Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is the most magical Narnian landscape located just west of the city Dong Hoi. Phong Nha was the main reason I wanted to travel to Vietnam - in search of the largest caves in the world, formed over 400 million years ago (the longest cave systems in the world belong to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky). Son Doong is the largest cave and while the others pale in comparison, they're still incredibly huge and beautiful. There are a ton of different options available for tours and hikes to any level of adventurer; activities like kayaking, swimming or jungle trekking and/or how long you'd like to adventure for. There are different companies that will take you out on tours and treks as well; Oxalis seems to have a monopoly on Son Doong treks; but their only option for exploring it is 5 days, around $4000, your first born, and the wait list is about a year so sadly, we weren't able to do that (although we did try to do it ourselves!!!) The website phongnhacavestour.com can provide more information regarding the various expeditions to the different caves.
John and I opted for no tours because we like creating our own adventure and honestly, I don't really like tours because you're always waiting on someone for something (on a totally unrelated note, I'm mildly impatient).
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is absolutely breaktaking AND its free to get in to; you just pay the fees for the cave-attractions you want to see, which is great! I would highly recommend putting aside a whole day to motorbike around the whole park just to take it all in! There are so many other caves to be found!! Phong Nha's landscape is considered karst topography, which means caves and mountains have formed from the 'dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone.' (Thanks Wikipedia!)
We arrived in Phong Nha January 7th on a long motorbike ride from Hue; we rounded a nonchalant bend in the road and the outline of Phong Nha appeared in the distance: a foggy mountain 'range' of huge free-standing mountains covered in lush green trees and vines. We were so excited! We went about 90kph just to shorten our already short jaunt there. We stayed at the Duong Homestay just across from the more well-known Easy Tiger Hostel. Immediately once getting there we ran right up to the nearest mountain and began making our ascent; we saw mountain goats (finally!) and I discovered a new cave, sneakily hidden from the untrained eye.
Our goal in Phong Nha was to 'relax' a little (whatever that means) and tried to take this area slower, so we only did 1-2 caves per day (the weather was quite wet so that also inspired a slower pace).
Paradise Cave - is 250,000 VND a person translating to $11. You skate along the slipperiest path you've ever walked on and if that doesn't kill you there's a huge stair climb up to the cave entrance. If you survive the slippery path and the huge climb up the mountain you are rewarded by a downward flight of stairs into the mouth of the cave. The cave opens up to this huge area (my spatial reasoning is challenged so Google says...) it's 72 meters high and 150m wide. My cell camera didn't take any National Geographic worthy pictures so you can't comprehend the scale by any means, but the cave is absolutely stunning.
Dark Cave - was also 250,000 VND per person, it's usually 400,000 V per person but we got a deal because (dun dun dun!) if you sneak in with a tour (not go with them but walk in with them) you can get a group price. Dark Cave was epic and unfortunately I don't have any pictures of it because if you bring something in with you it WILL break due to all of the activities! You start by zip lining over a river to the mouth of the cave, then you swim in the tropical blue water up to the entrance, then you adventure into the cave (its dark so you get a little helmet with a light on it) THEN you walk through this skinny little corridor (which is why you need the helmet; concussion is imminent without it) through sometimes knee-dee mud into an opening where you can sit in the mud baths AND guess what?! You float!!!! You can just lie back in the mud and the muds like 'hey friend, no worries, I got you' and you float. It's freaking awesome. Then you have a mud fight with all your new friends you made on the tour and get deliciously muddy and hilariously dirty. After happily playing in the mud for about 10-20minutes you wander through a different slim passage way and slide down a natural mud slide (which is only mildly painful) then on your exit from the cave you cannonball into the blue water again to clean yo dirty self off and take a kayak back; there you can pretend youre a pirate and commandeer other people's kayaks. On the other side of the river more zip lining and a high ropes course patiently awaits your arrival. (Google some pictures!)
Phong Nha Cave - you have to take a boat to this aquatic cave but good news: you can combine this entrance fee (150,000V) to the entrance fee of above-ground Tien Son Cave and the boat ride (400,000 V) there you split with everyone on the boat (up to 12 peeps). We were the last people to get there and were able to sneak in with yet another tour! We made some awesome native Vietnamese friends who now call California and Texas their home! The boat ride to Phong Nha Cave is spectacular; riding in a valley, teal water splashes around you while you're surrounded by vibrant green fields and lush mountains, eating 'banh my' (which is the best sandwich you'll ever eat; more on that later.)
You continue your boat tour through the cave and go on the most epic watery cave adventure. Unlike Paradise Cave where it has mostly stalagmites (pointy mineral deposits coming from the cave floor) Phong Nha cave has incredible stalactites (pointy mineral deposits hanging from the cave ceiling).
We didn't make it to Tien Son due to timing but the other available caves are Hang En, Hang Va and, of course, the coveted Son Doong which we attempted an expedition ourselves but were foiled by the knee-deep muck and the very long trail through the jungle which unfortunately, we didn't have time for.
Where / what to eat in Phong Nha:
Don't eat at Tam Coc Bar, it's cute but not worth the food poisoning. Phong Nha isn't that touristy yet, which is great, but in the case of food its a bad thing. The food is held at pretty low standards so use your gut, your nose, and all your other senses to pick a place. If it smells funny, don't eat there. If you get a bad vibe, don't eat there. If it looks not-so clean, don't eat there. Food poisoning sucks.
Tuan Ngoc is another restaurant that has adorable green lighting effects and paper lanterns, this place is so delicious and they had so many vegetable options!
We had brick oven pizza at Capture which was tasty, and it was nice to have comfort food after eating a strict diet of pho and banh my's (which are delicious but I very much miss cheese!!!!) Vietnam is a cheese-less country!!!
Even though it's not super touristy TripAdvisor.com has helpfully rated some other restaurants like Gecko Bar and A Little Vietnam Restaurant!
Banh my - pronounced 'bahn me' is a delicious sandwich made out of a baguette, 2 different slices of suspicious looking meats, meat spread, cilantro, a cucumber and mayo and some other things that I'm still not sure what they are. It's absolutely delicious and available everywhere in Vietnam. You can find them at restaurants but they're most easily found along the city streets in little carts made by wise old Vietnamese ladies. Anthony Bourdain says the banh my is one of his favorite sandwichs of all time.
Pho - beef noodle soup that you really can't go wrong with. It's a hearty soup made with beef and yummy noodles that vary in size with bean sprouts, green onions and you can add spicy chilis to warm you up even more. This is to be found everywhere.
So, if it's not on your bucket list, add Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. It rivals Machi Piccu & Yosemite as my favorite place(s) on earth. We only have single entry visas which are good for a month and in order to really immerse yourself in the epic nature, culture, history, architecture and general wonder Vietnam has to offer you would need much more time than that.