Phong Nha: Caves & countryside

Since arriving in Vietnam we’ve noticed the number of cave systems.  We definitely needed to include a tour into our route through Vietnam. After much research, we decided on the caves around Phong Nha. It sounded like a pretty chilled out area too. Caves & countryside – what more do you need!?!

Did you know this area has the largest cave in the world, but you require a special tour lasting a few days with lots of restrictions to be able to visit. Reviews have stated that the you can fit an entire New York City block, complete with 40 story skyscrapers in it! Plus it has its own weather system. Crazy!!

The town itself is quite rural and another great area to explore by scooter.  We hired a bike for 2 days in order to access the sites – we love getting out on scooters! 

How to get to Phong Nha

There was a slight hiccup on our journey to Phong Nha. The travel agency we booked with got our dates wrong and had us booked a day later than when we arrived. Frustratingly it was 10.30pm at night and as such we were all very tired.

Thankfully the train attendant called her sister who owned a nearby (nice) hotel and booked us in for a extra night! (Only $30). I love how local families share the dramas with us!

It all worked out in the end and effectively it was just a blip (ninh binh really isn’t an exciting city!!). See… I’m getting good at going with the flow!! Ha ha

Next day we arrived at the train station and boarded the correct sleeper train!!

 

The train arrived in Dong Hoi, but in order to get to Phong Nha you need to either organise a taxi or get a local bus.  We opted for a local bus.

As we had arrived rather early to the station, we opted to grab a coffee and some breakfast. A lovely lady (who I think greets every train) beckoned us up the street to her little restaurant.  There we had a vietnamese coffee and Egg Banh Mi. She then organised for us to get a taxi to the bus station (so lovely).

We arrived at a bus stop and while debating which bus we needed to catch a minibus turned up with Phong Nha on the front – ace!  We hopped on and paid 35,000 per person and took around an hour. The cost of a taxi was 350,000 and wasn’t much quicker.

The locals jumped on and off and squeezed on board – I love seeing local life.

We were dropped off in the centre of town, with our hostel being less than a 10 minute walk away! Perfect! 

Our return journey we arranged a transfer as our train was departing at 6.30am. Well… that was the scheduled time. In fact, we were delayed by over 3 hours. Not the most exciting station to be sat at all morning! Ah well. 

Our train finally arrived!

Where to stay in Phong Nha

There’s lots of hype about a backpackers called Tiger – which is centrally located with a pool and lively bar.  It sounded a bit to hectic for our style so instead we opted to stay at Phong Nha Coco House.

It was a family run place with small adjoining bungalow rooms situated around a courtyard and next to the river.  We enjoyed a sunset drink in the small restaurant area overlooking the river.

The room was basic, but a good size and comfortable.  The walls were pair thin too so you could hear everything. But we didn’t have noisy neighbours. Good knows what they thought of us though, ha ha!

We were also able to hire scooters from here for 100,000 per day per scooter which made it easy to get around. You just fill up at the petrol station on the outskirts of town (don’t fill up at the side stalls – much more expensive)

 

Things to do in Phong Nha

Ho Chi Minh Trail

Having hired scooters were we had a day in Phong Nha – ke Bang National Park planned.  In order to reach the famous Paradise cave we were heading along part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  The trail has dramatic scenery and weaves in and out of limestone karsts.  

 

We decided to complete a loop heading towards Dark Cave first (although we didn’t stop).  We continued further along until we arrived at Paradise Cave. After our cave exploration we continued through the hills with the dramatic cliffs and lush greenery.  It was great fun! The road was a bit narrower and uneven in parts, but still rideable. We then arrived at the Botanical Gardens for a quick stop and grabbed something to eat in the little cafe here.  We were soon on our way back to the hostel after a busy and tiring day out!

It took around 1 ½ hours to complete the full loop, not including our stop-offs.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was part of the supply lines to aid the North Fighters.  This area was heavy bombed and there remnants of this that can still be seen.  

 

Paradise Cave

There are a number of package deals in the area, but we found these to be waaayyy over our budget.  Instead we decided to hire a scooter and go DIY.

The caves were discovered in 2005 and opened to the public in 2010.  When we arrived at the entrance gate, we paid 15,000 to park our scooters & we walked through the main car park. By now it was 9am and the area seemed fairly quiet. 

We paid 250,000 (Adult)/125,000 (children) at the entrance gate where you then have the option to either pay extra for a buggy ride to the base of the caves or walk 1km along a flat path… we walked!

It was quite humid and so we bought another bottle of water, which I recommend as there is a long climb up the hill before you actually reach the cave entrance. 

Note: there’s a toilet stop at the bottom or half way up the climb.

We eventually reached the top and there were 1 or 2 tour groups waiting to watch an introductory video.  We seized our opportunity and headed down the steps.  

Wow!!  It was HUGE!  The steps led into a massive open space underground – It was like an aircraft hanger. 

We proceeded further down and into the cave. It actually went on much further than I expected.  It was well lit and you followed a boardwalk all the way through until the end. I think we timed it quite well as it wasn’t overly busy.  But on our return we saw and heard those larger groups arriving! You do tend to hear, before you see, Chinese Tour groups with their megaphones!! ha ha.

 

 

We re-appeared hot and sweaty but really enjoyed the caves!

I can’t imagine what the Son Doong cave is like if you have to trek 4 days to explore it!!  There is only one company who can run tours here. Check them out here if you’re interested!

 

Botanical Gardens

Another stopping point, but it was a bit of a disappointment.  We paid 12,000 to enter. To enter you walk across a bamboo bridge into the gardens.  And although its described as Botanical gardens – really didn’t get that feel though! We did see a few enclosures with some monkeys and a peacock, but it didn’t look well kept.  

Instead we just followed the pathway along to the recommended waterfalls. Which in fact were a trickle… if that! Who knew that dry season would be the worst time to go searching for waterfalls! ha ha, ah well.  

 

Bong Lai valley 

As we had the scooters we decided to go and explore the nearby Bong Lai Valley.  There were a few activities listed on the route and they sounded intriguing.

Our first stop was Duck Stop! Weirdest and funniest thing we have done on our travels!! O.k. I’m not sure it is ethically sound but they have managed to pitch the activity at the right price and the right level of entertainment.

However, when we first arrived we had no idea what to expect.  We parked our scooters and were asked to sit at the tables and offered a drink by our 12 year old host! (It’s school holidays and he spoke perfect English!)  The duck stop offer a package for 120,000 you can become a duck leader, have a free drink (including a beer) and taste Vietnamese pancakes with local peanut sauce.

For 150,000 you can also add a ride on Donald Trump, their local water buffalo – which of course Ethan begged to do!  

So first, we headed over to Donald where Ethan climbed on and rode through the water pool and into the field.  Now, this was totally one of those touristy gimmicks and not something we would usually partake in. But Ethan has been a bit jumpy around cows since India so we decided to let him. 

It was only 5 minutes and then we headed over to the ‘duck’ area.  We put on our safety gear first!

There was a gentleman who gave us instructions on what to do and how to be a good duck leader.  Keith and I were just shaking our heads wondering what on earth was going on. The guy was feeding the ducks (who were now surrounding us) and then put seeds into our hands.  Of course, the ducks were straight in there – it was quite funny.  

We then completed a series of ‘tasks’ including actions such as getting the ducks to ‘bow to their leader’. 

It was actually quite comically and although I won’t go into all that we experienced (you have to just try it yourself) the ridiculousness of it had us in stitches!  Very, very funny and I can confirm that no ducks were harmed in the process.

With our duck students

With our duck students

After washing our hands and feet, we returned to the dining area to enjoy our crispy vietnamese pancakes and delicious local peanut sauce!  Actually quite tasty!! All included in the price.

Soon we were back in the scooters continuing past the Really Cold Beer Cafe, lots of people had mentioned in reviews that it’s a nice place to stop and have ‘a cold beer’ in a hammock with delicious views.  We didn’t stop here though.

And then proceeded further along the track until we reached the end.  It was advertised as a Bong Lai Swing and swimming area.  And whilst it had nice views there was a charge to climb down and swim in the river (which was pretty low considering there’s been no rain) and a charge to use the swing.  It wasn’t quite what we expected so the boys lazed in the hammocks while we had a drink before moving on.

The guy suggested we return by driving over the suspension bridge and doing a loop.  It was a great way to explore the nearby towns and countryside and made for an enjoyable day out.  

Other things to do in Phong Nha

Phong Nha caves – having just been to tam coc and halong bay we decided to skip the phong Nha caves cruise.  The cave tagged you through around 14 grottoes. Entrance fee is 150,000 (around £5) and 360,000 for the boat. It’s mentioned in guides to wait around until you have a full boat to reduce the price (it can seat upto 14 people).

 

Dark Cave – if you are feeling a little more adventurous, then the Dark cave has a number of adrenalin activities to entertain you in and around the caves. There are ziplines, swimming holes and mud baths, as well as cave exploring. 

 

Eight ladies cave – after reading reviews a number of people suggested skipping this cave as  it wasn’t that impressive. And we were feeling a little tired by this point – but if you have the energy and want to take a longer loop then this is one to stop at.

 

Conclusion

A lovely little town and stopping around on your way south. The caves were pretty amazing and riding our scooters along the ho chi Minh trail was another highlight. But most of all I liked the laid back feel of the town.

The restaurants were surprised geared to a more Western taste. But it wasn’t over developed and a great base for exploring & also relaxing!

 

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