Phong Nha National Park
My second destination in Vietnam was Phong Nha National Park after Hoi-An.
Phong Nha national park is located in north central Vietnam region of Quang Binh province, it is easily accessible while travelling through the main national Ho Chi Minh highway either by bus, bike or rental cabs. This natural wonder wasn’t discovered until, when it was listed as one of the UNESCO world heritage sites. And in 2010 it was first opened for visitors. This park has a massive collection of having the largest caves structures in the world. Some of the well known limestone caves which are famous and open to visitors are Son Doong, Paradise Cave, Hang En, Tu Lan Cave and Phong Nha Cave. In 2013, trekking inside the world largest caves Song Doong was allowed at a whopping USD 3000 per person for a 7 days treacherous trek inside. It is organised by very few tour agencies, one of them being Oxalis Adventure Tours.
I reached Phong Nha from Hoi An at around 9.30 pm by bus and got dropped right in-front of number of hostels. Note : I had not made any prior bookings in the hostel, but had shortlisted while coming. There are a number of hostels/ budget hotels which are located around the same place like Easy Tiger, Gecko’s, River view hotel etc. All in the range from $ 5 to 12. After check-in, I enquired about the packages available at my front desk. Each reputed hostel had a front desk for booking tours and bus tickets which gives much feasibility for the travelers to plan for the next destinations without any worries.
I opted for Dark Cave-Paradise Cave for 60 USD through Phong Nha Discovery tours. There were number of packages available apart from this. You can pick and choose likewise. Well, my good tips would be, if one knows how to ride a bike, then, voila!! you can hire one at say USD 5-7 and go explore this natural wonder on your own at a much cheaper price .
The tour bus picked me up at 8.30 am and we headed for the botanical gardens which was about few kms from there. Botanical garden is a project from Vietnam government to preserve some endangered species of plants and animals. It also has a museum which displays various information on ecological wonders. After a brief tour, we then headed towards Paradise caves.
Paradise cave is a long cave of about 7 kms. But I went only 1 km inside the cave. There is a separate tour where you can hike the entire 7 km inside this gorgeous limestone formations for about 115 USD. I hiked a few meters up so as to reach the cave entrance, and it was really hot to do that. Nevertheless, once I entered inside the cave, the temperature suddenly dipped from 30 to 15 deg. What a massive relief! As I kept climbing down into the cave, the massive formation of stalactites and stalagmites just mesmerized me. It was wonderful to see such huge formations with little water bodies flowing underneath here and there. Once we came out after the cave tour for about 1 hour, next we headed for the adventurous dark caves which was about 10 kms from there. Dark cave is an interesting place where all the adrenaline junkies can have their hearts filled with content. Activity includes long zip-lining to the entrance of the caves and enter the cave and swim in the muddy slippery pool in complete darkness. Zip-lining there was surely one of the best adventure activities, which I am glad I did here. It was really fun to walk inside the muddy caves with our head lights only to guide ahead. We fell, swam, crawled, walked and repeated. The underground water cascading through the caves was giving a surreal feeling.
Once we came out after a mud spa for about 1 hour, I waited for my kayak to arrive. Now the fun part was, either you can kayak all the way back to the end of the river or else if you want to swim you can simply jump into the water and try your skills. My witty mind let me do the second way out. While you kayak your way back to the first base of the dark cave, you can also do another short zip lining fun and some other water activities available there. Once I was enough tired and out of energy, I headed back for a sumptuous barbeque lunch with some rum, just to raise a toast of achievement to each other.
After a hearty and fun filled activities, I headed back to hostel to catch my night bus to Ninh-Binh.
Some useful Tips:
How to reach-
Phong Nha national parks is easily accessible by all major bus company who are conducting a daily tours between Hanoi (North Vietnam) till Ho chi-minh (South Vietnam). If one is keen on travelling by train, then nearest railway station is Dong Hoi. Riding a bike is also one of the cheapest and best ways to explore Phong Nha National park, as it can be hired as low as USD 5 .
There are plenty of hostels which are quite conveniently located. Apart from that, you can also opt for river facing home stays or farm stays (only if you have bike at your perusual) and budget hotels which are available on booking.com, Agoda.com and hostelworld.
Phong Nha is a small place. Hence, do not expect a big variety of food joints/ pubs out there. But there are fairly decent number of food joints, small café cum bar all located in either side of the highway ,where you can spend a lazy evening after an adventurous day.
This national part is a cluster of innumerable caves and ecological rainforest, hence you are spoilt for choice what to choose from? Suggestion would be, if you are short on the number of days, then book a tour through one of the tour operators as they all give more or less same quotes for the packages. Incase, if you have couple of days to spare in the lap of nature, then it is definitely a good idea to explore the places/ spots / caves on your own at your leisure. This can be done by grabbing a map and then hiring a bike to explore on your own. Botanical Garden, Paradise caves, Phong Nha caves and Dark Caves are the most popular ones of the lot. Infact, at times getting the individual entry tickets of these places locally, without booking through tours, works out to be much cheaper.
Please carry cash as there are hardly any ATMs out there in Phong Nha. Atleast I couldn’t find one. Try and stay near to the main highway as it is then easier to access places like eating joints, cafes etc. Wear comfortable shoes preferably waterproof while hiking inside the caves. Ofcourse, for dark caves you need only swim wears and waterproof cameras only. 3 days maximum is all you need to visit every nook and cranny of the place in detail.
I hope I could explain well on how to plan for this beautiful place? Which is an absolute must on your Vietnam itinerary. Here is a short video on how I enjoyed the activities in Phong Nha.
I would be happy to help you for any other information on this place. Just drop in your comments and I shall reply in no time.