You’ve definitely heard of Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City, and Ha Long Bay, which are among the top places for tourists to visit in Vietnam. But have you heard of Phong Nha? The buzz around this little Vietnamese town near the Laos border has been steadily growing in recent years. It is the jumping-off point for expeditions to Son Doong Cave, which has gained global fame as the largest cave in the world. But Son Doong is not all that Phong Nha has to offer; read on to learn more about the other subterranean adventures that you can embark on from the town.
1. Son Doong is the largest natural cave in the world, and just one of the vast numbers of caves around Phong Nha
Back in 2009, the world learned of the colossal wonder known as Son Doong Cave, as an intrepid expedition team declared it the planet's largest natural limestone cave. This astonishing revelation gained the stamp of approval from none other than the National Geographic Magazine in 2011, solidifying its legendary status.
Son Doong may have grabbed all the headlines with its mammoth rock formations, 9km length and caverns that can fit a 747 plane, but it is just part of a huge system of caves in the region, some of which are almost as big as Son Doong.
Other notable caves in the area include Hang En, which ranks as the third-largest cave in the world. There is also Hang Va, where uniquely conical stalagmites have formed over the millennia. Known as tower cones, these extraordinary formations are one of the main reasons Hang Va stands out as a true gem, even amongst cave experts.
All of these caves were formed through the erosion of easily soluble limestone mountains, and most of them are located within or around the protected area of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Dense vegetation means that the area is not yet fully explored, and it is possible that there are caverns even larger than Son Doong that remain undiscovered by cave experts!
2. You’ll be able to explore a cave, no matter your fitness level or budget
In order to protect Son Doong’s unique environment, the Vietnamese government has imposed strict limits on the number of tourists to the cave — independent visits are banned, and you’ll have to embark on a guided six-day, five-night caving tour with an eye-watering price tag of US$3,000 (S$4,013.68) if you want to see it for yourself.
If Son Doong is out of your budget, you’ll be pleased to learn there are other guided cave tours to suit almost all wallets and regardless of whether you're a fit individual or not. From expeditions to explore giant caves with both dry and river passages, and day treks that bring you into deep jungles of popular cave systems, there are plenty of options. And as long as you can walk and navigate a few staircases, you’ll be able to go for a tour of at least one massive cave.
The easiest of these cave tours is a tour of Phong Nha Cave — this half-day trip entails a boat ride up the river that runs through town to the cave, the entrance to which is in the middle of a sheer cliff. Your accommodation will be able to arrange this for you easily, for less than S$50. Within Phong Nha Cave, like the other nearby caves in the region, you can find spectacular rock formations which have been shaped by millions of years of erosion and deposition. These rock formations take on animal names like the "Lion," the "Unicorn," and the "Kneeling Elephant".
Split into distinct realms, this cave unfolds in two captivating dimensions. Firstly, the elevated dry caves sit perched at a lofty 200m above ground. Secondly, the adventure takes a subterranean turn into the wet caves, where an enigmatic underground river flows.
Another easy half-day tour you can go on is to Paradise Cave, which does require a 20-minute uphill hike but rewards you with even more dramatic cave formations. There are even tours to Dark Cave, which is especially popular among the backpacker crowd — it is reached by a zipline into a river, and its interior features oozing mud which is supposedly good for the skin. So, if your heart races for thrills and excitement, with a dash of obstacle courses, exhilarating swims, kayaking, rejuvenating mud baths, cave exploration, and even a thrilling journey on Vietnam's longest zipline, then this is an adventure tailored just for you — a once in a lifetime experience without a doubt!
3. Thrill-seekers can embark on longer tours for even more unique experiences
For the even more adventurous, there are multi-day tours to other cave systems, led by specialist tour operators. There is a great variety of choices, based on the number of days, and the caves you want to experience.
I went on a four-day, three-night expedition to the Tu Lan cave system, led by Oxalis Adventure Tours (which is also the only adventure tour company with the right to lead Son Doong tours), which elevated the adventurous journey by offering the unique opportunity to raft and swim through rivers in the caves. Possibly the most memorable experience from the tour was plunging into an icy underground river with clothes, footwear and backpack on (as you need to bring all your gear from one campsite to the next), and paddling against the current to reach a small rapids system, which I then had to traverse.
Other cave tours have their own unique selling points. The Hang En tour gives you the chance to camp on a ‘beach’ (actually a sandy river bank) within the cave. At certain times of the year, morning sunbeams penetrate the campsite, making for stunning photos. Meanwhile, the Hang Tien tour brings visitors to a cave with a huge dome-shaped ceiling structure and formations shaped like terraced rice paddies.
Regardless of which tour you choose, you’ll be able to admire stunning stalactites and stalagmites, giant cave pearls, cliffs of flowstone, and many other peculiar rock formations.
You will also probably come across the local wildlife on the cave ceiling and cave floors, which include — trigger warning - huntsman spiders, cave crickets, leeches, and nesting bats. But leave them alone, and they will not bother you.
And you will not have to worry about logistics — your tour operator will take good care of you every step of the way. On my tour, besides the guide who took great care to share the history and geology of the caves, we were also accompanied by a safety assistant, a chef who whipped up a huge spread of delicious food at every meal, and multiple porters.
4. Explore the surrounding countryside when you’re all caved out
After you’ve had your fill of subterranean adventure, most accommodations in Phong Nha can loan you bicycles to explore the nearby rural landscape and communities. You can also rent motorcycles if you feel like taking things even easier after the arduous journey.
Of note is the picturesque Bong Lai Valley, which lies less than an hour’s bicycle ride away. It offers several worthy pit stops, including:
- The Duck Stop, a working farm whose star attraction is a pen where you can feed and play with the eponymous avians,
- The Pub with Cold Beer, which, despite its name, is actually a restaurant famous locally for its whole roasted chicken, and
- The Bong Lai Swing Nature Farm, offering swings overlooking the valley and the endless wilderness for all your Instagram needs.
There is no doubt that North Vietnam has loads to explore but nestled in Quang Binh, a province renowned for its rugged beauty in central Vietnam, Phong Nha beckons with a harmonious blend of sun-kissed beaches and majestic mountains. Offering a wealth of activities and sights for the adventurous traveller, it is time to add it to your Vietnam itinerary!
Pro tips for unforgettable cave exploration in Vietnam:
- Phong Nha is most easily accessed by a short flight to Dong Hoi City from Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, and then a 30min taxi ride from the Dong Hoi airport.
- Many of the caves (and sometimes even Phong Nha town itself) are flooded during the rainy season (around September to November), and are inaccessible. Avoid travelling to Phong Nha during this period, especially if your aim is to go caving.
- Drop your preconceived notions of Vietnam as a tropical destination, and pack your cold-weather clothing if you’re travelling in the winter season (around November to March). It can get surprisingly chilly – temperatures hit around 10°C when I visited in late December.
- Expect your clothes and footwear to get wet and/or muddy if you embark on a multi-day cave tour. You’ll need to ford or even swim through streams and underground rivers, so do not wear anything you cannot bear to get dirty!
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Best time to visit
The perfect time to visit Vietnam is between November and April. And for an unforgettable adventure in Phong Nha Ke Bang national park, consider planning your visit between the months of March and August. This delightful window aligns with the park's dry season, offering a perfect opportunity to explore its diverse natural wonders. During these months, you can bask in the warmth of the sun and revel in the balmy temperatures that often reach up to 32°C, creating an optimal environment for experiencing the park's enchanting attractions and landscapes.
For those new to Vietnam, exploring its vibrant cities and towns is best done by train, with the scenic coastal route from HCMC to Hanoi offering a delightful adventure. Budget travellers will find buses a wallet-friendly option, connecting every corner of the country with convenience and affordability.
The official currency of Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong (đồng). You can exchange your currency at Changi Recommends and collect it conveniently before checking in at Changi Airport Terminal 1 or 3.
A direct flight from Singapore to Vietnam takes less than 4 hours. Currently, there are flights to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, with an upcoming new route to Hai Phong.