The lush jungle and recently-discovered caves of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park are the perfect countryside escape in Vietnam. Blogger and travel writer Rose Munday shares her tips for an action-packed trip…
Phong Nha is a relative newcomer to Vietnam’s tourist track. Three years ago, very few travellers came to Phong Nha and there were only a handful of places to stay. Now, it’s relatively easier for adventurous souls to plan a trip à la The Descent 😆
The undisturbed countryside stop breaks up the long journey between Hanoi and Hoi An, making a refreshing contrast to both cities. Even if you just have one day to spare, it’s convenient enough to make the most of Vietnam’s hidden gem…
How to get to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
By bus: If you’re coming up or down the coast, the bus is your easiest and cheapest option. From the north, you’ll arrive at the ungodly hour of 4am from Hanoi or Ninh Binh. The Hung Thanh bus is the best option for backpackers, and you’ll even get a bed (though admittedly not a very big one). Guesthouses are aware of the 4am arrival time and will be up to welcome you, but it won’t hurt to drop them an email with your ETA.
If coming from the south, you’ll arrive at 9pm on the Hung Thanh bus or 12pm on the Tan Nat or Duy Tan local buses.
By train: You can also arrive by train into Dong Hoi station. From here to Phong Nha, it’s a local bus ride or 500,000 VND in a taxi. This option is more expensive but an excellent way to see the Vietnamese countryside whipping past the train window. One for the bucket list!
The best caves in Phong Nha to visit
For me, the best caves in Phong Nha were the undiscovered ones. The highlight of the National Park is its abundant nature, so I preferred the quieter caves where I didn’t need to wait in turn for a photo.
On arrival to Phong Nha, the prospect of so many caves to choose from seemed overwhelming. Did we want to walk through them? Take a boat? Swim? ZIPWIRE?
These are the best caves to visit in Phong Nha and how to reach them:
1. Paradise Cave
Described by some (including me) as the most beautiful cave in the Phong Nha region, the name ‘Paradise Cave’ is no understatement. This maze of stalactites and stalagmites, known locally as Thiên Đường, was discovered by a local man in 2005. He had no idea of the gold mine he’d stumbled upon, and the area has subsequently become one of the most visited caves in Phong Nha.
Entrance: 200,000 VND.
Getting there: If you’re happy to rent a scooter, it’s a 35-minute drive from town.
2. Dark Cave
Walking into a cave is so 2018. At Phong Nha’s Dark Cave, you’ll zoom in by zipwire… Straight into a deep pool of oozy, gooey mud. If you like adrenaline and getting messy, this is definitely the one for you!
Entrance fee: 250,000 VND in low season and 450,000 VND in high season (March to September).
3. Phong Nha Cave
If you fancy cruising into a cave by boat, Phong Nha Cave is an atmospheric option. It was the first cave opened in the Phong Nha region and can easily be visited independently (rather than on a tour). It was used as a hospital in the Vietnam War, so there’s plenty of history to soak up, as well as some awesome scenery.
Entrance: 150,000 VND, plus a boat fee which works out at a few dollars each when split between a group.
4. Tra An Cave
One of the most interesting experiences in Phong Nha is donning a life jacket, head torch and helmet and swimming through the eerie and undiscovered Tra An Cave. Requiring a trek through the humming jungle, only a few tourists make the pilgrimage each day. Opened to visitors in 2016, it’s the ultimate way to dodge the crowds of Paradise Cave and Dark Cave!
Entrance fee: Free!
Getting there: Tra An Cave is certainly remote: it’s not yet listed on Google Maps, so you might struggle to find it. In addition, you’ll need a head torch and a life jacket, so it’s highly recommendable to take a day tour.
5. Han Song Doong Cave
This incredible cave complex has a real claim to fame: it’s the biggest in the world. While skyscrapers could fit inside, it might be cheaper to invest in property than fork out for a visit! To visit Han Song Doong, you’ll need embark on a 4-day, $3,000 expedition with porters to carry your food, water and equipment. Safe to say we gave this a miss!
Address: Xuân Trạch, Bố Trạch District, Quang Binh Province (but good luck rocking up!)
6. Tu Lan Cave Complex
Tu Lan is another recently discovered cave in Phong Nha National Park. Recently awarded UNESCO Heritage status, the complex is a popular option for overnight stays and meeting local bushmen who call the region home.
Getting there: Tu Lan is far from town and can be reached through a 2-night tour.
Where to stay in Phong Nha
The best place to stay in Phong Nha National Park is Cuo Lac town. While it was probably once an adventure to reach, it’s now easily accessible with buses dropping off in front of the hostels and booking offices. All your amenities are here should you need them, but the appeal of the area is definitely not in the town… head into the park as soon as you can!
Thien Phu Hostel is a cosy, convenient guesthouse in the centre of town. Charging a tiny $2 extra for early check-in (from 4am!), it works out as 1.5 nights for the price of one. If you arrive on the early bus, you can catch up on sleep until breakfast, before beginning your day’s adventures.
Where to eat in Phong Nha
Bamboo Cafe is a fantastic local cafe with an extensive menu of home-cooked dishes. Tuck into local classics like pho and fresh spring rolls, get your Western fix, or try other Asian favourites like curry and stir-frys. I can vouch for the enormous aubergine curry with rice for VND 50,000. www.phong-nha-bamboo-cafe.com
When to visit Phong Nha?
The Vietnamese countryside can be hot and relentless between May and September. My visit coincided with this period and it was pretty exhausting. The cooler months from October to May are preferable if it fits with your trip.
What to pack for visiting Phong Nha?
Depending on which cave you choose to visit, you might want to amend your packing list. For any excursions walking through caves, you’ll stay fairly cool and dry. But for boat trips, remember your waterproof camera and a dry bag. If you choose a cave visit that requires an outdoor trek to reach, ensure you bring sunglasses, suncream and enough water to last the day.
Heading to Vietnam any time soon? Also check out our ultimate guide to Da Nang, Hoi An and Hue.
Have you been to any of these spots? Do you have any more to add? Leave them in the comments below!
More adventures in Vietnam:
- From Hanoi: Hoa Lu and Tam Coc Boat Tour – Full Day
- Halong Bay Cruise from Hanoi – Full Day
- Tours from Hoi An
Featured Photo: kiwisoffcourse