Photo by Nick Ross
In just a few short years, Phong Nha has gone from a sleepy, outpost bordering Laos, to a full-scale tourist centre. The reasons for its rise in popularity are numerous. In addition to possessing the continent’s oldest limestone formations and its jungle-covered scenery, the discovery of Han Son Doong, the largest caves in the world, catapulted the excitement to new heights.
But it’s not just Son Doong that people travel to Phong Nha for -- entrance is restricted to a lucky 200 or so cavers a year who travel on tours organised by Oxalis -- but all the 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.
Here is a lowdown of what to do in the area. Most of the tours include the caves. And for those who aren’t into dark, spaces, there are many other options to wile away some time.
This is the basic for anyone visiting the area. Phong Nha Cave, long open to the public, is accessible by boat from the main town. Lit up with coloured lights, it’s a nice introduction for everything there is to come, with rock formations cheekily named Buddha, Lion, Fairy Caves and Royal Court. Please note: the boat trip is non-negotiable and costs VND550,000 for up to 12 people including children.
Paradise Cave (Thien Duong in Vietnamese) is a step up and requires an on-foot climb, but is well-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.
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; clambering over rocks; and some pretty 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. The dinosaurs, naturally, are gone, and even their skeletons are just a figment of a journalist’s imagination. But you will be struck by the grandeur of the caverns. They are enormous.
We’ve done a few of the caving day trips, and in our opinion, this one by Jungle Boss Homestay is the best one 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 — BBQ cooked over hot stones — before swimming approx. 150m into the depths of the cavern. The cavern is reverberant and it’s quite chilling being submerged in the pitch black, but the water is fresh and cold: the perfect tonic to the tropical heat and sweat of the jungle.
The ultimate tour is Oxalis' five-day, four-night trip to Son Doong. However, this is oversubscribed and booked up well in advance. There are other options, which while not as spectacular, are breathtaking. 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.
Home to Gio Waterfall, Vang Anh Lake, an exhibition house, an animal rescue zone and pristine forest, the Phong Nha Botanical Gardens’ diverse flora provides a rich habitat for a range of bird and mammal species. Covering over 40 hectares, a 3km trek takes you through the gardens, and there are spots to camp out at dusk to observe wildlife as night falls.
TIP: 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 insight into the ecological and conservation side of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
A favourite trip for those wanting to take out a bicycle, Bong Lai Valley is a rural, hilly area just outside of 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 infamous 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 hang 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.
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. The Bong Lai Valley is a wonderful place to explore. Just expect to do a lot bicycle carrying if you’re heading off-road during the wet season.
TIP: Phong Nha Farmstay also conducts jeep tours and tours on old Ural motorbikes. And if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, the 200km-plus motorbike drive from Phong Nha to the next town down, Khe Sanh, is spectacular.