Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park is a hidden gem next to the Laotian border. It features majestic mountains with lush greenery, idyllic backroads and arguably the most impressive caves in all Vietnam. A place where you can easily lose yourself in the serence beauty of the landscape.
The national park in this forested mountain range was already founded in the 90s. However, most travellers only learned about Phong Nha after geologists discovered 20 new caves in the year 2009. Among them is Sơn-Đoòng, which now holds the record as the biggest cave in the world. For most people, however, a visit to this giant will hardly be possible. A tour costs 3000 USD and only a handful of visitors get permitted each year. Thankfully, there are other, more easily accessible caves, which, together with the beautiful scenery, have transformed Phong Nha into a popular tourist spot. Go back only 20 years and the town had no electricity, nor a connection to the main highway. Now the same people who used to make a living hunting and poaching in the dense forest, can earn their money guiding tourists. This does not mean, however, that Phong Nha is overrun with tourists. The place is still not very well known, and an insider tip for travellers who want to experience the true beauty of Northern Vietnam.
The best way to discover the National Park is by motorbike, and luckily most hostel have enough of time that you can rent. Just fill up on gas and off you go, along a serene river, over quiet but well-maintained country roads. Luckily you do not have to worry about honking cars and trucks here. However, you should be aware of cows and chickens crossing the roads.
To be honest, it is quite difficult to focus on the road when you are driving through a landscape like this. The scenery with its lush forests and mountains is absolutely stunning, and after an hour I had to force myself to not stop every five minutes and take pictures if I was to arrive at my destination before dark.
For hikers there is good news and bad news: The good news is that Phong Nha provides endless opportunities for trekking in the beautiful landscape. The bad news is that you cannot do it alone. There are no public trails and the terrain, however beautiful it may look, is unforgiving. The tours that are offered start at 1.300.000 VND (57 USD) – a hefty price for backpackers and budget travellers.
Luckily, there is a place called the Botanic Garden – a wide area where you can go hiking without worrying about getting lost. The place also features a waterfall, a monkey enclosure, a tree farm and multiple viewpoints where you can enjoy an amazing panorama. The entrance fee of 40.000 VND (1,8 USD) is very moderatre, and there is a cheap restaurant as well. The park provides 3 different trails, of which the longest takes about 3 hours. The lush vegetation, colourful butterflies, and the spectacular view at the waterfall make the Botanical Gardens an absolute must when in Phong Nha.
Caving in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng
The main attraction of Phon Nha are its caves. I personally only visited one of them, but you have a choice between the following:
Verdict (and the costs)
Hiking and Caving in the National Park is fun. However, my favourite activity was simply cruising through the National Park on my motorbike. Just being the only one on the road, the freedom of going anywhere you choose (as long as you have enough petrol), and stopping at beautiful landmarks to enjoy the peace and quiet of the majestic landscape is a truly profound experience. The pictures can only give a glimpse of how beautiful and untouched the National Park really is – an absolute highlight on my trip to Vietnam.
The place is also reasonably cheap. A hostel bed (e.g. at the Thien Phu HostelThien Phu Hostel) should cost you about 5 USD. The cost for an average day in Phong Nha, including 2 meals, motorbike rental and entrance to the Botanic Garden and Paradise Cave, would be something like 705.000 VND (31 USD):