Over the past couple of decades Phong Nha National Park has transformed from a sleepy backwater in the middle of nowhere to an essential stop off on the backpacker trail in Vietnam. There's only really one reason that people come to Phong Nha and that's to explore the vast and spectacular network of gigantic caves that lie beneath the stunning green topped karst mountains, many of which have only begun to be extensively explored in the past 15 years.
When I first heard about Phong Nha, I must admit my first thoughts were "Caves? Meh." But just in case you're thinking the same, let me tell you, they are no ordinary caves. Phong Nha National Park is in fact home to the largest cave in the world, Hang Son Doong which has a river that flows right through it's heart, its own rain forest contained within its walls and is so large that you could comfortably fly a jumbo jet through its widest passageways. Unfortunately, exploring Hang Son Doong also has a hefty price tag to match and at $3,000 dollars per person was slightly out of our price range.
But don't worry if, like us, you don't have that kind of cash lying around as there is still plenty to do here besides trekking to Hang Son Doong and many other gigantic and spectacular caves to explore on a more reasonable budget. Here's what we made of the caves and how to see them without a $3,000 war-chest.
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When to visit Phong Nha
It's best to visit Phong Nha outside of the rainy season which lasts September through November. The reason for this is that many of the longer expeditions don't run during this period due to high water levels and the threat of floods. Our visit happened to fall in October and whilst we did have to rule some activities out such as camping in a cave overnight, the main caves were still open. If your visit happens to fall within this period it's still well worth your while to go, just make sure you check in advance what is and isn't open in order to avoid disappointment.
Where to stay in Phong Nha
First things first, you're gonna want to stay a couple of days minimum in Phong Nha. There are three caves that are a "must see" plus many other activities to do in the area that may float your boat. Most of the action in the town is based around one main road where you'll find plenty of hotels, hostels and bars and restaurants.
We stayed at Phong Nha Discovery Hotel which is right in the thick of it, the rooms are basic but exceptionally clean and the staff are some of the friendliest people we have come across on our travels. They helped us plan our time in Phong Nha, let us in on all the best local places to eat and went out of their way to help us out with any queries, all with a smile on their face - if you're on a budget like us, we couldn't give a higher recommendation. There are homestays and hotels that are further away from the main road, but purely for convenience we'd recommend staying here.
How to get around Phong Nha National Park
Unlike many of the attractions that lie within it, Phong Nha National Park itself is actually free to enter. There are lots of operators offering guides tours to all of he attractions where you'll be shuttled to and from the caves by bus or car, but these aren't cheap and you're on someone else's time schedule.
By far the cheapest and best way to get around in Phong Nha is to hire yourself a motorbike and navigate it yourself. Motorbike hire is about 90,000 VND (£3) per day, you have to buy gas on top of that but a full tank is just 80,000 VND (£2.70) and will easily last the whole day giving you the freedom to go where you want when you want. The roads here are well maintained, quiet, safe and easy to navigate. There is a 65 kilometre loop around the the whole of the park which runs from Phong Nha town, past the Dark Cave and Paradise Cave as well as a Botanical Gardens and back.
What to see and do in Phong Nha
Phong Nha Cave
Phong Nha Cave is only navigable by boat for tourists meaning there's only one option for visiting it and that's to hire a private boat from the boat office at the edge of the River Song. Each boat holds up to 12 people and costs 360,000 VND or about £12.50. To bring the cost down you should either arrange beforehand to go with other people (you'll meet plenty of other tourists around the town and in your hotel or hostel) or alternatively you can just head down to the ticket office and wait for more people to come. It's pretty popular so you won't be waiting very long for a full boat.
We actually got really lucky as a Korean businessman who was in a hurry to catch a flight and didn't have the time to wait around offered to pay for the entire boat meaning it felt very intimate with just the three of us on board.
You also have to purchase a ticket to the Phong Nha Cave on top of this which costs 150,000 VND or about £5 per person.
The boat trip down the River Song is very enjoyable in itself, we gently putt putted downstream with mountains rising up either side of us and children playfully splashing each other while enjoying a morning swim in the river. After about a half hour journey we approached the mouth of the Phong Nha Cave, a small unassuming opening at the foot of a mountain. As we drifted through the grey stone archway, the boat engine was turned off and our guides paddled us into the heart of the mountain itself. What began to unfurl was unimaginable from the exterior.
The inside of the caves looked like the twisted sculptings of a lovechild born from the minds of Salvador Dali and Gaudi; beautiful, strange and utterly beguiling. Stalactites the size of large buildings hung from the ceiling, water drip dropping from their pointed ends. Patterns in the rocks evolved and altered with the lighting as we glided past, rounded edges giving way to sharp jagged rock faces that melted into sandy beaches.
The height and breadth of the cave made it feel like we were in a magnificent cathedral, the sound of the paddle cutting through the water reverberated softly in the empty chambers. Despite the farthest reaches of the Phong Nha Cave having never seen sunlight, the air remained warm throughout the half hour it took to navigate.
The boat took us deep inside the cave before turning around and we were then dropped off towards the entrance of the cave and directed to walk out a different way to where we'd entered, a chance to wonder at the remarkable rock formations close up. Whilst we got to see about 1,500 metres of Phong Nha Cave, its passages actually stretch over 40 kilometres which is difficult to fathom!
Paradise Cave - Thien Duong Cave
Paradise Cave is located in the jungle, a way back from main road. Once you've arrived at the car park and bought your tickets (250,000 VND or £8.50) it's a further 15-20 minute walk to the mouth of the cave itself. You go along a tree covered path and then about 800 metres up a winding incline that leads up the side of the mountain. You can hire a golf buggy to take you from the ticket office for about 30,000 VND per person (depending on size of group) but it only drops you at the foot of the mountain so you'll still have to do the difficult bit yourself.
Walking into paradise cave was like stumbling in to One Eyed Willy's Cave on the set of The Goonies. The entrance here is towards the roof of the cave so as soon as we stepped inside we were greeted with an awesome view over what resembled a forgotten kingdom full of riches. The lighting made the wet surfaces glisten like precious jewels glinting in the sun.
It took us almost an hour to get to the end of the raised wooden walkway and back, wandering through four or five distinct caverns, each one different from the last. Some had layered pools of water, naturally formed to resemble rice fields cut into the sides of hills. Others had groups of stalactites and stalagmites tightly bunched together like the pipes of a beautiful, ornate church organ.
Dark Cave was the least spectacular of the lot, but it's charm is in the activities you can do there rather than the beauty of the cave itself, so if you're into thrills and excitement and getting really, really dirty then this will definitely be for you.
It costs 250,000 VND or £8.50 for your entrance ticket and all of the activities are included in this. There are less crowds in the morning as lots of guided tour groups go in the afternoon but if you have other things planned for your day it might be better to put up with the crowds and plump for the afternoon as you'll be getting pretty filthy and might be knackered after your exertions.
Because you're going to get wet you must bring swimwear, you won't be allowed in otherwise and it's best not to forget your towel like we did! There are dressing rooms on site for you to get changed in.
The very first part of the process involved a weigh in. And for those of you quaking in your boots at the thought, it was every bit as horrific as it sounds. We lined up in one of those snake-like queues you get at theme parks, waiting to be weighed on a set of ancient analog scales by a member of staff who looked to be enjoying his job a bit more than he should have. It was like a multinational weight watchers meeting with the added twist of a baying audience.
People were getting booted left right and centre for being too heavy and one unfortunate pair of kids even got the hook for being too light, which prompted an uncontrollable fit of sobbing and a harsh life lesson when their parents abandoned them in favour of a taste of the thrills of the zip line. No one had actually told us the weight brackets beforehand, but if you are planning on going then know that to be allowed to do the zip line you must be over 40kg (6.2 stone) and under 90kg (14.1 stone), fortunately both myself and Sarah fit within those brackets.
Once we'd passed the first survival test we got suited up ready for the zip line in life jackets, hard helmets with torches attached and harnesses. We climbed a three story tower before being fired off one by one without instruction, over to the far side of the lake. It was an exhilarating ride and well worth the effort of maintaining a healthy(ish) BMI. Following that we had to swim to the mouth of the ominously named Dark Cave, which true to form was pitch black once we'd made our way through its opening along the short wooden walkway.
We veered off to the right, straight into ice cold, waist height water where we removed our life jackets and waded through for about 150 metres. We exited the pool and climbed up a sandy verge before having to slide down on our bums into a narrow crevice lined with mud. It was only wide enough to shuffle single file deeper into the bowels of the cave and at times the ceilings were so low it became apparent as to why we'd been given hard hats. This soon opened up into what I can only describe as a mud bath about the size of a small swimming pool.
By now the mud was waist high and it was difficult to keep our footing so we followed those in front of us and just... let go! Floating in mud is one of the strangest sensations we've experienced, it was literally impossible to sink and our buoyancy gave us the feeling of weightlessness as we lay on our backs, suspended in the brown semi-liquid. After about 15 minutes of wallowing like pigs we retraced our steps, this time pausing in the cold water to wash off the mud that was now coating our bodies before easing into a 4 person inflatable kayak to make our way back across the lake.
The final activity was another zip line over the water, the kind where you're not clipped in to a saddle but just hang onto a small handle before being jolted off by a stopper placed halfway across, resulting in a backflip and a large splash. Unfortunately something got caught up on my turn leaving me clinging on for dear life, contemplating a ten foot drop into the water's edge which I had no idea whether it was deep enough for me to survive without breaking multiple bones. Watch the video below to see how that ended.
Other Points of Interest
Phong Nha is actually a very interesting area even disregarding the caves. It's part of the region that was the most heavily bombed during the Vietnam War and is home to the locations of some of the most significant clashes to take place at that time such as the Battle of Hamburger Hill which precipitated a watershed shift in public opinion on the war in the US. There are many treks that you can undertake through the jungle outside of rainy season, but due to the high number of unexplored bombs you must always go with a guided tour group. The loop of the park takes you on a really beautiful journey along winding mountain paths with incredible views and through many small villages in the shadow of the huge green hills and is really fun to do in itself.
How Long to Spend in Phong Nha
This really depends on what you're planning on doing, but you can complete the loop around the park visiting the Dark Cave and Paradise cave as well as the botanical gardens in a single day. Phong Nha Cave takes a couple of hours, so feasibly you could see all of the main tourist attractions in two days. Obviously you need to allow longer if you're doing any of the overnight tours. We stayed 4 nights which was perfect for us to feel relaxed and not in a rush to fit everything in.
Visiting Phong Nha was a completely unique experience and the giant network of caves is unlike anything we have come across elsewhere. Thanks to its location in the centre of Vietnam it's convenient to get to from both the North and the South and we'd definitely recommend making some time in your itinerary to spend at least a couple of days here.
Ever visited Phong Nha? Would you prefer the activities at the Dark Cave or the serene beauty of Paradise and Phong Nha Caves? If you're planning a visit and have questions, let us know in the comments!
We are grateful to Phong Nha Discovery Hotel for generously hosting our stay in Phong Nha, we have expressed our honest opinions on the hotel and had a great experience staying there.