To explore the famous caves of Vietnam we headed to Phong Nha in the Central Highlands of the country. With its amazing scenery, limestone karsts and the UNESCO World Heritage Site Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, this wonderland has left us in awe.
Exploring Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park
Phong Nha is a little town on the edge of the jaw dropping UNESCO World Heritage Site Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park. Most of people stay here because it’s the closest town to the famous caves.
The Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park is gorgeous. Set amongst the limestone karsts, the landscape is just magical. To explore, we rented a bike (without mirrors!) at our hotel at 200,000 VND ($9 USD) plus 50,000 VND ($2.24 USD) for fuel.
If you rent a bike, be sure to drive out of town and catch a soulful sunset. Also, make sure you are well protected from the sun in the day time. I managed to burn half of my face while sitting at the back peeking through one side!
Visiting the Famous Phong Nha Caves
The Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous for its caves. Thousands of visitors flock here every year to explore this underground wonderland.
There are 5 main caves to explore while in Phong Nha:
Phong Nha Cave, also called ‘First Wonder’ is an 8 km underground river cave. The cave boasts amazing stalactites and stalagmites throughout.
The tour around the cave takes from 2-3 hours and to get to the cave you have to take a Dragon boat. The entrance fee is 150,000 VND ($ 6.72 USD) per person. The boat fee is 360,000 VND ($ 16.14 USD) per trip per person regardless of the number of people on the boat, so the more the cheaper per head.
The dry Tien Son Cave is located around 200 m above Phong Nha Cave. It was discovered in 1935 and is famous for its magnificent stalactites.
You can visit this cave independently by walking or by the Dragon boat. The entrance fee is 80,000 VND ($3.59 USD) per person plus 360,000 VND boat fee, if you decide to take the tour.
The adventurous Chay River – Dark Cave can only be explored with a tour. The tour includes a 400 m zip line from the wildlife observation centre to the Dark Cave entrance, followed by exploration of the cave with headlamps and other special equipment.
Swimming is involved in this tour across the Thuy Tien Lake and also a mud bath. After the activities in the mud, you will be able to jump into the fresh water with various games organised for your entertainment.
Tours from 15 March – 15 September cost 450,000 VND per person ($ 20 USD) which includes the entrance fee, kayak, zip-line, mud bath and tour insurance.
If you are after a cheaper tour, plan your visit from 16 September – 14 March. In low season the tour costs nearly half price – 250,000 VND ($ 11.21 USD).
For visitors exploring the cave independently, the entrance fee is 80,000 VND ($ 3.59 USD), but you are only allowed to explore 150 m of the cave. Kayak rental here is 10,000 VND ($ 0.45 USD).
All these caves are open daily from 7 am – 5 pm. Night tours are available at the Phong Nha Cave only.
The Paradise Cave, can be explored independently, without an organised tour. That’s the one we visited and really enjoyed, read our full post about it with some amazing photos.
Finally if you are ready to spend $3000 USD (not a typo!) you can visit the Thuy Cung Cave . It’s a 2 day trekking tour through forests, swimming in the caves blue waters and spending a night camping at the Nuoc lan Cave.
Only a few hundred visitors a year are permitted into the cave hence the hefty price tag. Contact the Tourism Centre in Phong Nha for more information.
Where to Stay in Phong Nha
We chose a hotel, interestingly called Heritage by Night. The hotel is in a good location, a few doors away from the well know Easy Tiger Backpacker Hostel which serves good food as well as other food spots we loved.
The room with a view to the pool and the restaurant was very spacious, clean and quite modern, although the shower was still over the loo. We really enjoyed our stay here.
The room set us back 450,000 VND ($20 USD) per night with breakfast included.
Where to Eat in Phong Nha
There is a very cute Vietnamese place called A Vietnam Corner. We discovered it on our first day in Phong Nha. It’s right across the street from the Heritage by Night Hotel and is a traditional Vietnamese restaurant and a hostel.
We really enjoyed our food there and the story of how the founder was inspired by the travellers he met from around the world. In return she wanted to share the tradition Vietnamese taste with them so established the hostel and restaurant.
My coffee and bread was the most comforting thing I had throughout our travels across Vietnam. The coffee tasted more like Mocha and the bread was soft and fresh. I was advised to to dip the bread into coffee, it was delicious.
Not the cheapest place at 168,000 VND ($ 7.53 USD) for 2 dishes and a cup of coffee. But that coffee with bread (39,000 VND) was really worth popping in for.
Capture is another place we really recommend for food. Again it’s not cheap and it’s primarily for westerners, but they do make some amazing pizzas there. We’ve been eating a lot of noodles for nearly 3 months and really needed something a little bit comforting.
It’s a very chilled place and they also bake their own cakes. So of course we tried them.
If you visit the restaurant, it’s also a good place to get those overdue post cards posted home. They sell lovely postcards with scenes from around Vietnam captured by an ex-pat. For an extra charge they will gladly post them for you.
All together, the 2 postcards and postal services cost us 80,000 VND ($ 3.59 USD). We are glad to know that both our families in England and Lithuania have since received them safely.
There are some local food stalls by the main coach station where you can buy cheaper food, but at this point we wanted something a little more filling than noodle soup.
Getting to Phong Nha from Ninh Binh
The easiest way to get to Phong Nha is by overnight train to Dong Hoi and then taking a local bus. An overnight train goes to Dong Hoi from Ninh Binh Railway Station and costs 520,000 VND ($ 24 USD) per person.
It’s quite a lot of money, but we always look for value from what we spend. It’s much quicker and more comfortable. We really don’t like long bus journeys, especially after our last experience on a local sleeper bus.
We booked our train tickets online, which is always very handy. An additional $1 charge applies per ticket, but it saves time and hassle. The good thing about the railway system in Vietnam is that you don’t have to print the tickets. Just download the ticket on your phone and show it to the train attendant.
Our train from Ninh Binh left at 10pm and arrived to Dong Hoi at around 6am. From here we took a local bus which took around 1 hour to get to Phong Nha.
Local Bus in Dong Hoi
Once we rolled off the train we ignored the taxi drivers hassling us and went to find a spot for coffee just a few doors up from the station.
After getting our bearings, harder than it should be at 6am in a strange town, we set off for the local bus station. There are at least 2 different bus stations so follow the map below to locate the right one.
Note: The bus you need to catch stops on the road opposite the bus station and not at the bus station itself.
The bus departs on the hour from both ends of the route so you’ll need to wait by the blue and white bus stop sign in Dong Hoi and enthusiastically flag it down when it comes past.
This is the bus you are looking for. Like most of the local buses the destinations are clearly displayed on the top of the window screen.
You can take a taxi, but it will cost you nearly as much as the whole train journey at 400,000 VND ($18 USD). Even if you share a taxi with another 3 people, it’s still very expensive compared to a local bus which was 35,000 VND ($1.57 USD) per person from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha.
Have you been to Phong Nha? Did you explore the caves? Which one did you visit? let us know in the comments below…