After seeing numerous caves in Vang Vieng, Laos and Tham Lod, in Thailand (these ones, absolutely stunning, for many different reasons), I didn’t really knew to expect in Phong Nha. The first thing I found was that the biggest ones – Son Dong and Tu Lan – required booking in advance, a few day trek, and were quite expensive to visit (3000 and 652 USD, respectively.) I believe the only company doing those trips is Oxalis and, most likely, I will return to do it.
At the time, I was just exploring Vietnam. It was January, the end of rainy season, but still raining quite a bit. I book myself a room at Phong Nha, and drove the 300 km way, (around) 6 hours, from Da Nang. Roads are wide and easy, but for the most part of it, not so interesting, it’s full of traffic and trucks. The village itself was just some home-stays, hotels, restaurants and a few shops along one main road. I didn’t get lucky with the reservation and ended up on an old building whose room window was leaking, leaving it cold and uncomfortable – very different from the advertising pics. Needless to say, I switched accommodation, very soon after.
Food itself was very basic on the whole area, but then again, it wasn’t a gastronomic tour.
For the Phong Nha Cave itself, one must book and pay for at the tourism office, by Song Con river. (150,000 entrance fee, plus 360,000 boat rental for up to 14 people). Either you wait for other groups to arrive and fill the boat, you join a group already waiting, or book a boat on your own – up to your patience and budget.
After 25 minutes of a scenic boat ride, you arrive to the cave. Engine is shut off, and the skipper slowly paddles to the inside. I believe people can also reach the spot by motorbike, but don’t know the exact road.
The caves, themselves are not bad, but also not as magnificent as Tham Lod (which you also access by boat). I believe these ones are bigger, but the area I explored wasn’t, by far, so interesting. As the boat never stopped for us do disembark inside, (and there was no artificial light in there at the time), it was impossible to take any shots, which was rather disappointing. After the visit finished, the boat docked so we could climb up to Tien Song Cave. There are several hundred steps to climb, most likely you’d be soaking whet on arrival, but it’s doable and totally worth it. The cave spreads in many levels, some interconnected. Stairs and passages were in great condition and illumination was also very good. Besides, the view from the entrance is a must!
Near the dock, there are souvenir shops where you can also buy some drinks and snacks.
Besides these two caves, there much to see in the surrounding natural park – under the grey, rainy skies, the vegetation was the “greenest” green I’ve ever seen. Valleys and rivers are just beautiful, you can just drive along and stop whenever you feel like, to enjoy the quietness and the beauty of the spot.
Just a word of caution – if you’re on a motorbike, or scooter fill your tank before you enter the part, as there won’t be any places to refill within a short range. Once I went to Paradise Cave, returned at night, and found myself praying to every jungle god, for the gas to last until home. Fortunately it did. Otherwise, I really didn’t know what could I possibly have done.
That Cave (Paradise) is also worth the visit. The one thing I didn’t like is that you have to pay for park (5.000 VND), the entrance fee (250,000 VND), plus the electric buggy, if you don’t want to walk the 1.5 km from the Ticket counter to the stairs (where the Cave’s entrance really is). I’m still wondering why they didn’t to a single ticket, and also why they didn’t make the parking nearer… Or, at least make a ticket for all of it…
I arrived mid afternoon, most of the daily trips were already ended and had the cave, pretty much, for myself. It was tiring, the walking plus stair climbing (and the stairs at the cave itself) but, nonetheless, this was the most beautiful of the easy access caves.
There is also a “Dark cave” with kayaks, zip-line and other attractions, that I didn’t visit, and a secondary, a Tra Ang Cave and an Elephant cave. I remember visiting one of them (don’t actually know which one), and it was nice, but far from outstanding.
Overall, my best memories were the quiet mist atmosphere of the park itself, the slow boats along the river, the watercolour style landscapes and Paradise cave. As I said before, I hope to return one day for some really trekking and cave exploration.