— Guest post by Elina of Wayfarover
Unesco World Heritage listed since 2003, home to the world’s largest cave and Asia’s oldest karst mountains and located conveniently midway between Hue and Ha Noi…
Its list of merits is long, but the Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park still manages to fly under the radar for many backpackers making their way through Vietnam.
Rent a motorbike for the day to cruise up and down the hilly roads, discover 400-million-year-old cave systems and enjoy one of the best nature experiences that Vietnam has to offer. While others visit the park as a day trip or a one-day stopover, I can definitely recommend staying at least two or three days to get the most out of your visit.
The national park is home to over 300 caves and grottos, and the cave systems are still partly unexplored. Options to visit different cave systems vary from multiple-day trips with licenced agencies to independent exploration of the more easily-accessible caves.
Phong Nha cave
Phong Nha cave, which lends its name to the park, is a great introduction to the park. Head to the jetty at the end of the high street and buy a ticket for a boat with a guide for a day – no need to pay for a guided tour, unless you insist on needing an English-speaking guide. The price for a boat is fixed but I found that by waiting around the docks and talking to other foreigners who wandered in without a plan, I had soon gathered a small crew to split the cost with.
While the cave is almost 8 kilometres long, the boats only waft through the first kilometre of the underground river flowing through it before turning back and letting passengers out to walk amongst the ancient rock formations. Many of them have been given names with a majestic clang, such as Lion, Unicorn and the Buddha.
While the boat waits, walk out of the cave and follow the signs up never-ending stairs to the Tien Son cave, located conveniently right next door. As you ascend, the green plains and the murky river spread out underneath, offering a great vista to this part of the national park, before arriving to the almost hidden entrance of the cave. A looping walkway snakes through the cave to offer a closer look to its impressive stalagmites (rising from the floor) and stalactites (hanging from the roof).
Apparently Thien Durong – ‘Paradise Cave’ – is the cave you have to see if you only have time for one. Only recently discovered, the cave has been open to visitors since 2010 but has quickly become one of the most popular attractions of the park. Multi-coloured stalagmites follow you every step of the way as you plunge deeper into the dimly-lit cave, making you feel like walking on Mars. Some operators use the Paradise cave as a starting point for tours leading visitors deeper into the cave system, but the main part of the cave is better visited independently.
Hang Toi, also aptly known as the Dark Cave, is one for the adventurous and can only be experienced with a group tour. No need to book beforehand – just show up and they’ll put you with the next group going!
A brief but exhilarating zipline takes you to the entrance of the cave, where you don on life jackets and paddle into the water-filled cave. There is a reason you’re required to wear life vests and helmets with headlamps – the dark cave lives up to its name as beyond the mouth of the cave, there is very little light. After leaving the life vests behind, the group progresses to the narrow tunnels deeper into the cave system until arriving to a cozy mud pool. The route circles back to the main cave where those who want are encouraged to swim to the other end of the cave and upon returning turn off their headlamp. You will be navigating in darkness towards the light of the cave opening. Finally, you canoe to a small water adventure park, where more ziplines and different climbing challenges await.
If you’re eager for an overnight tour, one of the most popular routes takes you to Hang En – the ‘swallow’s cave’. The 2-day, 1-night tour takes you to the third biggest cave in the world, and naturally, you camp overnight in it.
In 2009, Son Doong was confirmed to be the largest cave in the world. Unfortunately, this marvel still eludes the average backpacker: only one company runs tours and requires high-level caving and rappelling experience, six days of your time as well as a hefty 3,000 USD fee.
What else to do in Phong Nha
While the caves are unarguably the most unique attraction of the park, it is worth spending a day or two more exploring the area more closely out in fresh air.
The dramatic green hills and the countryside surrounding them offer some great hikes. Unfortunately, most of them can’t be done independently, since the trails are often not clearly marked and the park is still full of unexploded ordnance reminiscent from the Vietnam war.
Swap your scooter for a pushbike for a day and take to the surrounding countryside. Biking through the streets of small village centres offer a glimpse into the everyday life of the local families and farmers. Make sure to grab a map before you pedal off! Head to Phong Nha farmstay for the sunset; while their food is slightly more expensive than in the city, nothing beats sipping a Huda beer and gazing at the farmers mustering their cattle home as the sun sets behind the fields.
After a long day of exploring, get your party on in Easy Tiger, the most popular and without a doubt the busiest backpacker hostel in town. They usually have a different drink deal every night, and the kitchen is always busy, conjuring up mostly Western foods for homesick backpackers. After the bar officially closes at 11 p.m., follow the flow out to the street where a motorbike taxi takes you to a not-so-secret afterparty down the street. The vodka in the jar at the bar is free for those who dare try it – the goat’s leg and testicles soaking in the jar get many to skip it.
Where to eat
Bamboo Café – Perhaps a little more pricey than other places in town, but at the same time it is popular among backpackers for a good reason. Come in for a great breakfast or try the tofu stir fry – I swear it’s the best I’ve ever had.
The Best Spit Roast Pork & Noodle Shop in the World (probably…) – While this modestly named restaurant might not quite live up to its name, the spit roast is still excellent and the service great.
Restaurant and hotel Thảo Nguyên – On the opposite side of the street from Easy Tiger, this restaurant serves good quality food for a cheap price. Try the fresh fish or traditional Vietnamese spring rolls.
If you’re on the look out for the freshest chicken lunch, head out to a restaurant in one of the villlages. (The Pub with Cold Beer is the most famous one, but most of the others serve the same deal as well.) You can see your chicken get caught, killed and prepared right there, and while this might sound a tad gruesome, the chicken are kept free and the killing is quick; eating chicken doesn’t get more ethical than this. However, from what I heard most tarvellers report that chicken in most places was often tough and tasteless. Still, do visit one of these little restaurants and get something else.
How to get there & around
The main town in the park is called Son Trach but better known simply as Phong Nha village. Regular buses link Son Trach with other Vietnamese cities, whether you’re travelling from north to south or vice versa. The closest major hub with an airport is Dong Hoi, about 45 km form the park. Most accommodation is in the town, which in itself is just one street, but some of the farmstays are located deeper in the park. Independent travellers arriving by car or motorcycle can take the Ho Chi Minh Highway or Hwy 20 which runs through the town.
The easiest way to get around the park is rent a motorcycle. Various shops along the high street offer motorbike rentals, and while the prices are very similar between shops, take good care to check your bike – especially the brakes and indicators – before taking off. If you’re unsure on a bike, ask your accommodation for a local motorbike guide who can do the driving for you as you just take in the view.
Elina is a Finnish translation student, lipstick addict and hopelessly in love with travelling. She prefers to travel slowly and spend more time in a country learning about its culture, history and language. Wayfarover is above all a travel blog dedicated to stories from the road and thoughts on responsible backpacking and exploring.