Phong Nha is located in the middle of Vietnam, almost exactly where you would draw the north-south border.
Until recently, Phong Nha had been relatively overlooked as a tourist spot until the discovery of Hang Son Doong (Mountain River Cave) – the largest cave in the world, which was discovered in 2009. However, it’s now thought to be even bigger after the discovery of an underwater tunnel connecting it to another cave by British divers in 2019.
The new discovery adds an extra 1.6 million cubic metre of volume to its existing 38.5 million cubic metre, which is the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest’s 8848m and discovering a mound that made it 1000m taller. – just let that sink in for a moment!!
As you can imagine, this cave is an adventurous travellers dream, access to the cave was only approved by the government in 2013 and operating rights are reserved for one company ‘Oxalis adventure tours’. These tours have been sold out ever since they started operating, and this is no one-day trip, due to the caves size you must book a 4 day trip and it costs around $3,000 per person.
So whilst the idea of a Hang Son Doong tour would be something Shaun and I would love to do, we did not have the time and certainly not the money. However, since the discovery of the cave has thrusted Phong Nha into the limelight, we are now aware of all of the other amazing things it has to offer for thrill seekers and outdoorsy types who can’t afford to see the ‘big one’, this is what drew Shaun and I to visit Phong Nha.
We stayed in Tu lan phong nha homestay and paid £28 for 2 nights, in terms of atmosphere and hosts this was my favourite place we stayed during our whole trip. The homestay was run by a family who were so welcoming and hospitable, the owner came to collect us at 5am from our overnight bus so we wouldn’t have to try and find a taxi in the early hours of the morning.
They also had a pool which made it a lot more sociable as other guests would sit around the pool in the day and you would naturally get chatting to people. Whilst we were there our hosts cooked us family dinner along with all the other guests who wanted to join, there was no extra cost for this and we sat, ate and chatted with our host family and other guests – they even brought out the rice wine and taught us how to say cheers in Vietnamese. The food was delicious and we had ‘morning glory’ which was one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes. However, even if the food had been less tasty I still think this would have been up there with one of my favourite dining experiences.
The home stay family also had two dogs who had just had a puppy called ‘Simmi’ who would play around the outdoor communal area and trot over to you when he fancied having some attention. I would obviously make a point to try and find him every time we walked through the outdoor communal area (watch the end of the video for cute Simmi footage).
The Botanic Garden located in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is a 15 minute drive from Phong Nha. Shaun I drove here on our first day and thought the views leading into the national park were amazing, the closer you get the more you can see the thick jungle!
One of the highlights of this walk is the Thac Gio Waterfall, and there are a few different routes you can take through the gardens.
Route 1: Waterfall only (40 minutes)
Route 2: Lake (small swimming spot) and Waterfall (1hr and 30 mins)
Route 3: Route 2 with a longer jungle trek (3 hours)
Shaun and I decided to take route 2, I have a tendency to dehydrate and overheat quite easily in humid weather, which once resulted in me fainting on a beach (sorry Shaun). As we were doing the walk by ourselves and not with a guide, we thought best to stick to the 1.5 hour walk to try and avoid any medical emergencies in the middle of the jungle.
The paths were really well laid out so there was no risk of getting lost, but it was challenging at times, especially near the waterfall where the rocks are quite wet, as usual Shaun and I were not dressed for the occasion and were wearing fliplfops which I’m sure made it slightly more difficult. I must admit, I was quite underwhelmed by the ‘lake’ which is really a small pool of water which you can swim in, the water looked pretty stagnant and mossy so I sat that one out. However, around the lake were hundreds of butterflies, so much bigger than any I’ve ever seen in the UK, much more impressive than the lake itself! The waterfall however was great, and you even have to scale up it slightly to get out and back on the path, so we had a lot of fun trying to do this without losing our flipflops!
Paradise and Dark cave
As I mentioned before, Shaun and I weren’t going to see the ‘big one’ but we were going to get to see some caves! We booked a day tour to go to (Thiên Đường) Paradise and (Hang Toi) Dark cave.
Paradise Cave extends for a whopping 31km, although visitors only tend to venture into the first kilometre. You enter by descending down a steep wooden staircase and you’re immediately greeted by amazing views, I had mentioned in a previous post about how breathtaking the Suprise Cave in Halong Bay was, and how the lighting of the stalactite and stalagmite had made it look like a scene from Harry Potter. Well, it’s as if Paradise cave laughed in the face of Surprise cave and said i’ll raise you your Hogwarts scene and give you this!
Dark Cave has earned it’s name due to the fact it’s one of the caves in Vietnam which does not have any artificial lighting added to it. Whilst there haven’t been any adaptions made inside the cave to accommodate tourists, there have been plenty made to the surrounding area and there has been an obvious attempt to make the cave more appealing to thrill seekers. Therefore, most people enter the cave by completing Vietnam’s longest zipline over the lake, as Shaun weighed over 90kg he wasn’t allowed to do the Zipline (lol) so Shaun had to Kayak across the lake whilst I took the Zipline.
We then had to swim over to the mouth of the cave and the water was ice cold! I could not believe how bitterly cold it felt, even in the humid weather. Obviously, as there is no lighting, everyone was given a helmet and head torch to light the path ahead. We spent around 10 minutes walking through the cave, some of the passage ways were so narrow that you had to sideways step through the rocks, I’ll be honest – I had not anticipated it being that intense and when we got to the really narrow parts where we needed to squeeze through, I had to have a quick word with myself to prevent me from crying and demanding to go back! Once we had made it through the passageway we arrived at the mud bath, we all sat and covered ourselves in the clay, or threw it at each other, as was Shaun’s way of doing it. Then our guide instructed us to turn off our head torches for a couple of seconds, and we all sat in complete darkness. After a while I had to close my eyes because they started to feel so strange, I started to see those red dots you sometimes get when you close your eyes (anyone else ever had this?) I googled this phenomenon and apparently they are called Phosphenes. Anyway, I digress.
Once we had turned our head torches on and made our way out of the cave there was a rope assault course suspended over the lake which we were given some time to go and play around on. I honestly felt like I was 10 years old again trying to master the monkey bars, it was a really nice way to finish the tour.
Bounce from Cafe to cafe
In terms of ‘organised activities and tours’ all we really did during our time here was visit the caves and the botanic gardens. Organised tours can eat into a backpacking budget quite a lot, which is why we tried to do a lot of activities by ourselves, but sometimes you need a guide! Therefore, we didn’t really have the time or finances to squeeze anything else whilst in Phong Nha. So aside from our tours we would literally just fill the bike up and drive around, stopping off at any restaurants or cafes which caught our eye on the way, we spent hours doing this and much like most of our other destinations in South East Asia, we felt this was one of the best ways to see the area and sometimes it’s nice not to have a plan and just see where the day takes you! Before our trip this was something I had never been able to do, but backpacking really forced me to live in the moment a little bit more and just go with the flow, so i’m really grateful for that.
Some of the places we visited:
Bomb crater bar
Bomb crater bar is just 3km away from Phong Nha, so was really easy to get to by bike.
The land that the bar is built on housed a fuel depot during the American war and because of this it was heavily bombed, including a 2000lb bomb that created the crater that gives the bar its name.
The cafe offers various food and drinks, whilst the bomb crater wasn’t mind blowing and admittedly does not look distinctively like a bomb crater (perhaps more like a gardening project that someone started but never finished?), it is a nice place to stop for a cool drink, with some cozy hammocks to sit in and the staff there were very nice and welcoming.
Sunflower hostel cafe
Sunflower is a hostel which also serves as a restaurant and bar. Shaun and I went for a couple of hours one afternoon as they have a free pool and foosball table (free stuff – always a good selling point when you’re a backpacker), so we ordered some drinks and had a few games (which obviously got overly competitive). They do also offer food which looked really good and was a mixture of Vietnamese food and western dishes like Pizzas, burgers and sandwiches.
Artists Zone is a peaceful restaurant/bar with a lovely outdoor seating area tucked back away off the road. Shaun and I stopped off here for a couple of hours with a beer, they were playing jazz music which gave it a really chilled atmosphere.
As I mentioned before, Shaun and I tried our first Indian meal in Vietnam whilst we were in Tam coc and were so impressed with the food that we wanted to eat out at another one before we left to test our theory that the meals were better out here than we could get at home. So when we noticed this restaurant whilst driving back to our home stay one day it was a bit a of a no- brainier. Thankfully, Omar Namiste didn’t disappoint, and we were starting to build a body of evidence to support out theory, lol!
Travelling around Vietnam generally felt quite adventurous to me, it was the first time I had ever really been on a holiday that wasn’t in a resort, or a city. So the fact that Shaun taught himself to ride a bike in 15 minutes and every morning we would jump on and drive around with no plan, no guide or no real idea where we were going or what we were doing, felt way out of my comfort zone and very adventurous! However, this feeling seemed to be amplified while we were in Phong Nha.
Perhaps because our time here involved a lot of thrill seeking, whether it were zipwires or swimming through dark caves I think we did a lot of activities which got my heart rate up!