Phong Nha: Everything You Need to Know
Deep in the heart of central Vietnam lies an ancient landscape made up of dense jungle, snaking rivers, and limestone karsts. Beneath all of it lies one of Vietnam’s most precious gems: its prehistoric cave systems. Phong Nha is blessed with them, some of which are so big they could fit skyscrapers inside them. The cave networks of Phong Nha are one of Vietnam’s best kept secrets. Only brave tourists venturing that far off the beaten track.
Most visitors come for the colossal cave systems, but there’s much more to discover. Spend a bit of time in the area and you’ll find Phong Nha has many more treasures. Hikes through untouched jungle offer a glimpse into a rich and diverse ecology. Bike trips through mesmerising valleys make for unforgettable memories. Though Phong Nha remains undiscovered by the masses, increasing tourism threatens the unspoiled beauty of the destination.
Make time for it now before it’s too late.
Phong Nha: Why You Need to Go
Phong Nha is the perfect destination for those who want something genuine. Tourists can be the worst part about travelling, but Phong Nha is regulated heavily to protect the delicate ecosystem.
Besides, the largest cave in the world, Son Doong Cave, was only discovered in 2009 and other giant caves are still being stumbled upon today. There’s a likelihood that there could be yet another giant cave sitting untouched, just waiting to be discovered. Outside of these enormous cave systems, is dense, magical jungle to trek through, making any adventurer feel like a pioneer in this majestic rural landscape.
The largest caves in the world
If you want to feast your eyes on something truly unique, Phong Nha is for you. With many of the world’s largest caves, huge unexplored areas, and a real chance of getting happily lost, Phong Nha offers an experience unlike anything else.
Expeditions to caves like Hang Pygmy, the 4th largest cave in the world, offer a challenging gauntlet, but it’s ultimately a rewarding experience that culminates in jaw-dropping views. Different experiences like Tra Ang, which has only been open to visitors for two years, give you the chance to swim through almost 1km of underground river – don’t forget your GoPro for this trip.
There are also budget-friendly caves for backpackers on a budget, like Paradise Cave, and Dark Cave, offering less tourism and more adventure, including zip-lining, swimming, and a naturally formed mud bath.
For more on caves, check Top 10 Caves That Will Blow Your Mind.
Other outdoor pursuits
We’ve mentioned the unspoiled natural beauty of Phong Nha already, but we really can’t stop talking about it! Neither will be you after you visit. As well as being a relatively undiscovered treasure in Vietnam, Phong Nha has a rich ecology and history. You can track the American War through a hike on the Ho Chi Minh Trail then marvel at the lush forest.
Meandering through Bong Lai Valley is such a peaceful pastime that it would be ridiculous to not take a break from your busy caving schedule to take part. Phong Nha might be for the brave, but even the brave need a break at some point.
Along the way you’ll stop off at some of the local drinking haunts like the Pub with Cold Beer, or ride the notorious water buffalo, named Donald Trump, at the Duck Stop. What better way to break up the trip than with drinks, ducks and Donald?
For more on why Phong Nha is a must-visit destination, check 7 Reasons Why You Must Visit.
The Best Caves in Phong Nha
Hang Pygmy Cave
Hang Pygmy is often nicknamed the ‘little’ sister cave of Hang Son Doong (the largest cave in the world). But, as the fourth largest cave in the world, referring to it as ‘little’ in any context doesn’t seem quite right. With a recently established trail, a trip to Hang Pygmy offers a sincere sense of adventure. Prepare to test yourself, Hang Pygmy doesn’t give up her inner beauty quite so easily, but it’s more than worth it.
Son Doong Cave
The biggest cave in the world, Song Doong’s largest chamber is so tall it could fit a 40-storey skyscraper inside and contains its own rainforest with trees up to 30 metres tall. Want to do something a little different to the rest of the backpacker crowd? This is for you.
While Tiger Cave is not one of the biggest caves in Phong Nha, it does carry its own unique sense of adventure. Unlike other caves in the area, Tiger Cave is still very rugged and unexplored, requiring challenging scrambles and low climbs in order to reach its dark inner births.
Hang Over Cave
This 3.2km stretch begins with a long, narrow shaft and leads towards a superb grotto, full of stalagmites, stalactites, and pools, ending in its own unique jungle. Don’t take on Hang Over with a hangover, you’ll need all your wits about you.
Located in the heart of the National Park, Elephant Cave offers a challenging trek through the dense jungle canopy between the trail-head and the cave. Once you make it there, you’ll discover a jaw-dropping cave mouth that is 60 metres high and 300 meters long.
Tra Ang Cave
One of Phong Nha’s oldest and most unexplored caves, Tra Ang only opened to visitors within the last two years. You’ll have to summit the cave’s own craggy mouth to get inside and once you’re in, you’ll swim through the river that runs through it. Do you have what it takes?
Unlike many of the other caves in Phong Nha, Paradise Cave is easily accessible and cheap – you can drive up to its entrance and pay a few dollars to get in. This is the cave for those who really don’t want to walk too much!
It’s Not Just About Caves: Trekking, Biking, Cycling and Eating in Phong Nha
Now, treks and hikes within Phong Nha are hardly a walk in the park. This is an area of scarcely explored, dense jungle. Phong Nha is ideal for any hiker with moderate experience looking to take their adventure to the next level.
Here you can be closer to Vietnam’s history, both recent and prehistoric. This unspoiled tropical forest was a focal point in the American War, which means you can hike through the original Ho Chi Minh trail to the Abandoned Valley in the heart of the National Park. There are pristine waters to dive into, along with diverse ecological life and scrambles up rocky cliffs. You won’t find anything like this anywhere else in the world.
Taking a bike around Phong Nha is an absolute must if you’re not diving in and out of the caves. You won’t want one of those rickety upright bikes you’ve seen the locals riding around on though. These roads are muddy and full of dips and dives, so you’ll need to set yourself up with a nice reliable mountain bike. Easily one of the most relaxing places in the world to visit on two wheels, Phong Nha caters to budding cyclists as well as adventurers.
It’s possible to hire a motorbike, though it can be a little dangerous for the inexperienced biker. If that doesn’t sound very appealing, you can always book a tour with Thang’s Phong Nha Riders. These guys will take you around for around $20 and know all the ins and outs of the local area.
The best place to go for a bike tour in the local area has got to be Bong Lai Valley. Full of winding back roads, picturesque villages and sleepy rivers, Bong Lai Valley offers a fantastic mix of authentic culture and stunning scenery. Feel the wind in your hair, the rush of the scenery rolling past your eyes, and the inescapable sensation of freedom, only in Phong Nha.
While the food may be the central point of this section, one place stands out amongst the rest. Initially ‘discovered’ by Ben, a local expat, The Pub with Cold Beer has become a beacon for foodies and has appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post and The Guardian.
Few things satisfy an intrepid adventurer like a nice, cold beer after a long day of exploring.
All the food in Phong Nha is delicious but nothing is fresher than the chicken at The Pub with Cold Beer. You can even kill it yourself, if you’re into that sort of thing.
For more on what to do in Phong Nha (other than caving), check out our guide on Tour Options.
Getting to Phong Nha
A word on buses
While it’s possible to go to the companies directly, these days, with price comparison websites, everything has become that little bit easier. There are a few websites like BaoLau, Vexere and 12go.asia, which provide easy comparisons for trains, buses, and planes throughout different parts of Asia, all of which include Vietnam, so it’s best to check there first.
Getting from Dong Hoi station to Phong Nha
Annoyingly, Dong Hoi train station and Dong Hoi bus terminal are not next to one another. If you arrive by train and don’t want to spring for a taxi, you can either choose to walk (30 minutes) or take a taxi (5-10 minutes at 25,000vnd). Once you’re at Dong Hoi bus station, the bus will cost around 35,000vnd. Either way, the travel time will take around 2 hours, possibly more.
Hanoi to Phong Nha
Travel time: 9 hours
Mid-range: Train + bus or taxi
Cost: 650,000 – 1,200,000vnd
Travel time: 11 hours
Cost: 2,000,000 – 3,500,000vnd
Travel time: 4-6 hours
Hue to Phong Nha
Travel time: 4.5 hours
Mid-range – Train + bus or taxi
Cost: 150,000 – 700,000vnd
Travel time: 4.5 hours
Luxury – Private Car
Travel time: 4 hours
Hoi An/Danang – Phong Nha
Cost: 250,000 – 300,000vnd
Travel time: 8 hours
Mid-range: Bus + train + bus/taxi
Cost: 250,000 – 700,000vnd
Travel time: 9 – 10 hours
Luxury: Private car
Cost: 4,000,000 – 4,500,000vnd
Travel time: 6 hours
Saigon to Phong Nha
Cost: 1,800,000 – 2,800,000
Travel time: 4-6 hours
For more information on how to get to Phong Nha, have a read of this guide.
Where to Stay in Phong Nha
Best Budget Option: Thien Phu Hostel
A cheaper alternative to Easy Tiger, Thien Phu Hostel is just over the road, which means guests can still get involved in the fun in the Jungle Bar, while having a simpler backpacking experience.
Rooms are under 200,000vnd, but unlike Easy Tiger, Thien Phu has single, double, family and twin rooms available, along with large shared dorms.
Best Mid-range Option: Jungle Boss Homestay
This homestay offers something a little different from the rest. With an adjacent organic farm, along with rice paddy fields, we have organic meals and western comforts. Definitely check out this unique experience, available only in Phong Nha.
Best Luxury Option: Victory Road Villas
There is just one luxury option in Phong Nha: The Victory Road Villas. It’s a blend of high-end western luxury and traditional style.
A villa at Victory Road Villas will set you back around 3,000,000vnd per night and provide you with a very different approach to Phong Nha’s usual lifestyle. Perfect for anyone seeking a more opulent time in Phong Nha.
Best Out-of-town Option: Phong Nha Farmstay
Surrounded by rice paddy fields, sitting on the edge of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, sits Phong Nha Farmstay. Opened by Ben, an expat and pioneer in Phong Nha’s tourism, the Farmstay has become a central location for the area. They also provide a charming hand-drawn map for you to use when exploring.
With a range of rooms from standard double to family available, the farm has everything you need. There’s also a spa and wellness centre, you can stay on the farm from around 1,500,000VND and up per night.