Are you still debating if you should visit Phong Nha in Vietnam? Is it worth the extra mile?
I decided to write this guide to Phòng Nha to show how this unique location has something for everyone – big caves, amazing scenery, adventure, rural countryside, great food, community feel, and local participation.
And you know the best thing. I have done this trip recently, so no old stuff around
Table of Contents
Tourism in Phong Nha remains small compared to sites like Halong Bay, Sapa and Phu Quoc Island.
Yet what it offers absolutely blew me away. It is not a quick place to get to – too far for a day trip – and national park tours are not cheap compared to others in Southeast Asia.
But you will not be fighting crowds in Phong Nha nor staring at piles of garbage. The park is run the way it should be: providing gainful employment to locals while being mindful of environmental impact.
Tour companies are keen for feedback. People are proud of the park and strive to maintain its natural state, something that is missing at lots of tourist locations and which I really appreciated. A truly raw, authentic jungle and caving experience!
And now let’s get into the meaty guide, starting with best areas of Phong Nha to finish in a suggest 3-days trip.
Phong Nha Map and Must See Areas to Explore
These are my top suggested areas to visit in Phong Nha
- National Park:
- Phong Nha Cave: Discovered in 1899, used as a hospital/storage site during the Vietnam war (and heavily bombed during that time). Access by boat tour from the park entrance. A river runs through the cave but you can get out on and walk around on a large bank inside.
- Paradise cave: Discovered in 2005, this dry cave contains a long boardwalk from which you can see many cathedrals of stalagmites and stalactites. Walk to the cave from the main entrance or you can take a buggy car.
- Phong Nha Village: ATM, restaurants, motorbike rentals and tour offices (though you can book and rent these through your hotel), kayaks for rent at Victory Villas.
- Bong Lai Valley: rural Vietnamese countryside, this valley makes for a relaxing day exploring local stops along the way:
- “Duck Stop” – fun and weird – you can ride a buffalo through the field and free your own duck.
- “Pub with Cold Beer” – swing in a hammock or play some pool overlooking the river. You can also hire a tube for 20,000 VND to float in the river.
- “Moi Moi” restaurant – a shaded and breezy spot by the fields, their specialty is pork in bamboo leaves. This combined with muoi cheo – a cilantro sauce native to Phong Nha, will not disappoint.
- Bucket list for next time:
- Dark Cave: activities here include swimming in the river, exploring the cave and rolling in the mud.
- “Wild Boar Eco Farm” – a scenic free-range wild boar farm offering local food, hammocks, and a tree swing overlooking Bong Lai valley
- Other caves: Tien Son Cave, Hang En, Hang Va, Hang Tien, Tu Lan Cave, just to name a few!
Phong Nha Ke Bang houses the largest cave in the world, Hang Son Doong. Gaining international recognition in 2009 after being explored by the British Research Caving Association, this cave houses fossils, forests, and endemic animal species.
The Cable car project in Phong Nha
There has been ongoing controversy surrounding a cable car project since 2014 when development proposals started.
A social movement called “Save Son Doong” began in 2014. Cave activist Le Nguyen Thien Hung has raised over 170,000 signatures on a petition opposed to the development proposal.
Despite environmental activism, some support the project, as the historically impoverished area would experience some economic benefits.
Quang Binh’s People’s Committee, pressured by local and international opposition, has stated that the cable car project will only be implemented if UNESCO endorses the project.
In 2017 UNESCO requested permanent cancellation of cable car plans.
There is concern of the damage a cable car would cause to the delicate ecosystem of the caves, grottoes, and rivers. The towers constructed to hold a cable car may cause the ceiling of Son Doong to collapse.
As recently as April 2019 a spokesperson for Quang Binh People’s Committee stated that no plans for cable car have been approved.
While good news, there will likely be more proposals in the future.
International and local opposition have brought attention to the pristine yet fragile environment of Son Doong and the government is not moving forward with plans (for now).
Top Highlights of Phong Nha
Do-it-yourself cave exploration
To be able to pull up, pay the fee, and walk or boat into colossal and stunning caves like Phong Nha Cave, Paradise Cave and Dark Cave is an incredibly unique experience.
The accessibility of these caves combined with minimal tourists allows you to fully appreciate the splendour of your surroundings.
Words don’t do the scenery justice.
Phong Nha cave tours
The main tour companies in Phong Nha are
- Jungle Boss
- Phong Nha Discovery
- Greenland Tours
with the first two being the most well-known. All companies offer different tours so that certain areas aren’t overused.
Whether you do a day trip or an overnighter, a tour is an absolute must on a visit to Phong Nha and though not cheap, it’s worth the price (~1,650,000 VND for a day trip).
Tours allow you to explore rural areas of the park with local guides safely. Guides are a must as unexploded ordnance exists off the trails from heavy bombing during the Vietnam War.
Tours are run by local guides, porters, and drivers, who will pick you up at your accommodation and provide everything: BBQ lunch, water, and snacks.
Guides speak good English and are enthusiastic and knowledgeable. They value feedback and want to improve. Tours are no-trace and include reusable water bottles and compostable toilets.
You will hike on one of the numerous branches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and view less commonly visited caves and may even swim through a pristine cave or lake.
It is an authentic and adventurous way to explore the park.
Relaxation in Phong Nha
After full days exploring the park, evenings in Phong Nha have a much more chill vibe.
Most accommodations include outdoor pools. If you want to try a different pool, many accommodations (notably Phong Nha Farmstay and its partnerships) allow you to use theirs freely.
You can take in the sunset at a different location each night if you please, though sunsets in the countryside at the farmstay are most visited.
Bong Lai Valley makes for a relaxing day spent checking out local spots by bike or motorbike, enjoying local cuisine, having a float in the river, and drinking in the valley scenery.
Sustainable development and local partnerships
Quang Binh used to be one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam. Residents would hunt in the park and harvest bamboo to make a living.
This is now illegal – park regulations are strictly enforced, and poaching comes with a prison sentence. But locals now make a livelihood in more sustainable ways. As mentioned, tours are run by local guides, porters, and drivers.
Farmstays and other accommodations buy local food and employ local workers. Locally sourced ingredients amplify the authenticity of the culinary experience.
Food waste is given to local families for domestic pork or poultry production.
In the farmstay area, locals who want to start their own businesses are encouraged to do so and to staff them with their own families and friends.
They remain employed under the Phong Nha farmstay umbrella and run their businesses as part of the “Farmstay Village”. This gives them access to an established market and they can learn the skills needed to attract and maintain happy guests.
As per the visitphongnha.com website, “one of our main aims is to support small businesses in the area through homestay accommodation, cultural experiences, and food options.”
It appears to have become a resounding success for the community. In a country that sees many tourists a year, it’s refreshing to be in an area that is aware of its impact.
There is a collective sense that residents really care about and respect the park, and everyone must do their part to maintain its natural beauty and wonder for future generations.
How to explore Phong Nha
- By Tour: as stated on visitphongnha.com, the best way (and sometimes the only way) to see parts of the national park is through a tour. Day tours prices start at approx. 1,650,000 VND. They include transportation, park entrance fees, an English-speaking guide, and food. Due to hidden unexploded ordnance from the war, trekking through Phong Nha without a guide is not safe.
- By Scooter: Motorbike rental costs 150,000 VND/day through Thang’s Phong Nha Riders, or you can hire a driver through the same company for 400,000 VND/day. Having a driver is an easy and personalized way to explore the national park, as you can sit back and enjoy the scenery. The driver will take you wherever you want to go within the park and surrounding countryside and will wait for you at your stops.
- By Bicycle: You can bicycle through Phong Nha village and the countryside, and you can bike through the Bong Lai Valley. However, the National park loop is too lengthy to cycle in one day. Many accommodations do offer the free use of bicycles for getting around the town or countryside.
- Walking: Phong Nha Village is walkable. Phong Nha Cave’s boat launch is located within the village. There are rice paddies and fields to walk beside in the countryside near Phong Nha Farmstay. Bong Lai Valley has restaurants and activities that are within walking distance but is too far to walk to the valley from the village.
- By Private Transportation: A private car from Phong Nha to Paradise cave will cost around 700,000 VND round trip, and 900,000 VND round trip if you add in a stop at Dark Cave. You can book through Thang’s Phong Nha Riders, or your accommodation can arrange a car for a similar price.
Phong Nha in 3 days
Day 1 – Arrival day
After taking a night train from Ninh Binh, I arrived to Phong Nha mid-morning. I recharged and headed for Phong Nha Cave via motorbike taxi.
I paid the entrance fee and took a boat up the river to the cave. This took 2.5 hours roundtrip. Drifting through Phong Nha cave, surrounded by the stalagmites and stalactites with colourful mineral deposits on the limestones – it seemed surreal.
I then headed to Victory Villas for a cocktail and was able to check out the water buffalo sunning themselves in the field out back.
I walked through Phong Nha Village to orientate myself and caught a shuttle bus from the Village back to the farmstay, where they were serving a group dinner that night known as “Chef’s Table,” with an assortment of local dishes and a chance to converse with fellow park adventurers.
Day 2 – Ma Da Valley
I booked the National Park Tour “Ma Da Valley” which involved 9km of jungle trekking, exploring Elephant Cave (Hang Voi), swimming and cliff jumping in Ma Da Lake, a BBQ lunch, and swimming through Tra Ang Cave.
While this seemed like an ambitious itinerary on a hot day, I found it to be an outrageously fun experience.
The English speaking guide was exceptional and she and the porters were very safety conscious.
It may have been one of my best travel days ever.
Swimming through a cave and then turning off your headlamps and swimming back in the dark as a group – it was a sensory experience unlike anything I’ve experienced before.
It was completely dark – there was not a single photon of light visible. It felt like I was an asteroid floating through space.
Walking back on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the dense humidity made me appreciate the efforts that Northerners went to during the War.
Day 3 – Paradise Cave & Bong Lai Valley
I planned a lighter day and headed back to the park via motorbike taxi to check out the stunning Paradise Cave.
It was enjoyable to walk through at my own pace and admire this underground, cathedral-like paradise within the park.
In the afternoon I cruised through the Bong Lai Valley and thoroughly enjoyed my stops, though an afternoon didn’t feel long enough!
I could have spent days relaxing with a cold beer and enjoying the chill vibe in the valley.
Next time, I will visit Dark Cave and spend a full day exploring the Bong Lai Valley.
Getting to Phong Nha
Hoi An to Phong Nha
There is no direct bus from Hoi An, however, you can take a bus to Danang and then transfer to a sleeper bus from Danang to Dong Hoi (the closest town with a large bus station).
Hoang Long travel company offers a sleeper bus that takes 7-8 hours and there are 6 departures in a 24 hour period. Bus schedules can be found here.
There is a local bus that departs Da Nang at 1300 – tickets can be purchased at Da Nang Bus Station. It will go to Dong Hoi, where you need to transfer to a local bus to get to Phong Nha.
There is no train station in Hoi An. The nearest station is Danang, and it is an approximately 6.5-hour train journey Dong Hoi (the nearest train station to Phong Nha).
There are four departure times in a 24 hour period. If you choose this route and arrive in the early morning, it is recommended you arrange a private transfer from your accommodation beforehand (~550,000 VND) and ensure beforehand that you can check in during the early hours. You can view the train schedules here.
Hanoi to Phong Nha
The sleeper bus takes 9.5 hours from Hanoi to Dong Hoi. There are three departures in a 24 hour period. Bus schedules can be found here.
The train takes 10 hours to get from Hanoi to Dong Hoi, and there are 5 departures in a 24 hour period. You can view the train schedules here.
Ninh Binh to Phong Nha
The sleeper bus offers 6 departures every 24 hours. It is a 12 hour bus journey. Bus schedules can be found here.
From Ninh Binh to Dong Hoi it is an 8-9 hour train journey with three departure times in a 24 hour period. You can view the train schedules here.
Dong Hoi to Phong Nha
The local bus is cheap and takes 1.5 hours. It can drop you off in the countryside by the farmstay or in centre of Phong Nha.
It departs from Ben Xe Nam Ly bus station and is a green and yellow bus, numbered B4. The bus will say “Dong Hoi – Hoan Lao – Phong Nha” on the window.
The first trip is at 0530, then 0545, then hourly on the 10 from 0710-1710. From the train station, you will need to walk about 15 minutes to Ben Xe Nam Ly bus station which includes crossing a bridge, or you can take a taxi.
Local taxis: Barter with them before you get in so that you end up paying 400,000-500,000 VND. Shared between people, this is a reasonable price.
Private transfers start at 500,000 VND – again shared between people it is quite reasonable. Arrange this through your accommodation before you arrive in Dong Hoi.
Motorbike taxis range between 200,000-250,000 VND. This is a fair option on a fair-weather day, but not recommended at nighttime or in the rain. Arrange through Thang’s Phong Nha Riders beforehand.
Where to stay in Phong Nha
I stayed at Phong Nha Farmstay, located in the countryside about 15 minutes outside of Phong Nha village.
I thoroughly enjoyed lounging by the pool in the evenings and watching the sunset. The restaurant had a wide variety of foods to suit most tastes.
The value was reasonable, appropriate for mid-upper budget travellers. I would recommend spending more than one night – you need a minimum of three, or even longer, because there are so many amazing sights to see during the day and it is so enjoyable to relax in the countryside in the evening.
The rooms were comfortable and the location had everything one would need: refillable water stations, food, swimming pool, laundry, bicycles, and sunsets.
The focus on sustainable partnerships with locals really stuck out to me.
The farmstay follows a “dispersed hotel” model – your room might be in a different homestay (in consultation with the Farmstay when you make your booking) but you come to the main farmstay for use of services such as the pool, restaurant and laundry.
These collaborative homestay partners can accommodate a variety of sizes and requests. This directly benefits the local homestay owners and employees.
Read more about Vietnam
- Ultimate guide to travel photography in Vietnam
- Two days of photography in Hoi An [what and where]
- Best 55 Vietnam images [beautiful pictures from a travel experience]
- The complete photo gallery of Vietnam
- Where to stay in Vietnam
- Where to stay in Hoi An
- Where to stay in Hanoi
This post has been written by our collaborator Laura Battison who provided also all the photos.