No, I’d never heard of Phong Nha-Ke Bang either. However, we quickly learned that the area is home to some stunning scenery above and below ground, including the world’s largest cave. If you want a break from Vietnam’s busy cities, Phong Nha is well worth exploring. When I think back to my trip around South-East Asia, these few days gave me some of the experiences I talk about the most – including one particular experience I would never have expected.
We arrived after a 26 hour coach journey from Luang Prabang in Laos (check out my blog on Luang Prabang here). Most people will arrive at the national park by travelling through the popular North-South backpacking trail. In order to get to the national park, buses run from Dong Hoi which is easily accessible from most locations nearby (like Vinh, Hue, or Hoi An).
From Dong Hoi, a short local bus will take you to the small town of Son Trach, which is home to a handful of hostels and food options.
Where to Stay:
We stayed at the Easy Tiger Hostel in Son Trach, which I would thoroughly recommend. For a relatively quiet area, the hostel is lively and welcoming. There is a bar, good food, pool table and swimming pool which are all appreciated after days exploring the area. The staff are all very helpful and are knowledgeable about the range of activities on offer – these are also explained in daily talks every morning.
Easy Tiger has a sister hostel in Dong Hoi for those arriving at times when the local buses aren’t running. It’s smaller and slightly out of town, but it’s on the beach and has a nice bar. They also have a sister farmstay in the national park (Phong Nha Farmstay), and if our stay at Easy Tiger is anything to go by, it’ll have helpful staff and good food.
What to Do:
The main attraction of Phong Nha is the caves, and most can be explored. The Phong Nha Caves and Boat Trip seemed popular from talking to people at the hostel. There is also the ‘mud cave’, where you zip wire over a river into a muddy cave. I wish we’d had another day to go there, but we chose another way to explore Phong Nha’s caves.
Unfortunately, the Hang Son Doong cave (recently discovered as the biggest in the world) is inaccessible to tourists. The only way to see it is on a 7 day trek with 16 guides. The trek costs $3000 each to see the 5km long, 200m tall, and 150m wide cave. If you want an affordable but unique cave experience while in Phong Nha, the hostel offers a worthwhile – and much cheaper – alternative!
Easy Tiger sell tickets for a 7km trek though Paradise Cave and I’d definitely recommend it as the affordable way to explore Phong Nha’s caves. The first kilometre is illuminated by colourful lights with a lot of tourists taking photos. However, at the end of the tourist-friendly boardwalks, we were given headlights as we began to walk through the massive caverns and rivers in the near-darkness. It was a very surreal experience, especially when we all turned out lights off and were literally in the pitch black.
The trek takes you to a cavern with a pool underneath a light shaft. Lunch is provided, and there is opportunity to swim in the pool (although you have to trek back in damp clothes!) Overall, the trek lasts 3 or 4 hours and costs 2,650,000VND. If you can afford it, the cave trek is definitely a worthwhile experience.
A cheaper way to explore the area is to rent bikes from the hostel. There are plenty of villages, rivers and amazing views on a fairly flat landscape. There has only been tourists in the area for 5 years, so locals are friendly and happy to see you. Easy Tiger provide a map (which isn’t quite to scale) and direct you to the ‘Pub with Cold Beer‘.
We took a few wrong turns, but there were familiar faces from the hostel when we arrived as well as the promised cold beer. The pub is more like a farm, and they sell cooked chicken which are freshly ‘prepared’ on request. selling point of the farm is the opportunity to ‘prepare’ the chicken yourself.
[NOTE – IF YOU’RE A VEGETARIAN, DON’T GO TO THE FARM, SKIP THIS NEXT SECTION, AND PLEASE DON’T JUDGE ME!]
Our visit to the Pub with Cold Beer provided one of the biggest talking points of the trip. We ordered a chicken between us and sat down with our beer. I was then offered the chance to see the chicken being killed before it was cooked. Out of politeness I followed the farmer, who then proceeded to hand me a chicken and a cleaver. Somehow a crowd gathered and I found myself killing the chicken rather than just watching. It’s not compulsory, but be aware that a visit to the Pub with Cold Beer involves the chicken being killed on site.
I definitely needed another beer after this very strange and unplanned experience, followed by a few more as it took ages to cook. When the chicken arrived though, it was one of the best meals we had on the whole trip. Maybe that was because it was so fresh, or because we were so hungry, but whatever you think about the preparation you can’t deny the quality of the food.
Like arriving, the best bet is to leave through Dong Hoi. The hostel arranged our travel including a pickup as we got a sleeper coach south to Hoi An. Other destinations include Hue, or North to Hanoi.
If you’re going to Hoi An, we didn’t realise our bus stopped in Da Nang in the middle of the night, meaning we had to get a crowded local bus at dawn to reach our destination. Check with the hostel before so you don’t get the shock we did.
Check out my blog on Hoi An here! Then, take a look at my ‘Top 5’ Highlights blog, where I look at the best places we visited, stayed, ate and drank over the seven incredible weeks we spent exploring South East Asia.