Phong Nha Ke Bang : richness of the nature and of landscapes
We decided to stop by Phong Nha Ke Bang for several reasons; the richness of its nature, the beauty of its landscapes and the many caves. It is in a limestone zone of 2,000 km2 in Vietnamese territory and borders another limestone zone of 2,000 km2 of Hin Namno in Laotian territory.
Phong Nha Ke Bang is a national park and UNESCO World Heritage.
The park was created to protect one of the world’s two largest karst regions with 300 caves and grottoes and also protects the ecosystem of limestone forest of the Annamite Range region in North Central Coast of Vietnam (thank you Wikipedia). So we wanted to see the wonders of this park and stayed there for 3 days and 2 nights.
As we were cycling through the country, we thought we could reach the park from Dong Hoi where we were supposed to stay the day before. But because of an issue with the train, we ended up taking a night bus leaving from Ninh Binh. If you wish to go to Ninh Binh, there are multiple buses to reach the park, and the journey cost about 20 euros per person. The buses leaving at night are sleeper buses. Convenient if you want to save a day of traveling.
The journey was around 6h and we arrived early in the morning in Phong Nha Ke Bang. We went directly to our homestay Ho Khan. It is not in the center of the village and you have to cycle for about 10 minutes from the bus station and about 25 minutes by foot. The location of the homestay might not be the greatest if you are looking for nightlife and if you don’t have any transportation means but it is very beautiful and you have a “private” beach with a view on the lake.
We liked our stay in Ho Khan very much, the food was good and the family was really cute. The bungalows were super clean and new, with air conditioning.
We recommend you to rent bicycles to explore the park. You have many asphalt roads in the middle of the forest and main attractions are reachable easily this way. But for those who prefer to go by bus, you can ask locals for tours to specific places such as:
The Caves and grottoes
There are many grottoes in Phong Nha Ke Bang and you will probably have to choose which ones to visit. We only visited the Thiên Đường Cave or the “Paradise” cave. The Paradise cave is amazing, probably the most impressive cave we ever visited. The entrance fee is 150,000 VND (6€) and you can pay by credit card. They also offer you to take an electric golf cart to reach the starting point of the climb to the cave for an extra 50,000VND (2€). We didn’t find it necessary. You can hire an English-speaking guide and an entrance ticket for 250,000VND (10€) which we didn’t do. Some people claim that Thien Duong Cave is the most beautiful cave in the world and we can understand why. It used to be the longest and highest cave in the park until they recently discovered (2009) the Son Dong Cave, only accessible on permit delivered and signed by the Vietnamese president himself! We actually wanted to visit this world biggest cave but the price per person for the permit is 5,000 euros and you need at least 1 month before getting the document. Apparently, this is because of the fragility of the ecosystems present in the cave. Opening it to too many people could damage them.
Another cave, more famous than the Paradise Cave, is the Phong Nha / Tien son caves from which the name to the whole system and the park is derived, is famous for its rock formations which have been given names such as the “Lion”, the “Fairy Caves”, the “Royal Court”, and the “Buddha”. The entrance fee is 150,000 VND without a guide and without the boat tour (360,000VND with the boat) (14€)
There are plenty of activities in Phong Nha Ke Bang park. You can do some rafting, kayaking, snorkeling in the blue water rivers, tree ropes activities, sliding, canopies etc. Those centers do have entrance fees and activities list. One of them includes a visit to the Dark Cave, that you can reach with a zip line for 350,000 VND. We didn’t go to any of those parks as we preferred to reserve our time for cycling around the park.
The park is full of small rivers and larger ones; you can easily book trips at a tourism agency or simply by asking the boat owners. Be careful they will try to charge a higher price this way than the official one. Nice way to also visit some caves only accessible via boats.
This is basically what you could do in terms of paying activities in the Phong Nha Ke Bang park, but we enjoyed even more just cycling around, contemplating the stunning views and appreciating the locals ‘hospitality. Just be careful because usually, locals try to get some money from you. While cycling in remote places in the park, we passed through villages where kids were running after us begging for “money”. That’s probably the only word they know in English together with hello. “Hello, money!”. Do not start giving them money or you would end up bankrupted. We tried and it was a never-ending situation, we literally had to run away.
Phong Nha ke Bang seems to be a well-preserved area, clean and promoting sustainable and responsible tourism. We haven’t seen mush garbage on the ground nor in the rivers. This place might be the cleanest in Vietnam. The only issue we noticed is that used waters are not well filtered yet and deforestation is still happening to grow more rice. The paddies are beautiful but we must think of the dense forest that was there before…. We hope the government will promote more ecotourism in this fragile part of Vietnam. Tourists act responsibly too by only using chemical-free cosmetics and soaps, biodegradable sunscreens and not throwing their trash into the wild.
To leave the place, you can order a shuttle to drop you in Dong Hoi or just take the bus that goes to any other city you need to go to; from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, those buses are going to almost all major cities. You can get all the information here. The tickets can be bought in hotels and restaurants. Be aware that buses and all the places only take cash. If you don’t have enough cash, the EasyTiger hostel can give you 300,000VND per day in cash in exchange of a 10% fee payment with the credit card payment.