Its collection of stunning dry caves, terraced caves, towering stalagmites and glistening crystal-edged stalactites represent nature on a very grand scale indeed, and are beginning to create a real buzz in Vietnam, as more and more riches are discovered.
Serious exploration only began in the 1990s, lead by the British Cave Research Association and Hanoi University. Cavers first penetrated deep into Phong Nha Cave, one of the world’s longest systems. In 2005 Paradise Cave was discovered, and in 2009 a team found the world’s largest cave – Son Doong. Huge caverns and unknown cave networks are being discovered each year.
Above the ground, most of the mountainous 885 sq km of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is near-pristine tropical evergreen jungle, more than 90% of which is primary forest. It borders the biodiverse Hin Namno reserve in Laos to form an impressive, continuous slab of protected habitat. More than 100 types of mammal (including 10 species of primate, tigers, elephants, and the saola, a rare Asian antelope), 81 types of reptile and amphibian, and more than 300 varieties of bird have been logged in Phong Nha.
Until recently, access to the national park was very limited and strictly controlled by the Vietnamese military. Access is still quite tightly controlled for good reason (the park is still riddled with unexploded ordnance). Officially you are not allowed to hike here without a licensed tour operator.
You can however travel independently (on a motorbike or car) on the Ho Chi Minh Highway or Hwy 20 that cut through the park. Sights that can be visited include the astounding Paradise Cave, turquoise river, ecotrail of Nuoc Mooc and a war shrine known as Eight Lady cave.
The Phong Nha region is changing fast, with more and more accommodation options opening. Son Trach village (population 3000) is the main centre, but it’s a tiny place – there’s only one ATM and transport connections are poor.
A beautiful riverside retreat inside the national park, the wooden walkways and paths of the Nuoc Mooc Ecotrail (adult/child 6-16yr 50,000/30,000d; 7am-5pm) extend over a kilometre through woods to the confluence of two rivers. It’s a gorgeous place for a swim, where you can wallow hippo-style in turquoise waters with a limestone-mountain backdrop. Bring a picnic. Nuoc Mooc is 12km southwest of Son Trach.
(Thien Dong; Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park; adult/child under 1.3m 120,000/60,000d; 7.30am-4.30pm) Deep in the national park, surrounded by forest and karst peaks, this remarkable cave system extends for 31km, though most people only visit the first kilometre or so.
Once you’re inside, the sheer scale of Paradise Cave is truly breathtaking, as wooden staircases descend into a cathedral-like space replete with colossal stalagmites and glimmering stalactites of white crystal that resemble glass pillars.
Paradise Cave has only been open to the public since 2011. Commendably, development has been sensitive: there’s no litter and even the trees along the access tracks are labelled. But in the last few years, visitor numbers have soared and if you come at peak times (the early afternoon) you can expect tour guides shepherding their flocks using megaphones – spoiling the whole experience. Try to get here as early as you can to beat the crowds.
To really explore deep inside Paradise Cave, consider booking Phong Nha Farmstay’s 7km Trekking trip (2,650,000d, minimum two people), which penetrates deep into the cave and includes a swim through an underground river and lunch under a light shaft.
There’s a restaurant (meals 35,000d to 70,000d) next to the visitor centre and a cafe sells cold drinks near the cave entrance.
Paradise Cave is about 14km southwest of Son Trach.
A spectacular excursion, the Tu Lan cave trip begins with a countryside hike then a swim (with headlamps and life jackets) through two spectacular river caves before emerging in an idyllic river valley. Then there’s more hiking through dense forest to a ‘beach’ where rivers merge that’s an ideal campsite. There’s more wonderful swimming here in vast caverns.
Moderate fitness levels are necessary. Tu Lan is 65km north of Son Trach and can only be visited on a guided tour.
Howard and Deb Limbert, consultants to tour operator Oxalis, discovered these caves in 2010. Oxalis in Son Trach offer everything from four-day treks to day trips to Tu Lan. The longer excursions penetrate deeper into the jungle, but as the region is so pristine even day hikes are very rewarding.
The spectacular boat trip through Phong Nha Cave ( 052-367 5110; adult/child 40,000/20,000d, boat 220,000d; 7am-4pm) is a highly enjoyable, though quite touristy, experience beginning in Son Trach village. You cruise along the Son River past bathing buffalo, jagged limestone peaks and church steeples to the cave’s gaping mouth – Phong Nha means ‘Cave of Teeth’, but the ‘teeth’ (stalagmites) by the entrance are long gone. Then the engine is cut and you’re transported to another world as you’re paddled through cavern after garishly illuminated cavern.
On the return leg you’ve the option to climb (via 330 steps) up to Tien Son Cave, a dry cave in the mountainside. Here there are remains of Cham altars and inscriptions that date back to the 9th century. The cave was used as a hospital and ammunition depot during the American War and consequently was heavily bombed.
The ticket office and jetty for boat departures are in Son Trach village. Allow two hours to see Phong Nha; add an hour for Tien Son. In November and December seasonal floods may mean Phong Nha Cave is closed. Weekends are extremely popular with Vietnamese visitors, whose presence is magnified by the spectacular echoes and unventilated cigarette smoke.
This gigantic cave is very close to Hang Son Doong, and featured in the same National Geographic photographic spread in 2011. Getting here involves a trek through dense jungle, valleys and the Ban Doong minority village, a very remote tribal settlement (with no electricity or roads). You stay overnight in the cave or minority village.
Tours (4,600,000d per person, minimum two people) here are run by the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park rangers, but can also be booked via Phong Nha Farmstay.
The National Park office organises two-day trips to spectacular Hang En cave and remote Ban Doong minority villages.
( 052-367 7678; www.oxalis.com.vn; Son Trach Village) Oxalis are unquestionably the experts in caving and trekking expeditions, and are the only outfit licensed to conduct tours to Hang Son Doong. Staff are all fluent English speakers, and trained by world-renowned British cavers Howard and Deb Limbert. All excursions, from day trips to Tu Lan to weeklong expeditions to the world’s largest cave, are meticulously planned and employ local guides and porters, so the wider community benefits. There’s a little cafe at their riverside office where you can discuss trips.
( 052-367 5135; www.phong-nha-cave.com; Cu Nam village) Tours to Paradise Cave and the National Park are highly recommended and cost 1,000,000d. They are extremely popular, so groups can be large (as many as 20) but they are well organised, and include entrance fees and minibus transport. Bicycle and boat tours to Hang Toi (Dark Cave) and tubing and biking trips (600,000d) are also great. Guides are extremely well informed about the region’s history.
Ho Khanh, a hunter from a jungle settlement close to the Vietnam–Laos border, would often take shelter in the caves that honeycomb his mountain homeland. He stumbled across gargantuan Hang Son Doong (Mountain River Cave) in the early 1990s, but the sheer scale and majesty of the principal cavern (more than 5km long, 200m high and, in some places, 150m wide) was only confirmed as the world’s biggest cave when British explorers returned with him in 2009.
The expedition team’s biggest obstacle was to find a way over a vast overhanging barrier of muddy calcite they dubbed the ‘Great Wall of Vietnam’ that divided the cave. Once they did, its true scale was revealed – a cave big enough to accommodate a battleship. Sections of it are pierced by skylights that reveal formations of ethereal stalagmites that cavers have called the Cactus Garden. Some stalagmites are up to 80m high. Colossal cave pearls have been discovered, measuring 10cm in diameter, formed by millennia of drips, as calcite crystals fused with grains of sand. Magnificent rimstone pools are present throughout the cave.
Hang Son Doong is one of the most spectacular sights in Southeast Asia, and the government only approved (very restricted) access to the cave system in June 2013. The only specialist operator permitted (by the Vietnamese president no less) to lead tours here is Son Trach–based Oxalis. Son Doong is no day-trip destination, it’s in an extremely remote area and the only way to visit is by booking a seven-day expedition with around 16 porters. It costs US$3000 per person, with a maximum of eight trekkers on each trip.
Is it worth it? Well, National Geographic photographer Carsten Peter, whose photographs first unveiled the majesty of the cave to the world (and has climbed Everest and K2), described it as the most impressive natural sight in the world.
Note that you may come across tour agencies professing to sell tours of Hang Son Doong on the internet. The only licensed operator with access is Oxalis. Other agencies promise to take you to Hang Son Doong but actually set up a trip to Hang En instead (which is mighty impressive, but not Son Doong).
( 052-367 7844; www.easytigerphongnha.com; Son Trach; dm 160,000d) Owned by the Farmstay crew, this great new hostel has comfortable dorms, a great bar-resto area, pool table and excellent travel info. A swimming pool is planned.
( 052-367 7069; Son Trach; r 250,000d) On the main drag in Son Trach, this is the most welcoming locally owned place. Rooms are clean and it’s owned by a family who speak a little English.
( 016-7873 1560; www.pepperhouse-homestay.com; Khuong Ha village, 6km east of Son Trach; dm incl breakfast 200,000d) Run by long-term resident Dave and his local wife Diem, this simple welcoming and very rural homestay has dorms with deep-sleep mattresses, cold beer and cheap grub.
( 052-367 5135; www.phong-nha-cave.com; Cu Nam village; r 500,000-900,000d, f 1,500,000d) The place (and people) that really put Phong Nha on the map, the Farmstay goes from strength to strength. Views overlooking an ocean of rice paddies are unmatched. Rooms are smallish but neat, with high ceilings and shared balconies. The bar-restaurant with pool table is the engine room of the operation with tasty Asian and Western grub (meals 40,000d to 120,000d) and a gregarious vibe. Tours (trekking, kayaking, caving, tubing, biking and hiking) are outstanding. Note that there’s no longer a dorm. It’s in Cu Nam village, 9km east of Son Trach. Pick-ups can be arranged in Dong Hoi.
( 052-367 5999; http://phongnhalakehouse.com; Khuong Ha; dm/d/villas US$10/35/50) Impressive new lakeside resort owned by an Australian-Vietnamese couple with an excellent dorm (with quality beds, mozzie nets, en-suite bathroom and high ceilings), spacious and stylish rooms and lovely villas. A pool, jacuzzi and spa are planned. The huge wooden restaurant is a traditional structure from rural Vietnam. It’s 7km east of Son Trach.
( 012-9959 7182; www.phong-nha-homestay.com; Son Tranch; r US$30–50) How often do you get the chance to stay in the house of a Vietnamese legend? This homestay belongs to Ho Khanh, who discovered the world’s largest cave. He’s also a master carpenter, and his four wood-panelled rooms, with tiled floors and excellent beds with mozzie nets, are attractive and comfortable. There’s a great riverside cafe, too.
(Son Trach; meals 25,000-50,000d; 7am-midnight) Run by Hai, a switched-on, English-speaking local, this cool bar-cafe offers cheap grub (including breakfast and vegetarian choices), fresh juices, travel info, bike rental and a welcoming atmosphere. In the evening it’s more of a bar, with lounge music, cocktails and an open mic some nights.
(beer 20,000d, meals from 20,000d; 8am-8pm) Up a dirt track in the middle of nowhere (but well-signposted) this excellent barn-cum-bar is owned by a local farming family and does what it says on the tin – the beer is ice cold. Bring your iPod and they’ll let you play some tunes, too. Hungry? Order roast chicken with peanut sauce (all ingredients are farm-fresh). The Farmstay will provide you with a map to get here by bike. Rooms were under construction when we passed by.
In Son Trach, head to the Jungle Bar where owner Hai (an ecologist) is a superb source of independent travel information on the park and region, can book train and bus tickets for a small commission, organise tours and rent bikes and motorbikes. The helpful staff at Phong Nha Farmstay and Easy Tiger hostel are also extremely well informed and can assist with information and transport.
There’s a tourist office opposite the jetty in Son Trach, but staff are not well versed regarding independent travel. You’ll find an ATM next to the tourist office.
It’s possible to rent a bike and explore the region yourself, though bear in mind that most locals do not speak English and road signs are lacking. But with a sense of adventure, some wheels and a map (ask at Jungle Bar) it’s perfectly do-able.
Son Trach village is 50km northwest of Dong Hoi; from Dong Hoi head 20km north on Hwy 1 to Bo Trach, then turn west for another 30km.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park abuts Son Trach village and spreads west to the Lao border. The region has only very recently opened up; until 2011 access was tightly controlled by the Vietnamese state. Things have been relaxed considerably but some areas remain off limits to independent travellers.
Hotels can organise lifts in private cars from Dong Hoi (400,000d to 500,000d); they work together so rides can be shared between travellers to cut costs.
Local buses (45,000d, two hours) offer irregular connections between Dong Hoi and Son Trach. There’s also a bus connection (120,000d, 1hr 15min) between Dong Hoi train station, the Farmstay and Son Trach. It leaves Dong Hoi daily at 6.30am and 8am and returns from Son Trach (via Farmstay) at 6pm and 8pm.
A tour bus (500,000d, five hours) also links Son Trach, the Farmstay and Hue, stopping at the Ben Hai river museum and Vinh Moc Tunnels. It leaves Son Trach at 6.30am daily and returns from Hue at 1pm. Tickets on these buses to/from Hue and Dong Hoi can be booked via the Farmstay , Easy Tiger or Hue Backpackers.