Its hard to understand just how large the caves that surround Phong Nha are. Hang Son Doong is wide enough that the world's largest plane could easily fly through it and is tall enough that a 40 story building would fit no problem! While it is near impossible to tour (the $3,500 USD price tag keeps it out of most of our reach), at 31 KMs long, Paradise Cave is a good replacement. It's unbelievable to think that an entire marathon can almost be run while inside of a cave! Add to all this the fact that many of the caves in the area have been found within 2 decades, it becomes clear why you should visit Phong Nha now! The town is easy to get to, has great accommodations, and low-cost food making it a perfect stop in central Vietnam.
What to do
The majority of people will come to phong Nha to tour some of the worlds largest caves but stay longer to explore some of the surrounding area or spend time with a local family. Biking through the Long Bai Valley or across the suspension bridges spanning cave feed rivers, its tough to pack up and leave this place!
It is pretty much a guarantee that when you come to Phong Nha you will check out Paradise Cave. If for some reason you miss it, (we get it, it is really expensive but that's no excuse) that is a big mistake! The longest "dry cave" in Asia, the 31+KM long cave is both stunning and massive. The entrance takes you down a dozen flights of stairs into its largest chamber. At over 72 meters tall and 150 meters wide, you instantly get lost in its size.
As it was just found 15 years ago, the introduction of proper lighting and walkways was important thus the setting is still in incredible condition. While you can only walk in about 1 KM with the regular ticket (250,000VND) it is still absolutely worth it even if you are on a really tight budget. If your budget/adventure level permits, you can go on an extra-long tour with park management that takes you about 7KMs deep!
Dark Cave, Hang Son Doong, etc.
In the National Park that surrounds Phong Nha, there are likely thousands of caves, many of them waiting to be explored. Of the ones that have been found and explored, the size has always stunned people. Hang Son Doong Cave was found just 15 years ago and is the largest cave in the world. You can even fly an Airbus A380 (the largest plane in the world) easily through it or place an entire New York City block inside including 40+ story skyscrapers! There are many companies that will take you through any number of different caves in the area. Depending on what your interest is, and how long you have, you can visit Cham villages, underground rivers, mud baths in the pitch black and maybe even spot a new species! Oxalis and Jungle Boss are the two most popular tour companies in the area.
Phong Nha Caves
Phong Nha Cave is the closest to town and is likely the busiest. It is unique as it can only be accessed by taking a longboat down the river to the entrance. The Cave is roughly 7 KM long making it one of the longest wet caves in Asia, though rivers and streams head out in all directions,- many of them underground making the system much larger. What makes this particular cave amazing is the series of inscriptions and alters from the Cham peoples. As they
have not been deciphered and the Cham have lived in the region for thousands of years, they are not sure when they date from but believe they are at least 1000 years old! Access to the cave is on large boats which can take up to 15 people. The boat entire boat costs 550,000VND and each person costs 150,00VND so split the costs with others for a cheaper journey. Getting there early in the day will likely be best as you can wait around for other people to join.
Long Bai Valley
Just outside town is one of the most popular spots to spend the day. The valley at the base of the mountainous national park feeds many of the people in the surrounding areas. The massive fields of rice, corn, peanuts, and herds of nomadic buffalo make it a very attractive area to explore. Numerous restaurants, cafes, and tourist attractions have also popped up like the Nature swing and pub with a cold beer. Our favourite spot is not far away at East Hill Coffee. This amazing spot on the top of the hill overlooks many of the farms with the national park mountains in the background. Go there for sunset and have a full roasted chicken with sticky rice. You will not be disappointed!
Unless you are with a local or have some insider info, you will likely miss this unique experience. If you head along the river towards Phong Nha Cave, you will pass a very small ferry spot. You will likely miss it unless there are locals sitting there. A small wooden boat paddled by an older woman will take you across the 70 meters to a community that is cut off from Phong Nha except for this ferry and a series of large suspension bridges up the road. She takes small donations from tourists but only food or household goods from locals. After getting to the other side of the river, biking between the tiny communities and sprawling rice fields is a highlight of Phong Nha. Eventually, you will find two suspension bridges that are just wide enough for two bikes to pass each other. The second bridge has an amazing backdrop with mountains and rice fields and was a popular spot for filming during the "Alone" music video by Alan Walker and Ava Max.
With a limited public transport system in the city, getting around is pretty much solely done on a tour or a motorbike. Tours can often be busy and too organized which can take away from the experience. Luckily, motorbikes are plentiful and cheap in town allowing you to go at your own pace. We highly suggest renting one as the ride itself is an adventure. The hills get kind of crazy but are super fun and take you into some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world! If you don't feel comfortable on hills, follow the river east past Bomb Crater Bar to Long Bai Valley for a more calming journey.
Covid Conscious Activities
With Covid-19 being such a huge factor in daily life, it is important to take steps towards a safer holiday like trying to limit your daily contact with others. Keep up to date with the latest local advisories and information.
Phong Nha may be most famous for the massive caves that are hidden in the nearby mountains, but there is much more to the town. The caves can be incredibly tough on a good year to enter and we will see how things adapt in the wake of Covid-19. Even if you cant make your way into one of the caves, there are still many covid conscious things that you can do in Phong Nha. The city itself and the surrounding area are perfect to bike or motorbike through all while staying socially distant. Heading through the mountains of the National Park on a motorbike is something you will never forget!
Where to Stay
There are roughly 100 hotels/homestays in Phong Nha so even during the busiest season, you will surely be able to find a place to stay. You will find that they vary dramatically in terms of quality so here are a few good recommendations.
○ Thao Nguyen has to be one of the best homestays in all of Vietnam when comparing quality, service, and price. While it is a bit more expensive then some of the other options (about $25CAD/night), the rooms are top notch and have amazing views. We highly suggest splurging the extra few bucks for the corner suites as the massive windows facing the mountain face are the best thing to wake up to! They also have a private pool at the base of the mountain which is a perfect spot to relax. Finally, their breakfasts are great and they offer about 10 different types of coffee to ensure your day starts off right! The family that runs it has been living in Phong Nha since the first year the National Park opened and before any of the massive caves were found so are incredibly knowledgeable about the area. Ask Linh anything you need and he will happily help out. He also is a great guide taking you to places that serve unique foods like salt coffee and sticky rice with the most amazing dipping sauce!
○ If you are on a really tight budget but want something with quality, Amanda Homestay is for you! It is clean with huge rooms and includes an awesome breakfast and lunch/dinner for purchase. The view alone makes these rooms a top pick let alone the cheap price! Make sure to try the "family special" where you feast with the entire family and anyone else who wants to join. The downside is that it is a bit outside of town so having your own transport is ideal but even if you don't, they offer a pickup service for free or the overnight buses north and south stop at the front door!
○ Gecko Hostel and hotel is your next best budget option especially if you want to stay in town. Offering both shared and private rooms, the price is hard to beat. Don't expect much in terms of amenities but it does offer unlimited coffee in the morning which is a huge perk. The plus of Gecko is that it attracts a lot of young travellers and offers daily tours to the most popular caves and even overnight options.
How to get there and around
Phong Nha is a pretty small town so there are only a few ways to access it. Of course, if you are on your own motorcycle, it is easy to find as it is not far off the main North-South Highway. If you are travelling through Vietnam on an Open Bus ticket, Phong Nha is the main stop between Hue and Tam Coc. The downside is that you will arrive early in the morning if you are coming from the north and likely need to either wait around until a room is ready or pay for the night prior and check-in when you arrive.
The last way to get to Phong Nha is by train and local bus. The Reunification line runs through Dong Hoi, the closest major city, and airport to Phong Nha. From here, there are public busses (as well as many others claiming to be the main bus) that will take you to Phong Nha. Your best bet is to make your way to a bus stop across from the main bus station (about a 15-minute walk from the train station) and wait for Bus B4. This bus will take you to Phong Nha for 40,000VND and get you there in less than an hour. It also passes the airport in case you are flying into Dong Hoi.
Once you are in Phong Nha, there is pretty much no public transportation so the only way to get around is