Photo: Entering the cave by boat.

Introduction

Nestled at the foot of limestone cliffs that began formation 400 million years ago, Phong Nha is the gateway to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, home to a series of world record-breaking caves. Situated 40 kilometres northwest of the provincial capital of Dong Hoi and built along the Son River, the small village of Son Trach (also referred to as Phong Nha) is growing to meet the growing number of tourists flocking to explore these underground worlds.


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This single road town now sports excellent hostels, homestays, treks and tours. While it’s possible to see a couple of caves as a daytrip from Dong Hoi, there’s no reason not to stay in town and enjoy the gorgeous scenery – we don’t use that word lightly. When you understand the scale of the park and the size of what lies underneath, nothing but grand superlatives do it justice.

Hang En cave. Just wow.

Hang En cave. Just wow.

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2003. Located in the Central Annamite Mountains (and adjoining the Hin Namno National Biodiversity Conservation Area across the border in Laos), UNESCO notes that the park’s 126,236 hectares “is one of the largest and most distinctive tracts of karst topography in the world.” It forms one of the largest remaining intact forest-limestone karst habitat in Indochina, with forest cover an estimated 94%, 84% of which is believed to be primary forest.

Tectonic uplift and changes in sea-level over time have created a complex and extensive underground network including the world’s largest cave. Opened to the public in 2013, Hang Son Doong is five kilometres long, with sections large enough to house an entire New York City block with 40-storey skyscrapers. Before you talk yourself into splurging on the required US$3,000 trek, know that only 500 spots are available each year and it’s sold out more than a year in advance.
Paradise Cave.

Paradise Cave.

For the everyday traveller, plenty of non-thousand-dollar caves beckon. You will be stunned at Paradise Cave, a massive underground cathedral adorned with glittering formations. A boardwalk leads through the first kilometre of the whopping 31-kilometre cave – let that size sink in for a moment. The park’s star attraction Phong Nha Cave is popular and rightfully so. Sitting in a wooden dragon boat, you’ll float on an underground river through many mysterious passageways and grottoes. Thrill-seekers will love Dark Cave – imagine venturing into an unlit cave and taking a swim in a giant mud bath.

Explorations of the park can be done by yourself or on a tour. A scenic drive through the park is a visual feast of dense wet tropical evergreen forest clinging to craggy karst. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife, especially the langurs that like to hang out beside the road – we saw some on two separate drives. The loop through the park includes parts of the historic Ho Chi Minh Trails West and East, as well as Highway 20, known as “Victory Road”, which connected the two. Like all central provinces, Quang Binh experienced heavy fighting and bombardments during the Vietnam War. It is now the second most UXO-contaminated province in the region after Quang Tri. Do not go straying off the literal beaten path.
Exploring the Bong Lai valley.

Exploring the Bong Lai valley.

A path you should follow is the one to Hang En, the third largest cave in the world (and just three kilometres from biggie Hang Son Doong). A two-day, one-night trek will have you camping in the cave beside an underground river. Eye-popping, mesmerising, humbling, once in a lifetime – more superlatives are needed to describe this experience. If you’re fit for 12 kilometres of jungle hiking one-way, we urge you to splurge and do it.

If it’s just not in your budget or you prefer to stay above ground, simply hop on a bicycle or motorbike to enjoy the countryside. The pastoral scenery of flat rice fields punctuated by massive karst sprouting from the earth is almost otherworldly. Take a spin down the Bong Lai Valley, stopping for a swim or some chicken and cold beer along the way. For some strange reason, few travellers venture to the other side of the river: Get over there! In addition to more pretty vistas, you’ll get friendly waves and smiles.

Orientation
Son Trach (Phong Nha town) is situated along the Son River, which translates as “lipstick river” because of its red colour from mud during rainy season. Otherwise it is a bluish-green and is great for swimming in the hot months.
Magical.

Magical.

There are only two ATMs, both Sacombank and located in the centre of Phong Nha across from the Phong Nha-Ke Bang Tourism Centre (boat landing). There are power outages and it’s not uncommon for the machines to be out of service. Aside from a few hotels/hostels, credit cards are not accepted so it’s best to stock up on dong before arriving in Phong Nha.

Ditto for medicines – bring what you need. There’s only a local pharmacy that will be helpful for the basics, as well as a small medical clinic in town. For anything more than a cut you’ll want to go to the hospital in Dong Hoi, one hour away, but your best bet is the Hue International Hospital, a four-hour journey by road.

You won’t have any problem finding good eats to fuel your spelunking. Since tourist infrastructure is still growing, most hotels and hostels have restaurants, and homestays usually offer guests the option of a home-cooked meal with the family. Easy Tiger Hostel’s Jungle Bar is THE backpacker hub, with a large outdoor terrace with rows of picnic tables. The menu is a what’s what of pub grub, including woodfire oven pizza. Mains hover at a very reasonable 80,000 dong. Just next door is Capture Cafe, which offers fancier cafe food such as lasagne, gourmet sandwiches, sinful baked goodies or a proper latte. They also have a small minimart with emergency items, like sunscreen and Vegemite. As we mentioned in our Bong Lai Valley coverage, we verified that “Pub with Cold Beer” does indeed serve a nice cold beer, as well as fresh whole chicken – and by fresh, we mean FRESH. It’s killed to order and if you want to appreciate what “farm-to-table” really means, you can do the killing and plucking yourself.
A less hectic Vietnam.

A less hectic Vietnam.

From September to November, the Phong Nha area can see heavy flooding of the valleys and some treks and caves are off limits, while in dry season from February to August, streams can dry up. December to February can be very damp and cold, with night time temperatures dropping to single digits Celsius. The best time for trekking is February to May, with February to April being the sweet spot of pleasant temperatures and drier conditions. June to August is hot and humid, maxing at 41 Celsius.

Internet is freely available at most hotels/hostels, although it can be spotty and slow. The same applies to 3G service.

This tip from Oxalis’ website: “It is not advisable to drink tap water in Phong Nha. Along with the common risks of drinking tap water in a third world country, tap water in Phong Nha contains high amounts of limestone, calcium, and other minerals.” Drink purified water.

If you’re in need of gear for a trek or cave adventure, Oxalis sells decent and affordable hiking pants, dri-fit type long sleeve pullovers and cotton T-shirts, with profits supporting their charity. Wild Travel Outdoor shop is your best bet for anything else. It’s mostly knockoff items but they do have men’s and women’s hiking pants, shirts, shoes and socks that would get you through a trek. The shop is in the centre a few down from Bamboo Cafe. Otherwise you can always cross your fingers and see what’s available at the main market, located beside the boat landing.


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