Phong Nha is one of those idyllic places in Asia - the kind you always dream about before you visit. It’s a really laid back town in the heart of rural Vietnam, with a picturesque river, stunning limestone karsts in all directions and a million things to do. It is breathtakingly beautiful.
We’d definitely put it in the same bracket as Luang Prabang and Pai for having a cool town in a beautiful countryside setting. It’s no small statement to say that it’s not just the highlight of Vietnam, but one of the highlights of South-East Asia.
The key to enjoying Phong Nha is a motorbike, as a lot of the things to do are 20-30km away from the town. Whilst we saw people cycling, it looked pretty exhausting. Alternatively, you can take taxis, but the cost will add up pretty quickly!
Most places hire motorbikes and the majority of the roads are nice, quiet and in good shape, so you won’t have to worry about too many of the maniac lorry drivers trying to run you over.
Why we love Phong Nha
If you’re looking for that iconic South-East Asia experience of rural beauty and a chilled town with a lot to keep you busy, then head to Phong Nha. If you make the effort to get out here, these are some of the treats on offer.
As close to paradise water as you’ll get in Vietnam, Mooc Springs is a bright blue river in the middle in a jungle setting. Whilst it isn’t unspoilt beauty (they’ve put inflatable kayaks in the same tiny area as swimmers go as well as a bridge with a net to jump off in to) it’s still a stunningly beautiful spot.
Life jackets are compulsory in the water which I found funny at first but the current is actually very strong. Getting in the water was easy but a little trickier to get out again! Life guards are also watching over you at all times.
Look past this and come early or late to avoid the crowds and you’ll instantly want to dive right in!
There’s only one section that is currently open (the bridge to the second is under construction) and it can get pretty busy if you go on a weekend or during the middle of the day.
If you manage to avoid the crowds, then Mooc is the perfect place for a refreshing dip as the water is blissfully cold!
It’s a good place to go - even if you don’t want a swim - if only to be dazzled by the water and jungle setting. It is cheaper if you don’t want to swim (80,000 dong as opposed 180,000 dong if you swim).
Kayaking on the emerald river
For peace and tranquility on the river, head to Chay Lap Farmstay to hire a kayak at their nearby “watersports centre” (a few kayaks and picnic benches 😂). From here you’ll have a stretch of river all to yourself with stunning views of all the mountains around you. The water is a gorgeous emerald colour under the afternoon sunshine.
The only other living beings you’ll see whilst paddling around are the water buffaloes who escape the midday heat by wallowing in the river. It is a great opportunity to escape into a wholly peaceful part of Vietnam.
The river itself isn’t easy to kayak on as we imagined, it felt like there were a hundred currents moving in all directions! It was pretty hard to stay pointing in one direction as the river continuously wanted us to spin around (something it succeeded in doing if we stopped paddling) but it was still a lot of fun.
You can hire kayaks for 100,000 dong per hour (just under $5USD) and you can take them out for as long as you want. Chay Lap also has some ice cold drinks you can buy after all that sun exposure and exertion!
The “watersports centre” is on the opposite side of the road to the farmstay and is right next to the river.
Phong Nha and Tien Son Caves
The caves in Phong Nha are the star attraction and in the last twenty years people have been discovering the largest caves in the world. You can spend $3,000 USD to embark on an expedition to the biggest cave in the world, or go for the more sedate - but still huge - caves near the town.
The most famous and easiest to access cave in the area is Phong Nha Cave. Deceptively located on google maps (see below for the real location), you take a boat from the middle of Phong Nha town to paddle you round this pretty epic cave.
Time your visit to avoid large tour groups as the cave will amplify every noise, making it unbearable when you get a rowdy group of 20 or more people. Either go really early, or hold back if you see a large group just about to hop on some boats.
The boat trip on its own is very pleasant as you slowly cruise past locals on their boats (pulling out some kind of weed from the river) and you can take in more of the beautiful mountains.
We chose to see two caves on our trip, paddling and walking through the first kilometre of Phong Nha. Despite the tiny entrance, the cave opens out and you’ll see it is huge and very beautiful.
Your boat will turn off the engine once you get inside and you paddle along the river for around a kilometre (which actually doesn’t take as long to paddle as you might think, we’d loved to have gone further into the cave).
You then go back the same way and are dropped at a sandy section where you begin the short walk.
This path then winds through the cave, you can take as long as you like. If you whiz through it would probably only take less than 10 minutes but there are lots of formations to explore so it may be closer to half an hour.
If you’ve booked just the single cave, then you’ll hop back on the boat and head back. If you’ve booked both caves, then your massive sweaty uphill journey begins.
In the humidity of Phong Nha, a relatively simple set of stairs becomes a really tiring expedition! By the top we were dripping with sweat and thankful for the cool cave.
The benefit of this hike is that it deters virtually everyone else from visiting. We had the whole cave to ourselves.
There’s a long boardwalk that takes you pretty deep into the cave and the chance to experience the blissful silence you probably won’t get in Phong Nha. After the circuit you head back the way you came and on to your boat.
The trip takes anywhere from 1.5 to 3 hours depending on if you do both caves. The boat costs 400,000 dong (just under $20 USD) for both caves (but can be split between up to 12 people) and individual entry for the two caves is 150,000 dong per person on top (about $7 USD). You can either pay the full amount and go on the boat alone or wait for it to fill up and split the cost.
To get to Phong Nha, ensure you go to the boat station in town (location below on the map). Many people - like us - went almost to the entrance that was located on google maps to find a farm and no way to get in the cave! The only way is to get a boat from the station in town.
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Paradise Cave is the second most famous cave in the area and is accessed by driving nearly 30km out of the town. It was discovered by a hunter who was high up a mountain and found a cool spot to rest.
When he looked inside, he saw the start of a 31km long cave!
Paradise Cave is the most impressive of all the caves we saw, with huge chambers and some of the biggest formations we have ever seen. At times it felt like the ceiling was over 100 foot above your head.
Along the boardwalk in the cave, you’ll pass huge stalagmites and stalactites that have formed over millions of years by dripping water. Some are so big that they create a pillar between the floor and the roof.
You can walk for the first kilometre of the cave, before having to turn around head back to the entrance, unless you want to learn more about the cave there is no need to take a guide, getting lost would be impossible.
The more adventurous can book onto a tour which takes you a further 7km into the cave by a mix of swimming, hiking and kayaking. The cost at the gate is 2 million dong or many tour agents in town sell it for anything up to 2.6 million.
There is only one tour a day and food probably needs to be arranged in advance so we wouldn’t advise turning up on the day without having contacted them beforehand.
Getting to Paradise Cave is easy by motorbike, but it is a journey that feels like it’s never ending. We wouldn’t recommend cycling it unless you are pretty fit, especially as it is an undulating journey!
Once you find the turning off the road, it goes on for another kilometre or two before the car park. Once here you can walk the one kilometre to the cave entrance or pay extra to take a buggy.
From here, everyone has to walk uphill, it’s another sweaty climb of around 500 steps! Entry is 250,000 dong per person (just over $10 USD).
Other caves in Phong Nha
There are many other caves in the Phong Nha region which are much more adventurous than the three that we saw.
The most spectacular are deep in the jungle and inaccessible between September and November, the rainy season (which is when we visited). If you are very keen to do any of the caves expeditions that are deep in the jungle, avoid this time!
The trips are run exclusively by the company Oxails and though incredibly expensive, do look out of this world. Other caving trips do run during the rainy period that also look pretty good (but not as good as those deep in the jungle) and are run by the company Jungle Boss.
We would have liked to have given one of these a go but they are pretty expensive (most one day options start at $75 per person) so we gave them a miss. If you try one let us know, we’d love to return to Phong Nha one day!
Motorbiking around the beautiful countryside
In a lot of other places, the motorbike is just a mode of transport. In Phong Nha, it’s a fun experience in itself!
We loved using the scooter to explore the countryside and stop at random places such as the unexpected churches that were dotted along the way
The roads are quiet for the most part, except the QL16 which can get the occasional bus, lorry or car - all of which don’t seem to have brakes.
If you are learning, we’d suggest sticking to the country roads before you have the confidence to hop on the highway; driving in Vietnam is not for the faint hearted.
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Bomb Crater Bar
For a more sedate activity, grab a drink and hop in a hammock at Bomb Crater Bar.
As the name suggests, the bar is built around a bomb crater from the Vietnam War - another reminder of how no part of Vietnam was untouched, even rural areas such as Phong Nha.
It is set right next to the river, offering a quiet and beautiful setting beneath the bamboo trees. There were only two other people when we visited, so it can be a nice retreat.
The Pub with Cold Beer
Getting to the Pub with Cold Beer is not so easy after heavy rain. The road to this place is a dirt track that has been churned up by countless cars, motorbikes and even lorries that trundle along here.
After the rain, this becomes a mud bath and a precariously slippery affair. It is doable though - we can attest to that, just not the most pleasant of experiences!
Once you get here, you’ll find a peaceful spot with hammocks set up to make the most of the beautiful views. We’d say you come for chilling in the hammocks as the other seating is not so comfy.
Besides hammock chilling, it is famous for giving you the opportunity to catch and kill your own chicken to eat. We steered away from this but many people were keen to experience how meat really comes to the table.
Sunrise by the river
For one of the best views in Vietnam, head to the river in Phong Nha town for sunrise. At this time you’ll have the perfect mix of soft, golden light and the picturesque scene of locals working on the river in this beautiful landscape.
You also more likely to have clear skies as the heat of the day normally brings in clouds.
There are plenty of places to stop along the road for coffee or breakfast and you could choose to stay in one of the many homestays which look out on the river.
Either way, make the effort to check out the view as the pain of the early morning start will be worth it! It was our most magical morning in Vietnam, so atmospheric.
Where we stayed in Phong Nha
Phong Nha Lake Resort
Whilst the Phong Nha Lake Resort is set 7km from the town of Phong Nha, it makes up for the not so convenient location with the most comfortable rooms in the area for the same price as many basic homestays (when booked in advance, walk in rates were considerably more expensive).
We booked into the Lake View Bungalow and had a big, clean room with a comfortable bed, nice shower and a pretty lake view. Whilst scooter hire isn’t too cheap (250,000 dong per day or just over $10 USD), they were almost brand new with 3,000 km on the clock, making the ride a lot more comfortable than from any others we’d used in Vietnam. They also had the best helmets.
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