I came into Phong Nha as clueless as I have ever been about any destination. Most of it was because I was not even planning on going here, and didn’t even know it existed until a couple of days prior. I was working my way through the north of Vietnam and intended to go to Ninh Binh, but the comfort of a Vietnamese sleeper bus took its toll on me, and what was meant to be a two hour bus ride to Ninh Binh turned into me sleeping all the way through the night. I probably would not have woken up until Saigon had the bus driver not started yelling at my face at 5:28 in the morning.
What the hell was he even screaming at me? I wondered. Took me a few minutes before I realized he was saying I was in Phong Nha, and definitely not Ninh Binh like I had expected. I was the last one off the bus, my bag was the last one left on the sidewalk, and the streets were deserted.
Long story short, I had no idea what I was doing, where I was going, and what this city had to offer. A little bit of research upon getting to a hostel gave me the idea that exploring this city and its surrounding national park was not going to be cheap. I stumbled into a couple that I met at Ha Long, and since my hostel offered free bike rentals, we decided to just cycle as far as our legs could take us.
That led us to an extremely unusual, but fun nonetheless, day of traveling. From playing with ducks to getting bullied by local children, with a lot of mediocre Vietnamese beer in between, it was about as unexpected of a day as my arrival in Phong Nha.
Thankfully, I was contacted by Rebecca from Phong Nha Discovery and offered to take me on one of their tours. I don’t normally go for tours, but Phong Nha National Park is one of those places that you might need a tour to maximize your limited time. There are many must-see landmarks, and they aren’t all necessarily right next to each other.
The tour picks you up around 8:30-9 in the morning and the first stop is a little memorial for eight victims of a bombing during the Vietnam War. It’s a solemn spot and cool to see. The drive up and through the national park is also absolutely stunning. The lush greenery on the mountains is incredible.
Following the visit to the temple, the journey to Paradise Cave begins. The tour handles entrance and everything, so you don’t have to deal with lines or any hassle. They also buggy you up to the beginning of the walk up to the cave, which saves you a pretty long walk from the entrance to the park. Trust me, you’ll relish that energy saved if the Vietnamese sun is beating down on you. After a short but steep uphill walk, you get to the cave, which you get to freely explore for about an hour.
Believe me when I say this cave is absolutely mind-blowing. It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, and it is consistently ranked as the best cave in the world. At 31 kilometers long, it is massive, but you only get to about a kilometer in without a guide. Everywhere you look in this cave is impressive. No two formations are ever the same, and it amazed me how some of the things were even possible.
After wrapping things up at Paradise Cave, you are whisked away to a restaurant outside of Dark Cave for a delicious feast. A giant plate of meat, rice, and ingredients to make your own spring rolls. I did not even make an attempt to create my own spring roll, but everything was delicious.
The next bit sounds a bit ridiculous but after lunch, you zip line to the entrance of the cave and swim a little bit to actually get to the cave. It gets dark really quickly, but you’re provided headlamps so you get to feel like a real adventurous spelunker. Dark Cave was quite the adventure, and even though our guide kept trying to scare us by saying he saw a snake, it was a lot of fun. You get to cap it off with a mud bath that is supposedly good for your skin. I’ll admit, my skin usually feels a lot softer after covering myself in mud. Once you’ve muddied yourself up to your heart’s content, you rinse off before making your way out of the cave. I didn’t get any pictures of the last couple of hours because I’ve recently had bad experiences with electronics and water (RIP to my GoPro and my iPhone), but below is the stunning entrance to Dark Cave.
The adventure literally doesn’t stop as you kayak your way across the river where you can take on some of the watery adventures that await. You can zip line into the river, take on a little ropes course over the river, or just go for a leisurely swim to get that last bit of stubborn mud off of you.
Once you’re done, two bottles of rum await you back at the restaurant to end an adventure the right way.
If it weren’t for Phong Nha Discovery, I probably would not have been able to accomplish most of what I wanted to do in Phong Nha. The group of friends that I cycled with the day before tried to do the caves themselves, and could only fit in Dark Cave in the time that Phong Nha Discovery took us to a number of different attractions.
If you want a lot of adventure for a fair price, I highly recommend looking into booking a tour with Phong Nha Discovery. Your belly will be full, your rum and coke will be cold, and you will head back home beyond satisfied with the experience.
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