural pool, a BBQ lunch, 8km to 10km of jungle trekking and an insight into the ecological and conservation side of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
The Bong Lai Valley
A favourite trip for those wanting to take out a bicycle, Bong Lai Valley is a rural, hilly area outside Phong Nha with bad roads (part of the fun), and places to stop, chill, have a beer or two, and while away the countryside time.
On the route is the well-known Pub With Cold Beer (they’re famous for their barbecued chicken which is as fresh as it comes), Bong Lai Eco Farm, Moi Moi Restaurant and, if you want some locally grown pepper, Duck Stop. Another place to chill out is The Pepper House Homestay. An oasis of bungalows set around a swimming pool in an idyllic rural setting, the Pepper House is a good venue to stop for a few hours and enjoy being away from it all.
Cycling, Ural Tours and More
Bicycles are available for rent or for free use at the guesthouses in Phong Nha Town and at the various homestays and farmstays outside the main drag. As cycling goes, the area is a little patch of paradise. There aren’t too many hills, and the paved roads are good quality. Although you need to be vigilant, there’s never too much traffic. There are also numerous trails through the paddy fields to small hamlets and villages reached only by unpaved roads, and the Bong Lai Valley is a wonderful place to explore. Just expect to do a lot of bicycle carrying if you’re heading off-road during the wet season.
Phong Nha Farmstay also conducts jeep tours and tours on old Ural motorbikes. Click on phong-nha-cave.com/tours/jeepural for more information. And if you’re feeling adventurous, the 200km-plus motorbike drive from Phong Nha to the next town down, Khe Sanh, is spectacular.
Flights with Jetstar Pacfic, VietJet and Vietnam Airlines from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi go to Dong Hoi, the principal city in the province. Airport transfer to Phong Nha costs VND500,000. Another option is the open tour bus from Ninh Binh or Hue or the train from Hanoi. The train also stops in Dong Hoi while the bus goes straight to Phong Nha Town.
There is loads of accommodation in the area today, both inside and outside Phong Nha Town, although the five-star or boutique hotel accommodation has yet to make an appearance. It’s mainly homestay or farmstay based — so in a rural or picturesque location, often in traditional-style houses. Here are some of our favourite spots:
Pepper House Homestay
Phong Nha Farmstay
Chay Lap Farmstay
Phong Nha Lakehouse
Ho Khanh’s Homestay
Easy Tiger Hostel