Phong Nha

Phong Nha is a national park that contains an extensive cave system. There are hotels and hostels in the park, but many travelers stay in Dong Hoi, which is about a 75-minute drive away. I booked a tour with Phongnha Discovery Tours through my hotel in Dong Hoi to see two caves: Paradise Cave and Phong Nha Cave, the park’s namesake.

I took an overnight train from Hanoi to Dong Hoi and joined my tour group straight after dropping off my bags at my hotel. Our first stop was Paradise Cave, which was rediscovered in 2005. We started with a sweaty, uphill walk to reach the entrance. As our tour guide Sunny provided background information about the cave, we could feel cool air wafting from the entrance, even though we were yards away. The temperature inside the cave was perfect, so we were able to fully appreciate the stalagmites and stalactites.

paradise cave

paradise cave

Sunny said the cave is about 30 km long, but most visitors follow a 1-km path. The cave wasn’t particularly crowded, but people’s conversations and clicks from cameras served as white noise. It wasn’t loud enough to be annoying, but it was noticeable. The crowd thinned as I continued down the path, and the background noise lessened. By the time I reached the end of the path, I was the only person remaining and was greeted with dead silence. It was slightly eerie but awesome at the same time.

paradise cave

The formations at the end of the path

I could have easily spent another hour in Paradise Cave, but it was time to head to Phong Nha Cave. Phong Nha contains a river, which distinguishes it from Paradise Cave. We accessed Phong Nha by boat, which was rowed by two hard-working women. I was impressed by the strength of the men and women who rowed the boats through Phong Nha.

phong nha

Action shot of the woman who rowed the front of our boat. Another woman rowed from the back.

phong nha

And I thought kayaking was hard…

After we glided through Phong Nha, we were able to access a dry part of the cave by foot. The formations were equally as cool as those in Paradise Cave.

phong nha

phong nha

phong nha

Sunny mentioned that Son Doong, the largest cave in the world, is also located in Phong Nha national park. Unfortunately, we didn’t visit it on our tour. The cave is open to tourists–as long as they can fork over $3,000 for a weeklong visit.

We also took a boat ride through the park. The hills reminded me of the karsts from Halong Bay. A couple of people were especially excited about the hills since they recognized some from Kong: Skull Island.

phong nha

These are not the hills from Kong: Skull Island.

When I was making preliminary plans for Vietnam, I was on the fence about Phong Nha. It’s not an easy day trip from the central Vietnamese cities that are frequented by travelers, such as Hoi An or Hue. I had to dedicate at least one night to Phong Nha, and I wasn’t sure it would be worth it. Now that I’ve been to Phong Nha, I can’t believe I had any doubts about it.

To be honest, I didn’t do much research before visiting Phong Nha. I had a vague idea that I’d visit a couple of caves but didn’t look into what made each cave unique. I saw that my hotel in Dong Hoi had good reviews on TripAdvisor for the Phong Nha tours they booked, so I went for this option since it was easiest. Since my goal was merely to see caves, I was satisfied with Phongnha Discovery Tours. Sunny was a pleasant guide, and the tour was relaxed.

That said, I might have gone with other options if I had done more research. For instance, Phongnha Discovery Tours offers packages to other caves. One is nicknamed the “Dark Cave” and contains activities such as zip lining, obstacle courses, and mud baths.

There are also multi-day tours that allow you to camp in the park. I didn’t realize this was an option until I had already booked my hotel and tour. I met a traveler who raved about her two-day, one-night tour with Jungle Boss. She noted that the Ma Da and Abandoned Valley tour involved a lot of hiking, which suited her interests.

Regardless of how you choose to visit Phong Nha, I’d recommend it in a heartbeat. The scenery was amazing, and the natural “air conditioning” in the caves was a great perk.


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