Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, the absolutely stunning place where the largest cave in the world, Son Doong, is located, is one of those must-visit bucket list places. Mountains, lakes, caves, jungles, extremely exotic and endemic wildlife… this place has it all. Unfortunately, there aren’t many articles that have collected all the useful information out there to provided a detailed guide to interested travelers. This is what I have done for you. This is the ultimate Phong Nha Ke Bang guide detailing accommodation, what to do, and what to eat for travelers of all kinds of budgets.
Phong Nha is still new to tourism, so the natural beauty still remains. The area used to be one of the poorest regions of Vietnam, and development is slow. Not to mention that there are still scars from the Vietnam War. There aren’t many hotels, bars, or restaurants in this part of town, so there isn’t really a whole lot to do except go on a real adventure and get lost in nature. Phong Nha has many spectacular caves to explore, and don’t get me started on the biodiversity! You are sure to learn about animals you never knew existed.
When it comes to your adventure, some of the activities can only be done by booking a tour (all for your safety) and some tours can be as high as 400 USD. Some people think Phong Nha is a little bit expensive to visit but believe me, amazing experiences await you regardless of which budget category you fall under. Everything here is worth it. The tip is to pick the suitable option for your budget and this article is written to help you out. The structure of this article is slightly different than normal because the adventure levels are included for you to make your final decision.
Update: Unfortunately the Vietnamese government has approved the construction of a cable car system in this area, against the wishes of thousands of people. Nature is threatened. We can only hope that this is a clean addition to the park in which it allows tourists to view the area without damaging the ecosystem of the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. We urge you to just please be wary when you travel. Do not throw trash here and there and please, respect the locals.
Phong Nha Ke Bang and Hang Son Doong Cave
Listed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2003, the extraordinary Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is no doubt a desirable place for travelers out there who are hungry for adventure. Formed approximately 400 million years ago, the karst mountains in this national park are considered to be the oldest ones in Asia. Along with that, its hundreds of cave systems and spectacular underground rivers have made Phong Nha the heaven of the world.
Discovered in the early of 1990s, Hang Son Doong is the world’s biggest cave created about two to five million years ago. It’s about 5.5 miles long in length (will take about a week to walk through) and is 650 feet tall at its tallest point. The cave is so large that it has developed its own jungle, beach, river, and ecosystem.
Only 500 people a year are allowed to venture in and this can be done through only one tour company, Oxalis. They do awesome guided tours in caves in Phong Nha, and most of these are arduous – especially the ones in Son Doong. You need to be extremely healthy and fit to be able to handle these tours and oh, you also need to shell out over 3,000 USD. I imagine it is worth it, as not many people have ventured in, and those that have, have left no trace. It will literally be like Jules Verne’s ‘A Journey To The Center Of The Earth’ – going back in time millions of years ago, to an untouched place.
The cave is so large that it has developed its own jungle, beach, river, and ecosystem.
However, don’t lose hope if you can not afford it. You can still explore the other caves, which are just as magical and exciting. You can choose to explore Hang En cave, the third biggest cave in the world where the movie Peter Pan was shot, or visit Kong’s hometown, the Tu Lan cave system. These three caves can be done through the Oxalis tour operator as well. You can click here to go to their website for more details and pictures: Oxalis Adventure Tours. More tour options will be mentioned later in this article.
Weather and Climate
Located in the north of Central Vietnam, Quang Binh (the province in which Phong Nha Ke Bang is located) has the same climate conditions as the rest of the area: tropically hot and humid. The hottest months are from June to August, which is also the best time to visit Phong Nha. The rest of the year, it will be cold (from December to February) or raining and therefore flooding (from August to December). Best to avoid those months.
How Many Days Should You Spend in Phong Nha?
One day is not enough. It’s that simple. Phong Nha is so beautiful and there is so much to see that you need a lot more time. There are day trip tours from Hue to Phong Nha, which we recommend you do not to UNLESS of course, it is your only option.
With two days, you can see some things and it is worth it for sure if you have a time restriction. However, everything will be rushed and you will miss out on some peace and quiet to yourself where you can explore nature’s beauty. Three days or more is ideal, you can spread your activities into two days and relax on the third day. But we recommend four, five, or even six days if you really want some adventure. Make sure you book your accommodation in advance as rooms can run out during high season. You will see a list of great places below.
One day is not enough. Three days or more is ideal.
How to Get There
Being a new tourist destination, getting to Phong Nha will require a little more planning than usual and flexibility on your part. There are planes, trains, and some buses that will drop you off in Dong Hoi – the nearest urban area. There is good news for those traveling from Chiang Mai, Thailand; Jetstar Pacific starts Chiang Mai – Dong Hoi flights twice weekly. It only takes one hour and 40 minutes, and you will be in Dong Hoi.
Below is the information you need about getting from Dong Hoi and to Phong Nha.
Taking the bus is obviously your cheapest option but be prepared to allocate a lot of your time if you’re taking this option. There are buses running the North to South route that you can book from any major urban area in the North. You can get buses from the major cities of Hanoi, Ninh Binh, Hue, Da Nang, and Hoi An among others. Depending on your location and the company you choose, the price will change, however, the general amount is around 250,000 VND. You can book your ticket from one of these trustworthy bus lines:
Please make sure you book your bus through a trustworthy and well-known name as these companies are the ones that care about your safety.
From the South (Hoi Chi Minh), it’s obviously a long route – over 30 hours, and you will make multiple stops along the way in major cities. We don’t recommend you do this journey by bus or train unless you plan to stay over in other cities on the way such as Nha Trang, Da Lat, Hoi An, etc.
Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t actually a bad idea to get a train to Dong Hoi. The soft sleeper bed is comfortable and the timing is acceptable (from Hanoi, of course!). From Saigon, it’s another story. Go to this site to check the availability of seats and bookings to Dong Hoi city: vetau.com.vn.
Payment can only be made using Vietnamese credit cards. Hopefully, it will change soon. It is also important to note that prices vary depending on the type of seat and time of year, but most of the time, it is more expensive than buses.
It’ll be cheaper and more convenient for you if you are booking your flight from Ho Chi Minh because from Hanoi, Vietnam Airlines is the only airline that offers flights to Dong Hoi. The timing is therefore not that flexible as well since you won’t have many options within a day. Generally, prices change depending on the airline, and time of year, and it is more expensive than taking the bus or the train. Your options for airlines include:
To Phong Nha from Dong Hoi
Once you reach Dong Hoi, you will have to carry on to Phong Nha.
It will take you 90 minutes to get to Phong Nha from Dong Hoi by bus. You can get the bus from the Nam Ly bus station (Ben Xe Nam Ly) or at any bus stop on Tran Hung Dao street. The bus number you should keep an eye out for is B4 with a sign that says Dong Hoi – Hoan Lao – Phong Nha shown on the windscreen.
Returning buses depart from Dong Hoi at these times: 5:30 AM, 5:45 AM, 7:10 AM, 8 AM, 9 AM, 10 AM, 11 AM, 1 PM, 2 PM, 3 PM, 4 PM, and 5 PM, so make sure to plan ahead if you don’t want to be stranded.
You can ask your hotel or hostel to arrange a private car. To do this, you should ask them in advance, and give them the details of your arrival time to Dong Hoi Airport. It can cost you around 500,000 VND for a car which is approximately 25 USD. If you travel in a group, it will be cheaper when you share.
Taxis are available in Dong Hoi to Phong Nha. Prices should be between 400,000 VND and 500,000 VND.
Motorbike taxis are also available for this journey and it will cost around 200,000 VND to 250,000 VND. This option is a good one during the day, but at night, we do not recommend that you opt for it.
Now that you know how to get there, here are our recommendations of where to stay, and what to do for low and mid-range budgets.
Phong Nha For Budget Travelers
(Approximated at 25 USD – 50 USD a day)
Accommodation – Where to Stay
Since you are traveling on a budget, a locally owned hotel or hostel is the best fit for you. Here are some recommendations:
1. Easy Tiger hostel, bar, and restaurant
Easy Tiger is a very cool hostel with a bar and restaurant on the ground floor. A plus is the swimming pool! Happy hour starts at 5 PM and ends at 9 PM every day, and there is live music from 6:30 PM to 11 PM almost every day. They only have dorms here, so if you are looking for a cheap private room, look for another hostel.
2. Gecko hostel, restaurant, and bar
Gecko is another hostel in the area for you to consider. With up to 120 beds, you can find both dorms and private rooms here. A restaurant, a cool bar, and tour services are also available. Everything is well-maintained and you do not need to go far to find what you’re looking for.
Price: Starting from 140,000 VND
Phone no.: +84 911 368 316
Address: Phong Nha Tourism Center, Son Trach, Bo Trach, Quang Binh, Vietnam
3. Shambalaa hostel
Just 150 meters from Easy Tiger, you’ll find Shambalaa hostel and they actually work side by side so you can use the facilities of Easy Tiger. Having opened in April 2017, everything in Shambalaa is new, and top that off with Angkor Wat inspired bathrooms. If you want to relax and just hang out, this is your place. And like Easy Tiger, they only have dorms at Shambalaa.
Food and Drink – What to eat
There shouldn’t be any problem finding a cheap meal in Phong Nha. Apart from the restaurants in the hostels, most of your options here are priced according to local tastes. Breakfast in the countryside starts pretty early, around 6:30 AM and it is normally noodles and banh mi. Local places use their front yard as the sitting area, choose these places when you walk around. You can easily have a filling meal for a dollar or two!
You will see some other Vietnamese restaurants as well as you explore the town and these places sell grilled pork or goat meat. Give this a shot, they are pretty delicious! While walking along the Son River in the afternoon, you will be able to also find some cool street food vendors setting up their tables and chairs on the bank. They sell BBQ pork, duck, chicken, and beer. Enjoy this if you have the chance.
Activities – What to Do
Whether you have a week or just two days in Phong Nha, there are some specific places that you should definitely prioritize! You can either do the following by yourself or take a guided tour through your hostel/hotel. Tours are mentioned as the list goes on, and to do it yourself, you will find a map of the Phong Nha loop as you scroll down.
1. Phong Nha and Tien Son Caves
Phong Nha is the first cave in the area that opened to the public. The US Army dropped over a thousand bombs in Central Vietnam including this area during the Vietnam War. Phong Nha cave was actually used during this time as a hospital and a place to hide from the bombs. There were probably many items left over from the war in these caves, but floods come every year and sweep away what’s inside. However, the stories left in the memories of the locals haven’t been washed away.
The only way to visit Phong Nha is by taking the traditional dragon boat from the Xuan Son boat dock. The locals will drive you up the river. You will be rewarded with stunning views of the natural karst mountains and of course, of the local river life.
Tien Son is a smaller dry cave just a few meters above the Phong Nha cave and will take you another two hours to visit. After climbing the 400 stairs, you will have a beautiful view of the quiet town below.
A good way to visit these caves is to join the 9 AM morning talk at Easy Tiger Hostel. You will be provided with all the necessary information about the area and you will also be able to find a good group of people to share the boat with.
To Phong Nha cave: 150,000 VND
To Tien Son cave: 80,000 VND
Boat price (shared):
To Phong Nha: 360,000 VND
To Tien Son: 400,000 VND
2. Paradise Cave
Paradise Cave is the longest dry cave in South East Asia with a length of 31.4 kilometers. If you are in Phong Nha, and you never visit Paradise Cave, then you might as well tell others that you were never in Phong Nha. It is THE place to go. You can easily explore the first kilometer by yourself, but if you want something adventurous, you can take the one-day tour of Paradise Cave that includes a trek of seven kilometers in total. Physical fitness is required for this tour but don’t worry, it’s not too extreme.
Entrance ticket: 250,000 VND
As for the seven-kilometer trekking tour, please contact your hotel/hostel to book.
3. Dark Cave
If you want to put your body through a slight trial, Dark Cave is ideal. In addition to exploring the cave, your activities will include kayaking through the river to get there, having a mud fight in the mud baths inside, swimming in the lake, and zip-lining above the river. The entrance ticket for the Dark Cave including activities is 450,000 VND (including kayaking, zip-lining, equipment, and guide).
There is another part of the Dark Cave, by the way! But to get there, you have to do a 12-kilometer trek/hike through the jungle to the Abandoned Valley at the end of the cave and then swim into the cave from there. It is an amazing and authentic experience. To explore the Abandoned Valley, and the end of the Dark Cave, you should take a tour with Jungle Boss. Tour price is 1,650,000 VND/pax and this includes English speaking guide, porters, transportation, and meals. You will trek through the jungle, up misty mountains, wade up-stream of the river, jump into a freshwater lagoon and swim inside a giant cave. What else do you need?
4. The National Park
Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is the biggest national park in Vietnam and is always mentioned on the list of the must-see parks in Southeast Asia. Famous for its tropical forests, underground rivers, ancient limestone karst mountains, and a vast network of caves, it is definitely worth your visit. There are two ways to explore the park: one is by taking a loop around the national park by motorbike or your other option is to take a tour exploring the jungle. Below is the map from the Easy Tiger hostel which is a great asset if you decide to do it yourself. It shows the Phong Nha loop which includes the must-see caves in order and their details.
Pro tip: You do not have to book a tour to visit the places I have mentioned. Plan your own itinerary and take the boats to reach the caves with the mentioned prices.
Phong Nha for the Mid-Range Travelers (100 USD/day and up)
Phong Nha is getting more and more touristy so the area is developing due to investments. Hotels, homestays with good services, and nice rooms are available throughout. Besides the popular booking sites such as Agoda, and Booking.com, we have some recommendations ourselves:
1. Phong Nha Farm Stay
This French colonial-style designed homestay opened in 2010, Phong Nha Farmstay offers you a really relaxing stay. Located on the edge of Phong Nha National Park and surrounded by rice paddy fields, it is the ideal base for wild adventures or if you want to simply experience local village life. There is a pool and a few hammocks for you to take advantage of! The film crew of the Kong movie picked this place for the crew to stay during filming.
Price range: From 700,000 VND
Booking via email only: [email protected]
Phone: Office: +84 232 367 5135
Mobile: +84 94 475 9864
Address: 1 Km East of Ho Chi Minh Highway, Cu Nam, Khuong Ha, Quang Binh, Vietnam
2. Jungle Boss Homestay
Besides amazing adventures into the jungle, Jungle Boss also has their amazing home to accommodate you. Tuck yourself into the village surrounded by mountains and rivers, and you will get to experience the peaceful life of the countryside of Vietnam.
Price range: From 800,000 VND
Booking: Booking.com or Agoda.
Phone: Office: +84 88 607 7780
Mobile: +84 91 780 0805
Address: Son Trach, Bo Trach, Quang Binh, Vietnam
3. Phong Nha Lake House
Phong Nha Lake House is a luxury place with a cozy atmosphere and well-equipped rooms. Located right ịn the middle of nature and next to a lake, this place is stunning and romantic. If you are on vacation and all you want to do is just relax and refresh, this one would be ideal.
Price range: From 1,200,000 VND
Phone: Office: +84 252 367 5999
Address: Khuong Ha, Hung Trach, Bo Trach, Phong Nha, Quang Binh, Vietnam
Food and Drinks
Vietnamese food and Western food is available in the area. You can check out one of these recommendations:
1. Tuấn Ngọc restaurant (vegetarian-friendly Vietnamese and Western food)
2. D.Art zone (Vietnamese traditional food and drink, also an art shop.)
3. Thang Nhung pork roast (all about pork)
5. Bamboo coffee (Western food)
7. Vietnam capture café (Western food – has very good pizza!)
8. Nguyen Shack (Vietnamese food)
What to Do
You can choose to experience the four places mentioned above by yourself or by taking a tour. The pros of taking a tour are that you don’t need to worry about anything else but booking it. So it is convenient, and it sometimes adds up to be cheaper! Also, you’ll be provided a lot of helpful and interesting facts about the place, the area, and the neighborhood. If you consider taking a tour to those places, just ask the receptionist at the place you are staying. But there is more to Phong Nha that you can experience, especially with a higher budget. Many off-the-beaten-track caves are hidden in the jungle. Some include En cave, Tu Lan cave, or the famous Son Doong cave. Some things you can do include:
– Ride a bike through the countryside of Bong Lai Valley
– Jungle trekking and wildlife in one day
– Jungle trekking and caving in the Abandoned Valley in one day
– One day Jungle hiking in the national park visiting Tra Ang cave and Ma Da Valley
– 2D1N trekking in the national park and experience Abandoned and Ma Da Valley
– Hang Tien cave discovery – the largest cave in Tu Lan system (1 or 2 days)
– Jungle camp and explore Hang En – the third largest cave in the world (1 or 2 days)
– Hang Va expedition – the unforgettable experience (1 or 2 days)
– Son Doong the extraordinary cave of the world (many days)
– Eco-conservation tour (eco trail)
Some popular tour operators you can opt for are Farmstay Tours, Phong Nha Caves Tours, Discovery Tours, Easy Tiger Tours, Hai’s Eco Tours, and of course, Oxalis. These offer the tours mentioned above and way more!
Whatever options you choose, I guarantee your excitement and awe.
Tips and Tricks
1. Cash or credit card?
Please get enough cash out before you visit Phong Nha. There is only ONE ATM in town and it can be inconvenient. Sometimes the ATM doesn’t even work. Plus, many shops have a hard time breaking 500,000 VND notes, so make sure you bring some change. Credit cards aren’t widely accepted in Phong Nha either unless you are at major hotels and restaurants. Expect to pay in cash at all times and prepare beforehand.
2. Dress code
Phong Nha itself and the people here still are traditional in the way they think. Do not wear a bikini walking around the village or wear something that exposes your skin too much. And you will probably be taking part in many crazy activities in the jungle, pack some things that are comfortable, and long enough to cover your skin from bugs or insects. You can definitely find leeches in these jungles.
3. Flooding season
Flooding season is usually from mid-September until mid-November every year, and is periodic and not continuous. Make sure to check the weather forecast in advance before you travel to Phong Nha. Heavy flooding affects the availability of tours.
4. Public holidays
During Tet (February, dates change every year depending on the lunar calendar), April 30th – May 1st (Reunification Day) and September 2nd (Independence Day), transport may be extremely hard to come by, especially during Vietnamese New Year (Tet). You’ll probably have to end up paying premium prices for private transfers if you don’t plan months in advance.
Easy Tiger Hostel has the best map of Phong Nha that you should use. The friendly staff will help if you need anything.
The market in Phong Nha is located along the main road, just between the Best BBQ Pork & Noodle Shop in the World and the Phong Nha Tourism Center. Go test your bargaining skills out! Opening hours are 6-11 AM and then 2-6 PM. You can find basic items such as hats, socks, flip-flops, raincoats, snacks, etc but not proper trekking gear and clothing.
7. Medical care
There is a small medical clinic located near the entrance to town that offers very basic medical care to anyone in need. No English is spoken at the clinic so you will have to go with a local friend. There is also a pharmacy located at the front of the Phong Nha market, just off to the left. It is open from 7 AM to 7 PM and sells basic medicine for flu, headaches, stomach aches, etc. If you are in need of more serious medical care, you will need to go to Dong Hoi Cuba Hospital (one-hour transfer) or even Hue International Hospital (four-hour transfer).
If you need a massage after a hard day of adventure, Lemon Tree Nail & Spa is where you should go.
9. Renting bicycles or motorbikes
Some accommodations in town offer bicycles and motorcycles for rent for free (Farmstay, Pepperhouse, Ho Khanh’s). There are other rental places around the town as well.
10. Phong Nha Nightlife
There are many karaoke joints on the main road in which you can sing your heart out to some Backstreet Boys or Westlife for just 80,000 VND (4 USD) an hour. Some hostels have their own awesome bars such as Gecko Bar and Buffalo Pub. Check out Bomb Crater Bar as well! But you know what you should do? Get to bed early and enjoy the caves and parks!
If you just embarked upon one of the best adventures of your life with an incredible guide, a tip is a good idea. However, a really nice gesture is to bring along new items that these guides may not be able to find in Vietnam. These can include quick-dry shirts, athletic socks, or water bottles.
Phong Nha Hospital (more like a medical clinic): +84 (0)52 3677047
Phong Nha Police Station: +84 (0)52 3677009
Dong Hoi Police Station: +84(0)52 3822142
Quang Binh Immigration Office: +84(0)52 3828648
Police: 052 113
Fire Station: 052 114
Ambulance: 052 115
I hope this article does what I intended it to do. Now plan your trip – adventure awaits!
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