Phong Nha in Central Vietnam has been put on the global map only very recently. Son Doong cave is the largest cave in the world and was only discovered in 1991 by a local man who had gone trekking into the jungle to look for anything he could use or sell. He had stumbled into the cave trying to find shelter from some stormy weather. However, it was only in 2009 that anyone actually took him seriously. At this point a group of cavers and scientists followed him into the jungle and documented the cave. The cave is so large it actually creates its very own weather and ecosystem which is home to endemic species (only found in that one place!). Tourists can visit the cave but only through Oxalis on a 4 day, tough, trekking adventure which will set you back around $3000.
Phong Nha resembles Ha Long Bay, only instead of limestone mountains sitting amongst water, they sit amongst rice paddies. There are literally 1000’s of caves in the area and away from Son Doong there are plenty of others you can visit.
Most people that go to Phong Nha will end up staying in one of the many homestays around the small town – just like we did! Driving just outside the town will bring you to the beginning of one of the most beautiful roads I have ever been on. Driving a motorbike on this small loop (50km) is an absolute must! It seemed every corner you turn brought a new spectacular view of forests, mountains and valleys full of the greenest fields you’ve ever seen.
The botanical gardens make a worthy stop off point along this loop. We stopped here and decided to do the medium length path inside the gardens (1.5km), which is more just a maintained part of the forest. There is a small monkey rehabilitation centre at the front and if you’re lucky some wildlife in the forest! We did see a couple of huge giant malabar squirrels lazing about in the treetops, plus thousands of butterflies with the most stunning colours you’ve ever witnessed. I tried to get some photos of the butterflies but if anyone of you has actually attempted this seemingly easy task you will understand why I failed!
There is also a ‘semi-wild enclosure’ on the loop which we made a pit stop at. I wouldn’t recommend anyone to visit this place since there is not an awful lot to see. Plus it is essentially a fenced in part of the forest with an unmaintained path around it. We saw the Hatinh Langurs which are endemic to this forest, but wish they would be allowed to roam freely rather than within the fenced area. Also, the dog at reception is extremely aggressive and chased us on the motorbike away from the enclosure as we left – definitely skip!
We stopped off several times on the loop to take in the views and snap some piccies. You’ll also find Paradise Cave on this loop, a must do if you’re in Phong Nha!
We managed to squeeze 5 caves into our 3 days in Phong Nha. We did 3 on our own and 2 as part of an Oxalis tour.
A cave that extends so far into the mountains you cannot quite fathom it. On an organised trek you can walk 7km deep into this cave! Even just on a normal entry ticket the size of the cave impresses you though. As we entered the cave our view down into the first chamber was hazy with fog from the change in temperature which created a magical atmosphere. I wish photos inside caves actually did them justice, but unfortunately they don’t. Be prepared to walk to the cave. We arrived by bike, but then had to walk 20 minutes to reach some stairs which then spiralled upwards for 200-300 metres to the entrance of the cave. I was winded by the time we reached the top!
Phong Nha Cave
Reachable only by boat you float into the mouth of this cave. It was the busiest cave we visited, probably down to the ease of access and lack of exercise involved. Funnily enough it was also the least impressive! It does give you access to Tien Son cave above though which was much better. We had the whole cave to ourselves, probably because 90% of people decide not to climb the 200 steep steps to the entrance (rewarded by some breathtaking views though). The path inside the cave takes you through some smaller holes and chambers that make you feel like a bit more of an explorer!
We made the decision to book onto the one day tour with Oxalis so that we could experience a bit more adventure and witness some of the lesser visited caves. We visited Rat cave and Ton cave which is part of the larger Tu Lan cave system. It was an amazing day which included a total of 9km of trekking, avoiding poison ivy and swimming fully clothed through a pitch black cave with bats flying overhead!
Our feet may have resembled shrivelled up prunes by the end of the day but we had so much fun! I know for a fact we would definitely go back to Phong Nha and take part in a longer adventure with Oxalis – maybe even Son Doong one day.
Bông Lai Valley
A short 15 minute drive away from Phong Nha, tucked behind some mountains, is this picturesque valley. The roads are bad but the views are great. We took a trip down here and stopped off at The Pub With The Cold Beer which did indeed provide cold beer as promised. I also hear you can catch and kill your very own chicken to have freshly prepared for you! There are small joints like this dotted up the valley which are fantastic as they’ve given the families a new source of income (as opposed to farming the land) and is improving the quality of life in the area.
We explored the small villages inside the valley and were greeted with a smile by every local we waved at. The people in Vietnam are just so warm and friendly!
With so much exploration potential on your doorstep and so much natural beauty, Phong Nha makes a worthy stop on any Vietnam itinerary. With scenery like that Vietnam has taken our no.1 spot as most beautiful country we have visited so far.
Sad to leave as we headed North into the worst weather we’ve had yet!