Phong Nha-Ke Bang is a must-visit in Vietnam — at least if you’d like to explore some of the most stunning caves in Asia.
UNESCO World Heritage-listed since 2003, it is home to the world’s largest cave and Asia’s oldest karst mountains and it’s located conveniently midway between Hue and Hanoi.
There are over 500 caves in Phong Nha, of which around 30 are made accessible to visitors. While some visit the Phong Nha national park as a one-day stopover, I recommend staying at least two or three days to get the most out of your visit.
Besides the caves Phong Nha has plenty else to do; you can rent a motorbike for the day to cruise up and down the hilly roads, you can enjoy the peaceful riverside village of Phong Nha itself, or relax at a farmstay at nearby Bong Lai Valley.
Despite having some of the most amazing attractions in Vietnam, the Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park still manages to fly under the radar for many travellers. But if you add it to your Vietnam itinerary, you’ll be rewarded with some stunning nature as well as a wonderful slice of Vietnamese rural life.
When to visit Phong Nha
You can enjoy Phong Nha National Park for most of the year, but it’s good to be aware of the yearly flooding season that takes place from September to November.
The area is known for its massive floods during this time which also submerges some of the caves. The water level inside Hang En Cave even rises by a whopping 80 meters, so it’s no coincidence that tours do not run during this period.
Even the town itself is affected and you can easily find photos of travellers standing ankle-deep in water inside restaurants or hostel receptions. That probably makes for a good travel story but is less than ideal for seeing the sights! Travelling during rainy season isn’t always the end of the world, but in Phong Nha you may wish to avoid it. Leaches will also be a common issue when hiking through the park during this time.
I visited in March and most local sources seemed to agree that between February and September is the best time to visit.
Getting to Phong Nha
The main town in the Phong Nha National Park is called Son Trach, but it’s better known simply as Phong Nha village.
The nearest train station is in Dong Hoi, about 45 km from Phong Nha. Dong Hoi is on the Reunification Express line that runs the full height of Vietnam from Hanoi to Saigon, so many trains stop there throughout the day. You can book trains online at 12Go Asia or Baolao.
The closest airport is Dong Hoi Airport, which is 40 km away. There are only a couple of flights from here, mainly to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, operated by Vietnam Airlines as well as several smaller budget carriers. Jetstar runs the only international flight to Dong Hoi from Chiang Mai in Thailand.
While the train from Dong Hoi is the most straightforward overland option, there are buses from Phong Nha as well. Hanoi, Hue, Da Nang and Da Lat are some of the key destinations served from Dong Hoi. You can book buses easily from hotel receptions or agencies in town, or online at 12Go Asia or Baolao.
Motorbike or car
Independent travellers arriving by car or motorcycle can take the Ho Chi Minh Highway or Hwy DT 20 which runs through the town.
Dong Hoi to Phong Nha
Since most connections are to the regional hub of Dong Hoi, you’ll probably have to travel via this city. There is a public bus from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha that costs about 60.000 VND (it cannot be booked online).
You can also take a taxi, which should cost about 500.000 VND. The tour operator Oxalis can also arrange a private pick-up, at 650.000 VND, which is more expensive but could be convenient if you have booked a cave tour with them.
Phong Nha caves
There are a variety of caves in Phong Nha and each can give you a wildly different experience.
Some of the 400-million-year-old cave systems are publically accessible, letting you easily admire their beautifully lit mineral formations from boardwalk paths. Other caves are more for the adventurous, letting you clamber and zip-line through them. Others still lie deep within the national park, reached only through a multi-day expedition — and these are arguably some of the most rewarding.
The following caves are among the most popular in Phong Nha.
The Phong Nha cave
Underground river cave toured by boat
Phong Nha cave, which lends its name to the park, makes for a great introduction. You’ll not only see the cave but will be rewarded with a nice boat ride down the Song Con river as well.
Simply head to the jetty at the end of the high street and buy a ticket for a boat with a guide for a day — there is 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).
It’s also possible to explore Phong Nha cave by kayak as part of an adventure tour.
The longest cave, 20km south of town
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. I personally enjoyed going there by motorbike as the scenic roads go through part of the park. What I didn’t realize until later is that you can actually do a full loop; you can cross the bridge in Phong Nha and head west on QL16, then south to Paradise Cave, then loop back into town via road DT20.
A fun backpacker adventure experience
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.
Camp inside the world’s 3rd biggest cave
Hang En is a truly enormous cave located amid the jungle within the national park, away from any easy road access — making it one of the more adventurous but also most rewarding caves to visit. The only way to see Hang En is on a 2-day, 1-night tour, with Oxalis Adventure Tours being the only licensed operator.
The expedition is not cheap by any backpacker standards; it costs around $330 for the 2-day experience. While the tour requires a bit more budget than some travellers may be willing to spend, I can say that the experience is absolutely unique and unforgettable. One must also admire the small-scale nature of these expeditions, with no more than 12 people on any given tour and the company being genuinely dedicated to sustainable ecotourism.
The expedition first takes you through the gorgeous scenery of the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, hiking for half a day via jungle paths and through rivers and streams (the water sometimes reaching up to your hips). Porters will carry tents, food, and some of your belongings to the cave, letting you stay there overnight. You’ll get guided explorations of the cave before sunset and just after sunrise, between which you’ll spend the night inside the enormous main cavern, falling asleep to the sound of thousands of swifts who make it their home.
The world’s biggest cave (and the least accessible)
In 2009, Son Doong was confirmed to be the largest cave in the world. Unfortunately, this marvel still eludes the average traveller: it requires high-level caving and rappelling experience, six days of your time, as well as a hefty 3,000 USD fee. There is nevertheless a long waiting list for this expedition.
Son Doong features heavily in any promotion of Phong Nha, with its terraced moss-covered rocks at the entrance lit by glorious sunbeams from above. Just know that Phong Nha’s poster-perfect cave is not one that many will actually get to see. Those with the funds and opportunity to see it will also pass by Hang En cave on the way there.
Other Phong Nha tours
Besides visiting the sights individually, you can also opt to go on an organized adventure tour that hits up some of the top spots, as well as some that normally can’t be done by yourself. Many of the tours include jungle treks, hidden waterfalls, or camping in the jungle. The popular tour operators include:
For example, Oxalis does treks to the Hang Va & Hang Nuoc Nut caves, ideal for anyone who wishes to explore the untouched, rare cave formations (but at a more affordable price than something like Hang En). Their Tu Lan tour offers many of activities such as jungle trekking, cave exploring, river cave swimming, and jungle camping.
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 national park is still full of unexploded ordnance reminiscent from the Vietnam war.
However, it’s worth exploring the area by road, especially if you can ride your own motorbike. You can rent there easily in town for no more than 100,000 VND per day. There are women by the road selling fuel from small dispensers but this is very expensive. There is also a gas station east of town, near Bong Lai Valley.
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.
You can also 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!
Drive through the National Park
A scenic drive through the Phong Nha National Park is well worth it, letting you feast your eyes dense tropical forest and craggy karst mountains. You can either drive a loop that passes by several of the caves (described here) or you can venture deeper into the park by following road DT562 which cuts right through it. Unfortunately, this road does not make a loop and eventually ends at the border of Laos. But you can drive about halfway to the small and scenically located Arem Village, then head back the same way.
Hike to the waterfall
This stop along the road south of Phong Nha village is a bit oddly named. Even though it’s called the Phong Nha Botanical Gardens it’s not really what you might expect, even though various plants and trees are marked with signs.
The site is better known for a 2.5 km hike through the jungle, leading up to a watering hole and small waterfall. It’s not so well known with travellers, most of whom are busy visiting the caves on a short visit, so it’s a great place to go if you want some quiet time in nature.
Stay in Bong Lai Valley
This small valley east of Phong Nha (approx. a 20-minute drive) is a great place to relax for a day. The villagers have collaborated to turn it into a welcoming area, with several guesthouses, eco-farms, and eateries clearly signposted along the rural dirt tracks.
Some popular stops are the Pub With Cold Beer, the Bong Lai Rattan House, and the Bong Lai Swing Nature Farm. Each of these offer cold drinks, meals, and hammocks or swings to chill out. At The Duck Stop, you can play with ducks and make a wish by releasing a duck, which is meant to give you good luck.
There is not much to do around here but to be lazy, or to be like the water buffaloes and chill in the river to stay cool. Some of the local joints offer tractor tubes to float in the river with.
Consider heading 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.
You can also stay the night at various farmstays and homestays in Bong Lai Valley. Away from the busier streets of Phong Nha village, it seems a great way for a weary traveller to slow down for a while.
Party at Easy Tiger
After a long day of exploring, you can 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 in Phong Nha
Bamboo Café – Perhaps a little more pricey than other places in town, but at the same time it is popular among travellers for a good reason. Come in for a great breakfast or try the tofu stir fry.
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.
This guide is based on visiting Phong Nha in 2019. It incorporates earlier contributions by guest writer Elina of Wayfarover, who visited in 2017. Images 3, 4, 5, 6 and 10 were taken by Elina and copyrighted by her.