Before finalizing a place to travel there is something that draws you to the destination, Phong Nha Ke Bang was that attraction for me. I stumbled upon a picture of one of the majestic caves of Phong Nha and, for the lack of words, it took my heart away.
The first known writing about the cave system was somewhere in 1550 followed by a number of exploration by Vietnamese as well as foreign explorers. However, this pristine untouched forest and the purest limestone massive was given UNESCO world heritage status in the year 2003. It came to me as a shock that the place was opened to tourism only a few years back.
Reaching Phong Nha:
Due to the increasing tourism Phong Nha has become easily accessible by rail, road and air. If you are coming from Ho Chi Minh City the best way is to take a flight till Dong Hoi which takes about 1 hour 30 minutes after reaching the airport get out on the highway and hop on a local bus that takes another 90 minutes to reach Phong Nha (30,000 VND). In case you do not wish to wait for the local bus take a taxi, they may ask you anywhere from 500,000 VND to 1,000,000 VND bring them down to about 400,000 VND. Another way is to book a taxi with the place you are staying, in case there are more than 1 person the cost goes down accordingly.
From other parts of Vietnam like- Hue, Hoi An, Hanoi– one can take an overnight bus till Dong Hoi or a Train. If you are not traveling on a tight budget and want a comfortable journey my suggestion is to take a train (anywhere in Vietnam).
Where to Stay:
There are plenty of options to stay for the budget and high range travelers alike. My suggestions:
I had stayed at the Easy Tigers, it is very conveniently located near the bus stop and the boat station which takes you to the Phong Nha Caves. Every morning they give you general information about the caves which is very helpful to plan you adventure in the vicinity. Most of the buses from Phong Nha to another city in Vietnam run in the night giving you plenty of time to explore the area, you can keep your belongings in the locker and merrily do so.
When I saw the photo of Phong Nha cave which led me to Vietnam, I had no idea the reality would be way better than what I was in that tiny frame. I managed to visit a few of the 300 caves and the only regret was missing out on the Son Doong Cave which is the world’s largest cave! These caves are not only of geological importance but also has great historic importance. They were used as bomb shelters, ammunition depots and hospitals during the American war.
To reach Phong Nha and Tien Son caves you have to take a boat- note that the boat has a capacity of 14 people the cost is shared by the number of people in the group so if you are traveling alone chances are you will end up paying 250,000 VND just for the boat ride, try to find a group to share the cost. The boat ride till the caves is beautiful in its own way the area is scenic enough for you to daze away in the beauty of untouched nature only to notice that you are approaching a wide opening in one of the huge limestone massive- Enter Phong Nha Cave (Fee- 150,000 VND). The boat ride inside the cave is about 20 minutes, after which we were left to explore the cave on foot. Once we got out of the Phong Nha cave we made our way to the Tien Son Cave (80,000 VND) which was an extremely tiring hike! Unlike the previous cave here is a clearly laid out staircase that goes through the grand structure.
By the time I was back, it was too late to visit another cave hence I picked a bicycle and explored the serenity of the countryside. The locals are extremely friendly and are always eager to help or strike a conversation. Once can easily spend the rest of the day cycling through the paddy fields and relaxing by the river (or taking a dip) only to restore the energy required the next day.
The Paradise cave (opened to public in 2011) can be best reached by a motorbike – a number of options available to rent one in about 100,000 VND- the roads can get slippery due to the rain so make sure you ride around the area only if you are sure of your riding skills. Another cave that you can (and must) visit on your own is the Dark Cave here you zip-line your way inside the caves, get real muddy walking your way through it, wash off in the river and kayak your way out on the land- sounds amazing isn’t it?
Other things to do:
Apart from the above mentioned caves there are a number of cave system that are not advisable to reach without a tour operator since the park has one of the highest concentration of unexploded ordnance in the world. You can take one of the tours to the Tu Lan cave or Son Doong cave – I recommend taking an overnight tour to these caves as a lot of time goes in hiking through the jungle to reach them also camping in the caves would be closest to a magical experience.
The national park has to offer one of the hardest eco trail and a large number of fauna & flora, one can hike their way to a new adventure. And at the end of the adrenaline packed day you can choose to relax by the Mountain River Café, order special chocolate coffee and let the mesmerizing beauty of Phong Nha Ke Bnag leave you breathless.
I would love to know about your experience in Phong Nha and suggestions. If you want more information feel free to comment, or write to me.