UNESCO World Heritage site Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park is Vietnam’s largest national park. It’s home to some 300+ caves, including some of the world’s largest (#1 and #3 ranked honours), not to mention spectacular lush jungles and rivers. It is arguably the best part of the entire Central Vietnamese province of Quang Binh.
What draws travelers to Phong Nha is the exceptional caving and trekking industry that is flourishing in recent years. However, the tourism development taking place in Phong Nha varies in quality and focus, and there’s a lot more on offer than just trekking. However, savvy travelers should take note, not all tours are created equal.
I met up with Hai Nguyen, an environmentalist and local businessman at the centre of many exciting operations in the town. Hai and his wife founded Phong Nha Bamboo Cafe in 2014. He is also part owner of the ever popular Easy Tiger Hostel, and the aptly named Hai’s Eco Conservation Tour. As if that weren’t enough, he plans on opening an eco lodge on the outskirts of town, adjacent to the national park in the next 18 months. Hai’s perspective is a colorful one, that helps travelers to navigate what to do, where to eat, and where to stay to make the most of their time in Phong Nha, myself included – he made my travels a hell of a lot easier.
What to do in Phong Nha
While the number of visitors have skyrocketed in the past five years, the government has managed to keep access to the national park and the caves quite regimented. This is primarily based on the need to explore the park with guides who can safely navigate an area that is still littered with heavy amounts of UXO (unexploded ordnance) from the Vietnam War, than a reflection on slow development aspirations on behalf of the government. While it seems like there are countless tours and operators in town, in reality the number is quite small. Most operators and guest houses simply advertise for one another, and go so far as to manage joint bookings. So in all likelihood, you’ll be trekking with one of only a handful of companies.
Officials have also managed to creatively divide park access amongst operators. Jungle Boss has exclusive use of Tra Ang River Cave (Cold Cave), while Oxalis Adventure Tours is the only group allowed to access Hang En or the world’s largest cave, Son Doong. Hai’s Eco Conservation frequents the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre and the Botanic Gardens. Thankfully, these three main players in town are all environmentally conscious operations that go out of their way to minimize their impact on the land. Jungle Boss is actually owned by a former Oxalis staffer, and Hai has worked for both non-profit NGO and government organizations around regional development planning in the past. The interconnections are tightly woven in such a small destination.
For the best experience, I recommend a multi day trek with the experts at Oxalis – check out my recent article profiling the Hang En Cave Adventure – which provides the opportunity to truly venture into the depths of the national park. Follow that up with a full day motorbike and hiking tour around some of the easier to access highlights with Hai and you’re set.
Besides the famous Hang Son Doong (Mountain River Cave – the world’s largest cave), there are plenty of others within the national park that yield photo op after photo op. Thien Duong Cave (Paradise Cave) is dubbed by many as the world’s most beautiful. At 31km it’s also one of the longest. Paradise Cave was only first discovered in 2005 and opened to the public five years later. It’s one of the most accessible caves within the national park. Off the main highway, it requires a mere 1.6km golf cart ride followed by a 500 meter paved walk to find its entrance. No guide is required to tour the 1.2km of scenic and well lit boardwalk within the cave’s public area.
A tip for getting the most out of your visit to Paradise Cave is to arrive early. Operating hours begin at 7:00am daily. By 10:30am large bus groups descend on the site and things get noisy. We’re talking literal use of a megaphone noisy. If you’re there by 9am, you’re very likely to have the cave to yourself and can enjoy a few moments of zen in the jaw dropping surroundings. Renting a motorbike or putting in the leg work with a regular bicycle are equally great options for getting to the site.
Adventurous travellers looking to go beyond the boardwalk are also in luck. Multiple tour operators run excursions that journey a full 7km hike into the cave, far beyond the public boardwalk. For 2.65M VND ($117 USD) the day long journey includes swimming and boating through sections of the cave, often in the pitch black. There is also plenty of time to enjoy the sunbeams that penetrate various areas of the cave as you enjoy lunch underground.
Phong Nha Bamboo Cafe is one of the iconic dining options along the one street town of Phong Nha. What appears to be a charming eden like restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and some exceptionally healthy and tasty smoothies is actually so much more. Hai and his wife Vang, who founded the restaurant in 2014, also operate informal cooking classes here. The four hour sessions include a visit to the local market where you pick up some of the ingredients to complete three dishes. My experience included fresh pork spring rolls with tasty peanut sauce, mango salad and a stir fried pork dish boasting the most drool worthy sweet and sticky sauce I’ve ever tasted. The whole session was guided by Hai, who is a talented chef in his own right. Menus can be tailored to any food preference or allergies travelers may have.
While enjoying the fruits of our labor over a beer, Hai shares his vision for the cooking classes. His plan is to expand the restaurant and have a dedicated building for the classes adjacent to his current set up. Both morning classes and afternoon sessions will time perfectly for travellers coming and going on overnight buses who aren’t up for a full day trek. He knows his market well, and realizes that being the only cooking class in a growing town otherwise centred on trekking is a savvy move. Many of the other businesses in town could take a note of Hai’s successful diversification. As Phong Nha develops, it’s going to need greater variety of services and attractions to avoid a race to the bottom in terms of price based competition that ultimately doesn’t improve the standard of living for locals. With sore muscles after extended trekking, I for one would be a huge fan of any spa or reputable massage place in town. At the moment there are none I can honestly recommend.
Road Trip To ‘The Pub With Cold Beer’
While this should technically come under the “where to eat” section, The Pub With Cold Beer is so much more than just food. Located in Bong Lai, 8km from Phong Nha, half of the experience is simply getting to its location. You’ll need to traverse some pretty intimidating dirt roads that have been chewed up by construction. If you’re visiting during the peak of rainy season between September and November, don’t even bother. Seriously. I mean it. The mud you’ll encounter will win in a test of wills, no matter how determined you are. Luckily, the rest of the year following the numerous signs is fairly easy as you pass by various rice fields, wild buffalo, rivers and villages. Ultimately, after a solid thirty minute motorcycle ride, or an hour of biking, you arrive at a little piece of heaven.
Run by a local family, the offering here is fairly simple. As one would expect, they serve up incredibly cold beer. Check. And at only 20k VND per bottle, it’s very affordable. Double check. They also stand as the strongest example of ‘farm to table’ dining I’ve ever encountered. Chickens are ordered by the kilogram (200k VND per kg), and you can only buy whole chickens. Travellers who are feeling adventurous (and have a strong stomach) have the option of observing or participating in the catching, killing, cleaning and grilling of their own lunch. Though I didn’t have the fortitude to participate myself, I do believe that it’s important to know where your food comes from. A visit to The Pub With Cold Beer will certainly instil a healthy respect for what’s involved in serving you a meal. As you can imagine, with everything caught and made to order, it’s also ‘slow food’. So, grab a hammock and chill, start a game of beach volleyball, or take a dip in the nearby river. The wifi is surprisingly strong too if you prefer to get caught up on social media while you wait. It’s easy to pass two or three hours here without even realizing it.
The chicken is delicious, beer ice cold and views relaxing. But you don’t have to take my word for it, The Pub With Cold Beer has been written up by Huffington Post and CNN amongst others. Despite the popularity, it retains its charm and even during ‘peak’ times you’re likely to see no more than 20 fellow diners on the property. It’s easy to turn a trip to the Pub With Cold Beer into a full day road trip (either on motorbike or bicycle) as you explore the villages around Phong Nha. From the Wild Boar Eco Farm to multiple local pub and coffee shops such as East Hill, you’ll be well hydrated and quickly immersed in local culture.
More DIY Adventure
While formal trekking tours can be costly (often over $100 USD/day), there are more DIY style activities around Phong Nha that are capable of providing lasting travel memories. A solid half day can be spent wandering through the Mooc Springs Eco Trail. Set 23 km outside of town (3km from Paradise Cave), expect to cross several bamboo bridges as you take in the surroundings, kayak or even go for swim. The site is open 7am-5pm and entry only costs 80k VND/pp.
Kayaking along the Son River is another great option for active travelers. Grab a snack, perhaps a beer or two, and float down the river with camera in hand and I promise you won’t be disappointed. Even on the most drizzly of days, the passing fishing boats and children yelling hello from the river bank are great encounters. Tip: Oxalis Home rents high quality kayaks, or free for guests.
There are also plenty more caves to explore, one of the most well known, and muddiest, being Hang Toi (Dark Cave). A self guided trip to the cave entails a kayak or boat ride, zip line and a short trek into ever muddier conditions until you eventually embrace a cool mud bath of sorts. January to September (high season) rates for full access and gear as described above is 450k VND/pp. The cost drops to 250k VND in low season. Tip: Wear a dark colored bathing suit, as the mud will often stain lighter colors, and bring your GoPro for the zip line.
Where to Stay
While accommodation options in the town are growing and seem plentiful, there are really only a handful of quality providers that speak english, take credit card and serve as great hosts in relaxing environments. If at all possible, I recommend staying away from the main road, as karaoke blasting from nearby bars is sure to impact your sleep. In my opinion, upgrading away from $10 USD/night private rooms on the strip is well worth it.
For those who are looking for classic backpacker digs, the big show in town is without a doubt Easy Tiger Hostel. It’s large, offers pool tables and happy hour specials, tour bookings and free information sessions held daily. It’s also home to a lively bar, which draws in large numbers of travellers night after night. Accommodation in a four to six person dorm rooms is 180k VND/night/pp.
For trekking convenience and riverside charm, Oxalis Adventure Tours operate Oxalis Home, three kilometres from the downtown core. While the price tag is up to 5x that of budget accommodation in town, the complimentary bicycles, kayaks, and breakfast all situated on a private beach are absolutely worth it. If you’re booking a trek with Oxalis, staying here makes perfect sense and you’ll also get a bit of a discount on your booking. Bonus!
Even further from town travellers looking for some good R&R can choose between Sy’s Homestay, or Phong Nha Farmstay. The first is home to three separate bungalows and the homemade cooking of Sy and wife Huyen. The later offers a pool, organic farm, outdoor cinema and several trekking tour options. It’s easy to spend a full day discovering either one of these properties. Phong Nha Farmstay rooms begin at 910k VND, up to 1.95M VND for larger suites accommodating up to six travelers. Sy’s Homestay bungalows sleep up to four adults, and are 1M VND inclusive of free breakfast, bicycle use and laundry.
Where to Eat
Dining options in Phong Nha are admittedly limited relative to the metropolis of offerings in Hanoi or Saigon. However, there are a solid handful of restaurants that have made strong names for themselves. There are more than enough options to satisfy the pallet for any multi-day visit.
Along the main street (okay, only street in town), Thang Nhung BBQ has the motto of “the best BBQ pork & noodle shop in the world (probably)”. They serve, you guessed it, some pretty amazing BBQ pork sandwiches. This is also perhaps one of the most affordable meals you can get your hands on. A mouthwatering pork filled banh mi is only 40k VND, and Huda beer is a mere 16k VND.
Close by, Omar’s Namaste gets top marks among travelers and locals alike for it’s authentic Indian curries.
A few hundred meters north up the main road, Bamboo Cafe offers a step up in terms of size of the menu, romantic atmosphere and wifi. I recommend the beef stew special (before they run out) or the DIY vegetarian fresh rolls platter. Don’t be surprised if after a day touring Phong Nha with Hai, you see him at night overseeing staff at the restaurant. The man never stops working!
After weeks (or months) on the road, it’s only natural to crave a taste of home. Capture Vietnam Cafe serves up incredible thin crust pizzas, pastas and surprisingly good wine. It also serves as a mini import shop as your local source for HP sauce, Vegemite, Lays potato chips and Pepperidge Farms cookies should you have such cravings. From 3 to 5 pm the team here serves up a pretty tasty pizza special: your choice 10″ pizzas along with a local beer for only 60k VND. That’s less than $3 USD if you need help with the currency conversion. You can also splurge for the ‘Show Stopper’ pizza, which is not part of the offer, but with generous amounts of fig jam, blue cheese, green onion and prosciutto it’s more than worthy of the 180k VND price tag.
Lastly, it may not be known for its food, but the drinks and atmosphere at Bomb Crater Bar are definitely worth a visit. Its sleepy riverside location is a bit outside of town but easy to find on TL15, the Old French Highway that runs along the Son River. Bring your bathing suit and stay a while.
MONEY – Phong Nha is growing, but its’ still very undeveloped relative to other regions in Vietnam. There are only two, often ill functioning, ATMs in town. Most tour companies and accommodation only take cash, or apply a hefty 3% fee. There are no banks to exchange currency but you can try your luck (at poor rates) with the various travel agents in town.
TRANSPORT IN AND OUT – A 45 minute private taxi from Dong Hoi will cost 400-500k VND, while regional buses operate hourly and are a much cheaper, although slower, mode of transport.
GETTING AROUND – Motorbikes can be rented in town for 100-180k VND plus gasoline (40-60k VND) per day, depending on the quality of the ride. Be sure to take a helmet and clear contact info of the rental company in case things go wrong on the road. Often your own accommodation doubles as a rental shop and extend the best rates to their guests.
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