We have just spent 4 WONDERFUL days in Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park. As the information about this park isn’t up to date (even in the tourist guides), because of the inflation in Vietnam and the tourist services in this area, here is MY guide, updated in March 2018
I STRONGLY recommend you to go there, even if you have to skip Ninh Binh or Hue’. Honestly, even as a Vietnamese and having travelled my country from North to South several times, Phong Nha remains one of my top destinations in Vietnam, which I will not tire of (just like Sa Pa, Da Lat and Hoi An)
How to get to Phong Nha – Ke Bang Park
Before, we had to go to Dong Hoi first and then bother to rent a scooter/taxi/bus… until Phong Nha
But now there are long-distance buses with bunks that take you there directly. Just ask at your hotel or one of the many Vietnamese travel agencies, they will sell you a ticket within a minute
You can take a bunk bus to Phong Nha from: Ha Noi, Ninh Binh, Hue, Hoi An, Da Nang, Nha Trang, Mui Ne or Ho Chi Minh City
The trip from Hoi An to Phong Nha, which takes 8h-8h30, cost me only 170,000VND
There are only one or two buses a day, so think about getting organized (book the day before for example)
The bus will stop in the center of the village of Son Trach. This very small village has only one main street so you won’t get lost
I have Phong Nha’s DEPARTURE schedule here if you are interested (click on the image to zoom)
But I prefer the train/plane
There is no train or airport within the national park, so if you prefer train or plane, you have to go to Dong Hoi, then take a cab or tourist bus to Phong Nha (again, travel agencies will be able to inform you)
Is the bus comfortable?
I took the bus of the Hung Thanh Travel company and contrary to the many negative comments, I found the bus comfortable, there was no music or film
However, there are a few snags
- the driver may smoke from time to time. To do so, you should stand on the upper berth, if possible in the middle of the bus so as not to be disturbed by the smoke
- as there are toilets on the bus, the bus only stops for meals.
- there is no toilet paper in the washrooms, you have to bring some before the trip
- When the trip is too long (Hoi An – Phong Nha for example), you have to change buses and take your things out at some point. Usually, they do it in the middle of the day so it doesn’t wake anybody up, and the change of bus is well organized.
Which accommodation to choose?
You now have a wide range of choices. Between youth hostels, homestay, hotels… there is something for every budget
Type Visitors Centre, Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park on Google Maps, you will want to stay near this place
Backpackers seem to appreciate Easy Tiger Hostel – Jungle Bar, one of the first hostels in the city
Book on booking.com or agoda.com (sometimes prices differ on these two sites, for the same hosting)
Before choosing your accommodation, what you should pay attention to, if you go there in winter (December – March), is the presence of hot water. If you go there in summer: it is the presence of the air conditioner (it can be up to 40°C in the shade)
What to visit in Phong Nha?
I will divide this part in two: the attractions/places that can be visited without a guide, and the attractions/places that must be visited with a guide
To be visited without a guide
Phong Nha Cave & TIEN SON CAVE
Phong Nha Cave is a flooded cave to be visited with a “dragon boat” (a boat capable of holding up to 12 people). It is usually visited with the Tien Son cave (a very pretty cave accessible after a hundred steps) and which gives you a breathtaking view of the park
If you take the boat just to Phong Nha Cave, it costs 360,000VND/boat
If you take the boat to visit both caves at the same time, it costs 400,000VND/boat
The price of the boat is divisible by the number of people who take it, it’s up to you to try to group with other tourists
In addition, there is a 180,000VND entrance ticket to Phong Nha Cave and 80,000VND/person for Tien Son Cave
I recommend these caves, to be visited first because they are less beautiful than Paradise Cave, but Phong Nha Cave has the particularity of being a flooded cave, therefore different from the others
Walk to the Visitors Centre, Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park to buy the entrance tickets and the ticket for the boat
It is the most beautiful cave that can be visited without a guide in the area. To go there, I recommend you to rent a scooter (the road leading to it is magnificent). The entrance costs 250,000VND
You can take a golf cart for 4 (100,000VND round trip) to do the 1km (flat). The remaining 550m, sloping, are obligatory on foot
Only the first km of the cave is accessible to all, the remaining 7km require a guide, but the part accessible to all is already extremely pretty
The wooden stairs are installed in the cave, the course is very easy, accessible to active children and seniors
Take this path (in blue) to come, the other path is much steeper => more dangerous for scooters
We come to visit Dark Cave for its numerous sports activities, and not for the beauty of this cellar, which is all black as its name indicates. Dark Cave is on the way to Paradise Cave. The water here is transparent and super blue
There are two options
- 450,000VND/person to do zipline, swim to the cave, explore the cave with a lamp on your head, take a mud bath inside the cave (accompanied by a guide), then kayak and participate in many water activities
- 270,000VND/person for ziplining, kayaking. If you choose this option, you may not get wet (unless you choose to participate in water activities at the end).
You can deposit your belongings in the lockers (50,000VND deposit to rent a padlock), showers are available (water is moderately hot). It is advisable to take dark bathing suits because the mud may stain your suits
It is on the same path as Paradise Cave. It is a water source that has been developed into an open-air water park in the summer and a walking trail in the winter. Needless to say, the water is pure and transparent
Admission costs 80,000VND in winter and 180,000VND in summer. Come with a bathing suit to enjoy the refreshing spring water in summer
Contrary to its name, this garden is in fact a huge plot in the middle of the forest. You only pay 40,000VND to walk and swim at the bottom of a waterfall
Bong Lai Valley
With two stops well known to backpackers: The Duck Stop (where you ride a buffalo and feed the ducks, followed by a meal with drinks for 150,000VND/person)
and Pub with Cold Beer where the beer is really super fresh and the barbecued farm chicken smells good + the view + the hammocks
Take the path in blue (the other one is too muddy). Moreover, this path will take you to the Bong Lai bridge, which is very romantic (look for Cầu bồng lai on Google Maps)
East Hill Café is a new address overlooking the rice fields, not to be missed (search for the address on Google Maps)
To visit with a guide
Phong Nha Cave : 4,5 km, 1 day, about 1,700,000VND (60€)
You can further explore Phong Nha Cave with a guide, by boat, kayak and even swimming. Be careful, there is no well of light in this cave
Dark Cave : 6KM, 2 days 1 night, about 6,000,000VND (214€)
In fact, it includes a visit to another E Cave on the first day, then you enter by the exit of the Dark Cave and participate in the activities of the Dark Cave
Paradise Cave : 7 KM, 1 day, about 2,500,000VND (89€)
source image :sondoongcavetour.abstravel.asia
You can explore another 7km of this cave, see a well of lights, kayak on an underground river
Hang In Cellar: 2 days 1 Night, about 7,500,000VND (268€)
image source : Oxalis
Hang En is an alternative to Son Doong (which is only 3km from Hang En). It is the 3rd largest cave in the world. You will sleep in the cave, on a small sandy “beach”. You have to cross the forest to go there. Oxalis is the only agency authorized to bring you to Hang En. It’s my dream to go there, I’m going to prepare myself physically and to go there for sure!
Tu Lan Cave
image source : Oxalis
Very impressive, this cave can be visited in one day or several days, it depends on your sport level
image source : Oxalis
Shipping is done in one, two or three days, depending on your capacity. Hang Tien (Fairy Cave). This cave is strangely large and spectacular
Son Doong Cave : 4 days 3 Nights, 3000$
image source : Oxalis
It is the largest cave in the world. Only Oxalis is authorized to offer you tours in this cave. The tours last 4 days 3 nights, cost 3000$ and are fully booked at least one year in advance. But its entrance (as wide as a Boeing 747), its size (capable of holding a warship) and its beauty are spectacular and the further you go into the cave, the wider it is. A real mysterious place, discovered only in 2009
There are still other caves in the area, I think Oxalis has summarized very well the levels of difficulty (and financial) the different courses they offer
image source : Oxalis
What to visit if I only stay for one day?
In one day, you can opt for a one-day tour (via an agency), or visit in the following order by yourself (with a motorcycle)
- Phong Nha Cave very early in the morning
- Paradise Cave between 11am and 1pm to avoid crowds
- and on the way back: Mooc Spring for lunch and Dark Cave for fun activities in the afternoon
You can also privatize a car. Cars/taxis aren’t like that on the street, it is better to write to your hotel and ask them to reserve a car with driver for you(ask for the price BEFORE)
Photo below: our lunch at Mooc Spring
And here is an example of a one-day tour with an agency
The best time to go to Phong Nha
Beware, in Vietnam, it is very humid. When you see 15°C, it’s the equivalent of 5°C in France. Be well equipped! Especially if you go in the forest, you must cross rivers or swim in caves
The rainy season is between September and March. I advise you not to come during this period, especially if you plan to trek in the jungle. You will be mercilessly attacked by leeches and mosquitoes. In addition, it will be cold and swimming in water at 16°C in Vietnam in a cave, then walking with the same wet clothes for miles, it isn’t really pleasant
Some expeditions are closed between September and December, so please inquire well before coming
Obviously, those who just do soft activities at Phong Nha Cave, Tien Son Cave, and Paradise Cave aren’t too concerned about leeches or rain. Except Phong Nha Cave, which risks being flooded and closed to the public if it rains too much.
The dry season is between April and August and I advise you to come rather in April because from June to August, it can be 40°C
Which agency to choose?
For the caves to visit alone, agencies offer day tours if you don’t know how to drive a scooter
For the caves to visit with a guide, apart from Oxalis which is the only agency authorized for Hang En and Son Doong, you can go through any other agency. In reality, the prices are almost the same, and the same guides work for several agencies. For example, for the 7km route of Paradise Cave, there are only 5 guides able to take you there
The most important thing is the services offered by the agencies: porters or not, how many assistants/guides, survival kits, insurance included or not… for that, TripAdvisor is your friend!
SURVIVING in the Vietnamese jungle
For expeditions deep in the jungle, I must warn you: the Vietnamese jungle is very dangerous. We are far from a small stroll in the forest of Fontainebleau. Note that this part of forest was formerly used to hide the revolutionaries. The French and Americans did not dare to go there, and were content to bombard the area. Moreover, there are still many mines and bombs that have not exploded so be careful where you set foot. There are also poisonous leaves that you should not rely on trees or plants to hold on to
Be well prepared and well equipped before starting the 20km walk. Wear NON Goretex/waterproof trekking shoes as you will surely have to cross rivers, sometimes swimming, goretex shoes will not fit. A waterproof bag, a second pair of river shoes, technical clothing, or walking sticks are strongly recommended. Wear high socks and long-sleeved T-shirts to protect yourself from leeches and mosquitoes
For this kind of expeditions, it is even more important to choose a good agency because the comfort brought would be only by the right equipment or a good meal changes everything
Do I have to book the expeditions in advance?
Expeditions leave with a minimum of 2 people in general, and 2, 3 day expeditions do not attract crowds. Don’t expect to just show up in Phong Nha and leave the next day – unless you have a thick enough wallet and are willing to pay a little more to go alone with the guide
Contact your agency as soon as possible, as soon as you know the date
If you are rich and sporty, book the expedition for Son Doong at least 1 year to 18 months in advance. Otherwise, sign up for the waiting list, there are often cancellations
How do I rent a scooter?
Nothing could be simpler, just get out of your hotel (or ask at the reception desk). Several stores rent scooters, without you need a motorcycle license (but be careful, the road can be muddy, especially to go to Bong Lai Valley, we saw several skinned knees at our tourist friends)
The automatic scooter (I recommend this one) costs 100,000VND to 150,000VND/day. The “Nouvo” model is quite big and strong, we rented it from Hai Motorbike (two houses away from Hang en Hotel). Always ask for a helmet
The roads around Phong Nha are highways (although it doesn’t look like it), which means that trucks pass by regularly and drive very fast. A golden rule in Vietnam: the biggest vehicles have priority
Photo: the highway in Phong Nha
The muddy road in Bong Lai Valley
But I prefer the bike
We do not recommend you! The dogs here aren’t very tender, it is better to have a means of transport capable of distancing them quickly if they are aggressive. Be careful with the dogs, they are bred to guard the house, not to be petted by strangers
Some useful maps
Click on the pictures to zoom
And the food?
We do not come here for the gastronomy unfortunately. On the other hand, you can enjoy a bun cha Ha Noi style (in case you miss this dish at D-Arts) or a good pizza baked over a wood fire at Capture. On the road leading to Bong Lai valley, several farms offer food. Point a finger at a chicken, it will be killed and served within an hour
For more information, please consult our Phong Nha travel diary