Xin chào! One of the places that I knew I wanted to visit before arriving to Vietnam was Phong Nha.
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All the stories I read about the huge caves in the area (including the largest cave in the world) made me really excited about it and I was ready to be amazed once again by our magical planet when I got there after my days of solo backpacking in Hoi An.
How to get there and where to stay?
The trip took about 5 hours and I think it’s better to take the bus than the train as the bus will drop you off in front of the main street where all the hostels are, whilst the train will leave you at another village where you will have to take a bus to town.
The bus costs 200k VND (about US $9)
Another option, will be to take the train to Doi Hong and spend the night(s) there as it’s only about 40 Km from Phong Nha so you could easily come and go every day.
There are quite a few hostels in Phong Nha, with all the caves in the area, some of them renowned worldwide, you can expect this place to be quite touristy, but I didn’t see the crowds of Hoi An so it’s not too bad!
I stayed just one night at Phong Nha Gecko Hostel, the accommodation was ok and it included a generous breakfast so it’s overall a pretty good place to stay.
What to do in Phong Nha?
Phong Nha has been developed for the tourists without making it look like a huge city (such as Da Nang for example)
The place is actually rather small, but because of this, to have some solo adventures it’s harder as most of the attractions are managed via tour operators which is something I always try to avoid.
The most famous places to visit are Phong Nha Cave, Dark Cave, Paradise Cave and the Botanic Gardens.
I don’t dare to include details about the sold-out-with-a-long-waiting-list Son Doong Cave as the dreamy world’s largest cave will set you off $3000 (that’s the right amount of zeros!) and that’s sadly not fitting on my idea of travelling on a budget.
So, while you will be able to find lots of organised activities I’ll write of what I actually did over there.
Before arriving to Phong Nha I thought about going hiking in the wild and camp wherever night found me, however, I quickly discarded the idea when I was told there are UXO’s in the area.
So, I found myself not being able to camp and in a place that it’s mainly tailored for signing up on tours.
Not exactly what I was expecting so I started talking with the staff at my hostel to see what options I had for independent traveling and came with the conclusion that the best thing was just a full day with a motorbike going to Paradise Cave and the Botanic Gardens plus quite a bit of riding around the area which is beautiful!
If you’re interested in the Dark Cave or Phong Nha Cave, you could also do them on your own, the Dark Cave definitely looks awesome to go with a group and to go to Phong Nha Cave you have to go by boat, so you better team up with people to get a cheaper boat ride.
So, I rented a motorbike in a tour agent after I tried one at my hostel that was just about to break, so I took my money back and looked elsewhere.
Always remember to go for a short test ride in Vietnam as the rental motorbikes can be (seriously) dangerous to use.
I paid 90k VND (less than US $5) for the rental. There’s a lot of people selling petrol in town, but if you go to the actual petrol station which is on the way out of town you will buy it at the right price.
Paradise Cave and loop around the National Park
I started off my day relatively late riding towards Paradise Cave, I was really excited about this one!!
The cave is about 25km away from town and you can plan your route as a loop that passes by the dark cave, some stunning roads through the National Park and finally on the way back passes by the Botanic Gardens.
The route to the cave is pretty easy to follow as it’s just one road once you leave the “highway” 5 minutes after departing from town.
The entrance to Paradise Cave as of Feb ’19 is 250k VND (around US $11), you have the option to take a shuttle to the entrance or just walk about 10 minutes which is what I did.
Thiên Đường Cave (aka Paradise Cave) is 31Km long and can reach up to 72m high and 150m wide. Although you can only walk independently for 1 Km it’s totally worth it!
There’s an option to go up to 7 Km deeper but that’s with a tour.
To reach the entrance of the cave you need to walk uphill for about 5-10min, it could be an otherwise boring path as you cannot see much of the landscape due to the dense vegetation, but knowing what lies ahead is what will keep you going!
Once you enter the cave it takes less than a second to realise why they named this place Paradise Cave.
Going down the boardwalk you slowly start getting a grasp of the sheer scale of this underground wonder.
Its rock formations are magnificent pieces of art.
Can you believe the cave was only discovered in 2005!? These sort of things are what makes me think of all the hidden treasures that we still have on our planet!
I was very happy to see that inside the cave, the setting was not intrusive, the boardwalk was well maintained, there were plenty of bins around (even so, I still saw a couple of plastic bottles on the ground… there’s always one of those…) and overall it didn’t feel as a fake atmosphere that can be found in so many touristic places.
Because of the huge size of the cave there’s plenty of room for everyone and I never felt that I was in a crowded place or bothered by the masses.
This was possibly the slowest 1 Km walk of my life!
After taking lots and lots of pics it was time to continue my journey.
I kept riding counterclockwise around the National Park and it was just not possible not to stop every 5 minutes or so as the scenery is stunning.
The Botanic Gardens
Eventually I made my way to the Botanic Gardens. The entry fee here plus the scooter parking is 44k VND (under US $2), possibly the cheap price is the only thing I liked about this place as there was not much to see for my liking.
The place is just a small forest patch where they put a few signs and a path. They hand out a map which on paper looks promising but in reality it’s not.
There are two loops to do, I was only allowed to do the shorter loop as it was a bit late so perhaps this place has more to show than what I saw…
Among the “points of interest” there’s an animal rehabilitation enclosure, which for me was just a sad animal jail; a swimming pond which could actually be cool if they didn’t restrict the swimming area to pretty much 50% of the small pond and the Thac Gio Waterfall, which is an OK sight but it’s so full of people that what I wanted the most was to get out away from the place when I got there.
So, unless you have a bit of time to kill, I’d not recommend visiting the Botanic Gardens, I’d much rather spend more time riding around the National Park for gorgeous views.
Moving on to Doi Hong
After one full day of solo exploring Phong Nha, I decided to move on as I didn’t feel like joining any of the organised tours.
I had some friends staying in the nearby town of Doi Hong so I decided to take a public bus and continue my backpacking adventures from there.
The journey from the town of Phong Nha takes about an hour. Make sure to check the timing of the bus at your hostel as I took the final bus of the day at around 17:00.
I didn’t have a hotel booked (I didn’t even know in the morning that I’d go there) and thankfully the bus driver dropped me off by some hotels close to the beach
I doubt that was actually the route of the bus as I was the only passenger and the driver acted more as a private chauffeur asking me where to go 🙂
I ended up staying at the Nam Long Hotel, the place was pretty decent and empty so I had the entire dormitory for myself with great views from the balcony.
Doi Hong is a pretty chilled city (or large town), which I instantly found to be very clean and tidy which is always nice after visiting more chaotic places.
There are plenty of places to go for a walk right by the sea and if you rent a motorbike you can go to the dunes which are on the outskirts of the city.
The dunes are not huge in area and sadly the ocean view is mostly blocked by buildings but you still get pretty cool views and it’s an awesome place to see the sunset.
I went there with a friend and after walking a bit around the dunes there was only one thought on our minds, we need to surf this dunes down!
The only problem was that there was no one and no “surfaces” we could use such as a wooden plank.
To our relief, a big family arrived a bit later and they had some handmade plastic sheet slides! we were surely looking like a dog in front of a delicious meal, we needed a piece of that! so I headed as the official PR to start a sign language conversation with them as they didn’t speak any English
After a while and a couple of descends they offered us to give it a try and boy we tried!!! like small kids with a new toy we went up and down the dunes over and over! so much fun!
I spent an extra day in town just chilling. I found Doi Hong as a really good place to relax if you have had too many buses/trains lately.
Are you planning to go to Phong Nhaor Doi Hong? feel free to ask anything! 🙂
Check out my other posts about my solo backpacking adventures in Vietnam!