Self-Guided Adventure in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park of Vietnam

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park | Introduction

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is located in central Vietnam, about a four-hour drive from Hue. This nature reserve is famed for its spectacular cave systems and the world's largest karst landscapes, making it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Covering an area of approximately 2,000 square kilometers, it borders Laos. The area is a limestone mountain region that includes over 400 caves, the most famous of which is Son Doong Cave (also known as Mountain River Cave), discovered in 2009, with a single cave length of at least five kilometers.

If you want to save time, the simplest way is to find a day trip departing from Hue. If you're planning to stay for a few more days, you can take a bus from Da Nang or Hue. If you're coming from a farther city, taking a plane might be the most time-saving way. Flying to Phong Nha, you can land at the nearby Dong Hoi Airport, and it's about a forty-minute car ride from Dong Hoi City to Phong Nha town.

Phong Nga Kepong National Park | Transportation

If you want to save time, the easiest thing to do is to look for the best products from therationalizationA day trip is available. If you are planning to stay for a few more days, you can take a bus from Da Nang or Hue. If you are traveling from farther cities, flying is probably the most time-saving way. If you are flying to Phong Nga, you can take a plane to Dong Hoi airport, and then take a taxi from Dong Hoi city to Phong Nga city for about 40 minutes.

Upon arrival, you can look for a travel agency or rent a car; or, for a self-driving tour, renting a motorbike is an option. Fengya City is a small place, so for convenience, a regular hotel can easily assist with car rental arrangements.

Phong Nga Ki Peng National Park | Attractions

The three main attractions for tourists visiting Phong Nha: Paradise Cave, Phong Nha Cave, and Dark Cave, can all be visited by purchasing tickets on your own. If you know how to ride a motorcycle, I highly recommend renting one to visit Dark Cave and Paradise Cave. The entire area around Phong Nha Town is part of a national park. Referring to the map below, starting from Phong Nha Town and taking Highway 20 to Ho Chi Minh Highway, you can make a complete loop. This loop has many places with beautiful scenery, considered a scenic route. Renting a vehicle offers more freedom as you can stop whenever you want, allowing for a closer look at Phong Nha and the mountain views, which are much more stunning than what you see from inside a vehicle.

If you ride a bike instead of driving, there's a shortcut you can take before joining the Ho Chi Minh Highway East. It leads through a motorcycle-exclusive iron bridge, then straight ahead through a country lane, and finally joins the Ho Chi Minh Highway West. If you're worried about getting lost, you could download Google Maps on your phone in advance. Such paths are probably frequently used by the locals, but for us city folks, it turns into an interesting experience. Occasionally, there's mud on the road and water buffaloes blocking the way, requiring you to honk to ask them to move aside.

A full tank of gas should be more than enough to make a complete loop. The 125cc scooter we rented was actually in average condition. Riding on the backroads to Paradise Cave took about an hour, during which we used about a quarter of a tank of fuel.

After completing a loop, if there's still time, one can continue southward towards the direction of 8 Lady Cave to enjoy different sceneries along the way. There are a few small temples and the like, which can be considered attractions, but these places are secondary. The main attraction is appreciating the scenery along the way. The mountain views far from the Phong Nha town area are more pristine. The tourism industry in Vietnam is working hard on development, and it's uncertain whether the original appearance of the mountain ranges can still be seen in a few years.

Dark Cave

The Dark Cave is most suitable for tourists who like thrills and know how to swim, as entering to see the Black Hole requires swimming. It is designed with a water park adjacent, where visitors can enjoy activities such as zip-lining, mud baths, diving, and more. However, the timing needs to be right. When we visited in December, it was considered a very cold winter for the locals, and all the water activities were closed. The Black Hole and nearby attractions like the MOOC Spring Eco trail were simply not open.

Phong Nha, Phong Nha, Phong Nha Kepong National Park 18

Paradise Cave

Paradise Cave is a must-visit cavern in Phong Nha, being the world’s longest single cave with an actual length of at least 31 kilometers, which is quite spectacular. If you're coming by bike, you can park at the parking lot at the entrance, with a parking fee of 5k Vietnamese Dong. The ticket price is 250k Vietnamese Dong, which you can purchase directly at the ticket booth. Although it's not mentioned at the ticket booth, we got a 20% discount since we visited during the off-season. From the ticket entrance to the cave entrance, there's a bit of a walk. If you really can't manage it, you can buy an additional ticket for an electric cart to enter. The trail is somewhat like a Nature trail, approximately a ten-minute walk, and is actually quite easy to manage.

Upon arriving at the entrance of Paradise Cave, it appears quite small from the outside, but stepping inside reveals the cavern's astonishingly large interior. Only the first kilometer of the cave is open for general visitors to explore with a ticket. At the end of this kilometer-long trail, there's a small door, and beyond that, a professional guide is required to proceed. In Phong Nha Caves, the caves are formed by river erosion of limestone and can be broadly classified into dry caves and river caves. Dry caves are dry inside, while river caves still have rivers flowing through them. Paradise Cave is the most accessible large dry cave, and it looks even more spacious inside than it does in photos.

The Vietnamese government has paved easy-to-walk paths inside the cave and installed lighting, making the atmosphere inside the cave even more imposing and creating a sense of solemnity. Here, one can see many strange and giant limestone formations. In some places, layers of natural pools have formed, all due to the varying flow rates of rivers during the erosion process. However, if you were the first person to enter this cave, you might really think you've stepped into a realm of gods and demons, no wonder it's named Paradise Cave.

If walking one kilometer with a group, one would need to walk fast. We observed that groups only stay at this spot for about an hour, which might not be enough for those who prefer to take their time and enjoy the scenery. Many of the large stone pillars actually have Vietnamese names, such as the Kỳ Trần Tower, for example. The stalactites that gradually melt from the top down take 100 years to grow just one centimeter, meaning the formation of this miraculous cave took millions of years.

Phong Nha Cave

Phong Nha Cave is a River Cave system, with the majority of its expanse lying below the river, making boat access necessary. The tour of this attraction takes about two and a half hours and is fairly easy, primarily consisting of a boat ride with the option of walking along a trail in the upper section of the cave on the return journey. According to locals, the name Phong Nha in Vietnamese means "Wind Tooth," where "wind" refers to the sound of wind that can be heard from the entrance of Phong Nha Cave during winter, and "tooth" describes the shape of the stalactites.

Phong Nha, Phong Nha, Phong Nha Kepong National Park 55

The ticket office is located at the intersection in Phong Nha town area, where they sell both entrance tickets and boat tickets together. The entrance ticket costs 200k, with a 20% discount during the off-season, while the boat ticket is priced per boat, with one boat costing 55kK and can seat up to 12 people. If the number of people coming is small, you can join with other travelers nearby to share a boat. Even though it was the off-season, after telling the lady at the ticket office we hoped to share a boat with others, it took less than a minute before a Vietnamese family of five arrived. The lady at the ticket office helped explain to us, and we successfully joined together to take one boat. The boat ride to the entrance of Phong Nha Cave takes about 25 minutes, and the river and mountain scenery along the way are quite beautiful.

The boat advanced towards the entrance of the cave, and once inside, the motor was turned off, switching to manual paddling. The entrance of the cave was quite narrow and the water level high, requiring the lady rowing the boat to stand up and use her hands to control the direction by pushing against the ceiling, making it quite an adventurous experience. Once crossing the entrance, the interior was rather spectacular, with the shapes of the stalactites imagined by the Vietnamese to resemble various figures such as children in the cave, faces on the cave ceiling, lions, Buddha, etc. Those interested in stories could find a guide for more insights. Our fellow Vietnamese travelers, on the other hand, were very enthusiastic, occasionally using Google Translate to explain things to us.

After turning back at the very end of the cave, the boat docked in the middle of the cave to let us disembark. We walked back to the cave entrance on a trail and then took the boat back to our starting point. This trail wasn't long and, like Paradise Cave, was a showcase of nature's incredible craftsmanship. However, the terrain here was slightly different. The watermarks on the stones were more pronounced, the pillars of rock much thicker, and many areas had a greenish hue.

Activities | Caving adventure tours

Aside from places like Paradise Cave, if you've already taken the time to visit Phong Nha, and if time, financial resources, and physical condition allow, it's highly recommended to deeply explore the original caves. Phong Nha-Ke Bang boasts one of the largest karst landscapes in the world, and as of 2022, only 40% of the caves have been explored, totaling over 400. Although Paradise Cave and Phong Nha Cave are both very large, there are still many more spectacular caves. In Phong Nha, there are adventure tours open to the general public exclusively offered by Oxalis, a company guided by British exploration teams. Their tours include the world's largest Son Doong Cave, which is more challenging and requires four days and three nights to complete. The world's third-largest cave, Hang En, which is less difficult, still requires two days and one night.

The activities during the tour included abseiling, swimming, traversing through extremely narrow caves, climbing, and more. We visited Phong Nha in December. Due to our limited time and the colder weather not being suitable for swimming, we only participated in two of Oxalis's simpler one-day tours, which also included abseiling, climbing, and so on—it was a genuine adventure. I've shared our experiences with this part of the trip in this detailed article. From our own experience, we can confirm that caving adventures definitely require the assistance of a professional team for the average person. The cost of the trip is not cheap, but the services provided by a professional team are absolutely worth it.

Phong Nha City | Accommodations and Cuisines

If you plan to spend several days in Phong Nha, there are two options for lodging: one is to stay in the nearby Phong Nha City, and the other is to live in the larger Dong Hoi City, which is about 40 minutes away.

Find a stay in Phong Nha?

Find a stay in Dong Hoi?

I recommend staying in Phong Nha Town, not only because of its proximity but also because this rural district is vastly different from other tourist cities in Vietnam, which is a major reason. Phong Nha is a small place. According to local residents, it was very poor until before 2010. It was not until 2011, when the world's largest cave was discovered, that it became a truly world-famous attraction and began to take the tourism industry seriously. Most residents are still engaged in agriculture to this day. Even the guides who can speak foreign languages come from a farming background. If you have visited other well-known tourist cities in Vietnam, you will find that the atmosphere here is completely different. Not to mention the vast rural landscapes that can be seen along the roadsides, the people are also very, very simple and honest.

The small drawback of being in a small place is that there are fewer options for shopping and food, and even transportation, but it isn't really inconvenient. You can find grocery stores by the roadside where the prices aren't high, at least the snacks are cheaper than in hotels.

Hotel Review | Victory Road Villas

  • Room: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Facility: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Location: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Price: $$
  • Overall Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Our accommodation was at Victory Road Villas, which is a pricier option in the Phong Nha area. It's a bit away from the busiest part of town, but we didn't find it inconvenient since we either rode scooters or were picked up by the travel agency whenever we went out. Besides being fully equipped, what I actually loved the most was the river view outside the hotel.

The interior of the room is very spacious, comprising two floors, including a living room, kitchen, dining room, and even an outdoor bath.

After spending several days there, we had a dinner and three breakfasts at the hotel restaurant. The breakfast was included in the accommodation fee. It was served à la carte with a wide variety of options, including both Vietnamese and Western dishes. It also included some Western options that would be quite expensive if ordered separately, and they were quite delicious.

Victory Road Villas

Recommended Restaurants | Thang Nhung Restaurant

  • Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Price: $

 Thang Nhung restaurant is located just past the ticket office of Phong Nha Cave, down a street. It appears to be a simple roadside diner, rather unassuming. The owner doesn't speak much English, but the menu is available in English and includes pictures, making it easy for foreigners to order. The selection of dishes is extensive, offering various fried rices and Vietnamese phở. However, their must-try is the country-style grilled pork. On our first visit, we ordered the pork fried rice and a beef-pork mixed phở. The grilled pork was so delicious that we specifically made a trip back from the hotel to eat here a second time. For our second visit, we opted for grilled pork rice and pork noodles, which taste amazing with a bit of chili sauce added.

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