Asia,  TDM,  Travel Journal,  Vietnam

The National Park of Phong Nha – Ke Bang (Vietnam): Discovering the most beautiful caves of the country

Phong Nha Park has long been famous for its beautiful caves, but it is from 2009, thanks to the discovery of the largest cave in the world “Sơn Đoòng”, that tourist services are as accelerated. Now it is very easy to get to Phong Nha.

Part 1: Travel Diary
Part 2: Practical Tips

Part 1: Travel Diary

How to get there

We took a bus from Hoi An. A minibus comes to pick us up at the hotel at 1:30 pm to drop us in front of a big bus (with bunks) which leaves at 2 pm and arrives at 10 pm in Phong Nha. On the way, we change for a smaller bus (with bunks) in Hue, and we stop around 7pm on the way for dinner.
Note: both buses have toilets

Day 1

I believe that from the minute we start this trip, I’m taken for either the waitress, the driver’s assistant or a tour guide. Maybe for Europeans, Asians all look alike, so we are all put in the same basket. For example, at the restaurant where we had dinner, I was taken for a waitress and asked for the bill ahaha.

We are deposited in front of Phong Nha hostel. The city is tiny, we walk 1 minute to our Hang En hotel, which is rather a homestay. The welcome is super warm, the owners give us the best room with a view on the mountains.

It is much colder than in Hoi An (14 degrees – plus in the mountains, so very wet and cold) and we are happy to have hot water in the bathroom.

They give us a detailed map of the region and a catalog of guided tours which unfortunately do not interest us too much.

Day 2, MORNING: Phong Nha Cave & Tien Son Cave

We have breakfast at 9am and then we take 2 steps to go and buy the boat tickets to go to Phong Nga winery and Tien Son winery

Practical information

To visit these two cellars, it is mandatory to take a boat with a maximum capacity of 12 people (contrary to what Google Maps shows)

You can either visit the Phong Nha cellar, in this case you have to pay 360 000VND for the boat + 130 000VND entrance ticket per person

You can visit both Phong Nha and Tien Son winery. In this case, it is necessary to pay 400 000VND for the boat + 130 000VND + 80 000VND of entrance tickets per person

360 000VND or 400 000VND is the price of a boat able to hold up to 12 people. As a result, tourists tend to group together and share the costs.

To find the location of the departure of the boats, type “Phong Nha Cave Boat Station” on Google Maps

Before going to the ticket office, I had in mind the idea of privatizing a boat for the two of us, because few people visit both cellars at the same time.

When I arrived, there were 2 German couples, so naturally, they were offered to come with us. The saleswoman wants us to pay AND the boat AND the entrance tickets. I translate this info for everyone. While everyone is preparing the money, other couples of tourists arrive, decide to join us and that’s where the confusion starts. We are 11 in all to leave together (the boat can take 12 people max).

Seeing me recalculating the rates, playing the interpreter and organizing the payments, the misunderstanding of settling: the others think I’m a tourist guide who will accompany them.

In addition, some situations require only one person to take care of it: for example, giving the boat receipt to a guy to get his boat number back; or having everyone’s tickets validated. I naturally do all this and I look more like a tour guide than ever.

Even the Vietnamese in the group think so and keep asking me questions, which I know how to answer too: D it is only halfway through that they all realize that I am NOT a guide.

We arrive at the end of 20 minutes by boat in front of the Phong Nha cellar. We first visit the Phong Nha cellar by entering it by boat.

Inside the cellar, the engine is turned off and the rowers take us inside the cellar, for 1km by boat. The cellar is more than 7km long, and at the bottom of the cellar was an emergency service/hospital during the Vietnam war. However, with regular floods, there is almost nothing left there.

On the boat there is a photographer who proposes to the tourists to take pictures that she will print. She has to accompany the boats as soon as there are 2 Vietnamese on the boat (because only Vietnamese are interested in this service, not foreigners).

practical info

The photographer develops the photos within the hour (at the end of the course), and charges 20,000VND/photo. In our case, we simply asked her to send them to us by email. The quality really leaves something to be desired, taking pictures in the darkness of a cellar requires a certain technical mastery that she doesn’t really have.

So, spontaneously, when the photographer learned that I was not a tour guide, she stood on the front of the boat and explained the history of the cellar that I translate to foreign tourists. Both of us do this in a spontaneous and disinterested way. The rowers, who are very happy to have someone who is bilingual, also let me translate for foreigners.

The situation is really very funny, because in the minds of foreign tourists, it isn’t yet very clear. Am I their guide or not? It wouldn’t surprise me that at the end of the trip, someone leaves an opinion on Tripadvisor “the cellars are beautiful, but the guide doesn’t take care of us very well, she’s all the time stuck to a Frenchman, and leaves us tofend for ourselves. The explanations are brief, unworthy of a professional guide”.

After the boat ride with two rowers (one in front, one behind), they drop us off at a small sandy beach, where we can explore the cellar on foot.

The route is very easy, even for seniors, but not to the point of being wheelchair accessible (in my articles, I try to integrate “accessibility” information as I was asked).

At the end of the route, we leave the cellar to climb hundreds of steps up to the second cellar: Tien Son cellar.

Practical info

If you visit the two cellars, be sure to pick up two different tickets: Phong Nha Cave, and Tien Son Cave. Without the Tien Son Cave ticket, you will be refused access.

The ascent isn’t very hard because the steps are big and in good condition. Arrived at the top, we are rewarded by a beautiful view and a cellar even more beautiful than the previous one, with a very comfortable staircase system, allowing us to explore every nook and cranny.

Contrary to the bay of Ha Long, the lights here are quite sober, enough to illuminate the details, but not too much either, in order to preserve the authenticity of the place. I like it very much!

We stop at a store that has a beautiful view of the national park to take two cane juices (delicious). I chat with the saleswoman who is struggling to make ends meet. She explains to me that this cellar, in spite of its beauty, isn’t very frequented. On the one hand, the Vietnamese do not like to climb so high. On the other hand, the agencies do not include this cellar in their tower. Only independent foreign travelers come here, and they don’t consume much. And finally, when it is very hot (up to 40 degrees), nobody wants to climb up to the top.

The proximity to Laos makes this region extremely hot in summer. The humid wind blowing from Laos is blocked by a large mountain range. It discharges all its moisture in the form of torrential rain on the Laos side. When it finally arrives in Vietnam, it has no more humidity and turns into a hot and dry wind. That’s why it’s 40 degrees in the shade in the summer here, and why my cane juice seller remains poor.

We go down to the boat station where we spot the other tourists and our boat.

Practical info

You need to remember your boat number to find it on the way back.

On this boat, I was able to chat with another Vietnamese woman, traveling from South to North and North to South Vietnam, all alone on her automatic motorcycle. She always finds good deals for accommodation, with information taken from the Internet, or by asking the restaurant owners, who all know a neighbor with a homestay. In the corner, she found a room (cold shower on the other hand), for 50,00VND (less than 2 euros per night). The two scares she had were driving for a hundred km alone in the dark night in the mountains, in the fog. She also tells me that the tires of her automatic motorcycle (in this case SH, a very very expensive model), have the advantage of not puncturing right away, unlike semi-automatic models. We exchanged our Facebook, hoping to meet again in Hoi An in a few days.

Day 2, Afternoon: Bong Lai Valley

After eating a bun cha, we ask the owner of the homestay to reserve a motorcycle for us. The motorcycle is delivered to us in front of the hotel, with two helmets, but very little petrol. JB is happy to find an automatic motorcycle and the freedom to go where the wind takes us… 😀

We fill the tank halfway and then we go along the river (longer path) to the Bong Lai valley. It will be the last time we take this path because we are limited “attacked” by two dogs. As we approach THEIR house, one of them tries to block our way, while the other one barks at us and acts as if he is going to bite us.

Practical advice

In Vietnam, dogs are trained to bark and guard the house, they won’t hesitate to bite, so don’t stop when you pass in front of them, they might take you for a thief. Only dogs in restaurants and cafes are trained to ignore customers and guard the house at night.

In Bong Lai Valley, eco-tourism is a current trend. We take a difficult and very muddy road.

There too, two dogs bark at us, and they even run behind us with their tails straight (that means they are alert). Panicking and seeing the big hill in front of us, I think that the dogs will surely catch up with us. JB and I stop immediately on the left, at The Duck Stop. Finally, the dogs don’t follow us anymore. Mystery.

The Duck Stop is an introduction to some farm animals.

For 150,000VND/person, you can ride on the back of a buffalo and walk in the rice fields, feed the ducks, followed by a good meal. As we have already had lunch, we are offered to pay 100,000VND for all this except the meal, which we find expensive (besides, we don’t like ducks that much). However, I think that it is a very nice destination for children.

We continue on our way to the Pub with cold beer, a place in Lonely Planet, where the beer is, as the name suggests, ultra-fresh. So fresh that we couldn’t take any, because the only cans left are frozen 😀 It’s a farmer’s farm, with a view. The barbecued chicken smells too good, and the hammocks invite you to laze around.

We then cross the bridge of Bong Lai, magnificent, to finally find a much better way.

We should have taken this way to come in fact! As a result, we return via this way then opts for the freeway instead of passing in the villages and being pursued by dogs.

The Ho Chi Minh Highway is famous for its beautiful scenery, but this part in particular is breathtaking. There isn’t too much traffic so you can drive slowly and enjoy the scenery.

The locals told me about a bar/restaurant with a hilltop view, East Hill Café. We went there, but since we were neither thirsty nor hungry, we went there just to type up this report. This place is very nice and the view on the rice fields is worth it.

In the evening, we eat at the restaurant claiming to serve the best bbq pork in the world. The farm pork is good, and roasted in a special way so that the skin is super crispy. I recommend this restaurant, but it’s not the best in the world no 😀

Day 3: Paradise Cave, Mooc Spring & Dark Cave

Paradise Cave

We drive along the highways to arrive at Paradise Cave around 11:30 am. The landscapes are breathtaking, the air is so pure that we feel really really good.

After 40 minutes of road which passed very quickly, and beautiful landscapes in front of us, we arrive at the parking lot of the Paradise Cave (la grotte du Paradis). This is the most beautiful cave among the easily accessible caves (i.e. without the need for a guide/tour) – in the area.

Parking costs 5000VND/motorcycle. We buy the tickets (250,000VND/person). We have the choice: either to pay a golf cart to make the round trip of the first 1km (flat) of the course, or to walk. We choose to walk and then take the golf cart on the way back.

Then there is about 500m of climb to reach the entrance of the cellar (there is no golf cart this time), the course is easy.

In the cellar there are wooden stairs and walkways to visit the first km of the cellar.

As it is lunch time, we see the big groups going out and eating and we visit the cellar with only 3-4 tourists. At the beginning it isn’t very nice, but afterwards it is more and more impressive. I don’t know how long we stayed there, but I think that we can spend the whole day there to look at every detail. I sincerely think that this cave surpasses all the caves that I visited until now, including those at the bay of Ha Long. It is really a small paradise!

And everything is really SUPER CLEAN. I’m really very proud of the organization and tourism operation of Phong Nha National Park, I haven’t seen any trash lying around since I arrived here. BRAVO !!!!

After 1km, we arrive at the end of the footbridge. Those who have booked a tour can continue for another 7km, exploring the cellar (unlit of course) and having lunch under a well of light. To do so, contact one of the many agencies in the city center the day before.

Mooc Spring

Dead of hunger (it is almost 2pm), we decide not to eat at the Paradise Cave but to go to the Mooc water source for lunch. The menu is short and simple (chicken, water shrimps, two types of rice) and not too expensive, we had lunch for 430,000VND drinks included.

Mooc Spring is a source of water, where you can swim, participate in water activities in summer for 180,000VND/person. When it is cold like now, you can pay 80,000VND to visit the place. But we didn’t want to do it because we don’t have much time.

Dark Cave

I hesitated to go, thinking that I am obliged to bathe in cold water and take a mud bath (it is March and the water is still a bit cold for me). But the owner of my hotel reassured me by telling me that there is another option, cheaper, where I don’t bathe at all.

This option costs 270,000VND/person and we are entitled to a zipline river crossing and return by kayak (or rather inflatable kayak).

The other foreigners, either don’t know, or are obliged to follow their turn, or they aren’t cold, they take the option at 450,000VND which includes the zipline, the visit of the cellar (black, as its name indicates) with a lamp on the head and a mud bath inside the cellar. They have to go there in bathing suit and swim to the entrance of the cellar (10m). Afterwards, they can take a kayak and participate in many activities that usually consist of throwing themselves into the water. It’s really very fun. I highly recommend it!

It’s very well organized, very professional, and again, everything is super clean.

The water comes from the water source not far away, it is a dark blue color worthy of the water of the glacier lakes in New Zealand, this color is obtained when the water is super pure and deep.

The entrance to the cellar: you have to swim 10m to get in

In my opinion, the river must be at least 20-30m deep, in any case, we all have to wear life jackets. For the “kayak handicapped”, you can ask a motorized boat to take you back to the other side if necessary.

Practical advice

There are lockers outside, whose padlock can be rented by leaving a deposit of 50,000VND.
If you go swimming, leave all your things, just keep your swimsuit. If you don’t swim, leave all your things and shoes, but keep your clothes on.

There are individual showers near the entrance, the water is moderately hot.

Come with a dark colored swimsuit, otherwise the mud will stain your swimsuit.

Botanic Garden

Very tired, we return, without passing by the Botanic Garden, which is, contrary to its name, an area in the forest, where you follow a small path to go see a waterfall (and swim there if you want). This small trek isn’t very expensive, only 40,000VND/person. I recommend you too!

In the evening, we dine at Capture’s to enjoy their wood-fired pizza


I TOO much liked this trip, frankly, I haven’t had a laugh like that in a little while. The two days spent in Phong Nha were wonderful and I would like to go back there, when I am better prepared physically in summer, to do the 2 days tour in Hang En Cave, the alternative of the famous Son Doong cave.

As for the Son Doong cave, the tour costs 3000$ for a duration of 4 days 3 nights, and I don’t think I’m interested in this kind of adventures. The government is currently considering validating the project of a cable car to the entrance of Son Doong cave. There are many petitions circulating to get them to cancel this project

Part 2: Practical Tips


  • Bus transportation Hoi An – Phong Nha: 200,000VND/person, departure around 13:30, arrival around 22:00
  • Hang En hotel: 350,000VND/night/double room/night with balcony, breakfast included (they have cheaper rooms)
  • Automatic Scooter Rental: 150,000VND/day at Hai Motorbike
  • Gasoline: 60,000VND (more than enough for the 2 days)
  • Restaurants :
    • Capture: I highly recommend, wood fired pizzas, 310,000VND/meal for two, drinks included
    • D-Arts Zone: they sell there the bun cha way Ha Noi, 200,000VND/meal for two, drinks included
    • BBQ Pork: 100,000VND/meal for two, drinks included

  • Visits :
    • Phong Nha Cave: 150,000VND/person
    • Tien Son Cave : 80,000VND/person
    • Boat for Phong Nha Cave and Tien Son Cave: 400,000VND for 12 people max, we shared the cost so it comes back to 36,000VND/person
    • Paradise Cave : 250,000VND/person
    • Golf car for Paradise Cave: 60,000VND/go, 100,000VND/return
    • Dark Cave :
      • option 1 with cellar entrance, zipline, kayak, mud, swimming etc. 450,000VND/person
      • option 2 without cellar entrance, zipline, kayak: 270,000VND/person

    • Mooc Spring :
      • Water activities, swimming pools: 180,000VND/person
      • Walking around: 80,000VND/person

    • Botanic Garden : 40,000VND/person

What to do after Phong Nha?

  • If you go to the North: go either to Ha Noi or Ninh Binh. Honestly, after seeing Phong Nha, Ninh Binh will disappoint you a bit
  • If you go to the South: go to Hue, Da Nang or Hoi An. There is a bus that takes you to Hue stopping for a few hours to visit the Vinh Moc tunnels (not very touristy at the moment). This bus costs 500,000VND

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