Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is a favourite destination for adventure travellers. Located in Central Vietnam, this extraordinary World Heritage site contains the largest limestone caves in the world but there are also hiking trails, beautiful mountains, tropical forests, rivers and lakes ideal for kayaking. You don’t have to be especially adventurous to enjoy this stunning National Park.
In Phong Nha-Ke Bang you’ll find ancient karst mountains formed 400 million years ago. There’s spectacular scenery, amazing underground rivers and a vast network of caves to explore. Although Phong Nha is increasing in popularity it’s not yet on the main tourist trail. This makes it an ideal place to visit while it’s still relatively quiet and sparkling clean.
If you’re not an adventurous soul or you can’t afford an expensive expedition to the larger caves, there is still plenty to see and do in the remarkably beautiful Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park.
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Phong Nha Cave & Paradise Cave
Both Phong Nha Cave and Paradise Cave are easily accessible and absolutely amazing to visit. You can see Phong Nha Cave in a few hours. From the dock at Son Trach Village, hire a boat to take you up the Son River to the Phong Nha Cave. Relax and enjoy the lovely scenery as the boat passes by villages nestled below jungle-covered mountains.
The boat trip takes half an hour or so. When you reach Phong Nha Cave the boatman will turn off the motor and row the boat into the mouth of the cave to protect the delicate ecosystem. I was very impressed with the skill and strength of our female boat woman.
The silence inside Phong Nha Cave was quite magical!
Your boat will drop you off at a beach inside Phong Nha Cave and you can stroll along a pathway through the cave enjoying a closer look at the impressive formations. The dramatic stalactites and stalagmites are lit up and easy to see.
Your boat will be waiting at the dock outside the cave to return you to Son Trach village. If you’re feeling energetic you can also take the stairs up the mountain to see the 9th-century shrine at the Tien Son Cave.
An alternative way to see Phong Nha Cave is to take a kayaking tour from Hang Toi a few kilometres away.
The phenomenal Paradise Cave extends for around 31 kilometres beneath the jungle-covered mountains. Paradise Cave is about 14 kilometres away from Son Trach Village and I hired a motorbike taxi to take me there.
The entrance to Paradise Cave is halfway up the mountain and the pathway to the entrance takes you through dense jungle and is quite steep. Inside the cave, a wooden staircase descends sharply into a massive cavern. The size of the cavern is truly breathtaking! A wooden walkway stretches about a kilometre into the cave and you can admire the amazing formations from the walkway. A visit to Paradise cave will take a few hours but if you want to explore deeper inside the cave you will have to book a tour.
Hang Toi or Dark Cave
Hang Toi or Dark Cave is another cave you can see independently in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. But visiting Hang Toi involves more adventurous activities like a zipline flight over the water to the cave entrance before swimming into the mouth of the cave. Inside Dark Cave, it’s pitch black, and you can expect to slip and slide through muddy passageways. Leaving Hang Toi, a short, scenic boat ride will take you back to the Dark Cave jetty.
Access to some of the larger caves in the National Park is restricted for conservation reasons. To see Hang Song Doong you will need to take a guided tour.
Hang Son Doong was discovered in the 1990s and became officially the world’s largest cave in 2009. An expedition to Son Doong takes four days and is quite challenging and costly. It includes camping at scenic locations along the way. It’s also very popular so you will need to book well in advance.
Oxalis run guided expeditions to Son Doong, Tu Lan, Hang Va, Nuoc Nut and Pygmy Cave.
More things to do in Phong Nha-Ke Bang
1. Explore the Long Bai Valley by pushbike. Pedal along back roads and meandering bike trails through laidback local villages and relax amidst gorgeous riverside scenery.
2. Enjoy Jungle hiking and wildlife. Join a trekking tour and spend a day exploring the jungle. Trek the Ho Chi Minh trail, visit the remote abandoned valley or visit the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre in Phong Nha.
3. Discover the war history of the area but make sure you stick to the beaten path to avoid unexploded ordnance. When you go exploring Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, take a licensed guide with you.
4. Visit the Phong Nha Botanical Gardens but be warned this is NOT an easy stroll through the park. There are several hiking trails that take you through the tropical forest with signposts that highlight the vegetation, wildlife and the various landscapes within the gardens. The trails are steep, muddy and quite rough especially if it has been raining.
I hauled myself up and down slippery inclines using ropes. There was a pretty water hole ideal for swimming at the base of a 30-metre waterfall but, to exit the gardens, I had to climb the cliff beside the waterfall using ropes. This Botanical Garden is beautiful but not for the faint-hearted. Wear hiking boots and take some water.
Travel Tips for Phong Nha-Ke Bang
**Phong Nha-Ke Bang is an extraordinary destination in Central Vietnam and should not be missed!
#1. Stay for at least a few days to enjoy the wonderful caves and the stunning scenery in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
#2. The best time to visit Phong Nha is from June to August in the hottest months but you can enjoy Phong Nha for most of the year. Avoid October to December as some of the caves are inaccessible due to seasonal flooding. I went in January, winter in Vietnam, and it rained for several days. It was a bit cool for swimming but there were also fewer visitors.
TIP: Vietnam experiences very different weather from the north to the south of the country Learn more about what it’s like to visit Vietnam in January and the best and the worst times to visit Vietnam.
#3. Phong Nha Ke Bang is approximately 5 hours by bus from Hue & 7 hours from Danang or Hoi An. The bus was very cramped and uncomfortable but it stopped directly outside The Lake House where I was staying.
#4. Son Trach village in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is approximately 50 km or 1 hour from the train station at Dong Hoi. From Dong Hoi to Hanoi is an overnight train trip (9 – 11 hours). I took the night train to Hanoi and booked a sleeper e-ticket online with 12Go Asia.
#5. You can travel independently to Phong Nha by motorbike or car.
#6. Access to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is quite tightly controlled due to the unexploded ordnance in the area so stay on the path and take a licensed guide if you go exploring.
#7. Take some cash to Phong Nha as credit cards were often not accepted at restaurants in town & changing money was difficult.
#8. Son Trach has an ATM and a range of accommodation and restaurant options.
Where to Stay in Phong Nha
I loved staying at The Lake House in Phong Nha!
The Lakehouse is located on the main road outside Son Trach Village and my bungalow was spacious and beautiful, right on the lake with a private balcony right over the water. There was a restaurant on-site with a lake view and free kayaks available to use.
The owners were very friendly and helped me out with transport into town when I missed the bus. And the owner even drove me to Dong Hoi and dropped me at the train station as she was going that way anyway. I can highly recommend the Lakehouse and would love to stay there again.
A Travel Essential
For peace of mind make sure you buy travel insurance before you go, especially if you are travelling solo. I use Travel Insurance that covers me for overseas medical, lost baggage, and other expenses and I can concentrate on enjoying my trip without worrying about something going wrong.