Giant caves, lush valleys, King Kong-esque mountains and some of the best scenery in Vietnam – what’s not to like about Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park? It’s pure ‘wow’.
One of the delights of Vietnam is the sheer variety of landscapes to explore. Although the coastline is long, it’s less than a day’s ride to the border. Phong Nha Park, as it’s commonly known, lies about 40 km from the provincial coastal capital of Dong Hoi, Quang Binh Province, halfway between Hanoi and Hue. Access to the park is by road from Dong Hoi, about four hours from Hue by car.
Phong Nha Park has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2003, and since the discovery of Son Doong Cave during a survey of the park’s cave systems in 2009 by Vietnamese and British explorers, the area has grown in fame as a tourist attraction.
Although it’s now listed on all good tourism websites and guides, it’s really still emerging as the model of a new kind of tourism that operators hope will set an example in Vietnam for sustainable preservation, prosperity and cooperation.
Xuan Song River behind the town that leads to Phong Nha Cave by boat. This area is slowly increasing in homestays and hotels and eventually the up-market developments for richer guests.
The Bong Lai Valley sits at the grand entrance of the park with mountains rising in the west. A series of cool green rivers run along the western, northern and southern edges, and rice fields and small villages are scattered around the center of the valley which seems to go on for miles. As you stand at the eastern edge, the sunsets are a photographer’s dream. I suggest sitting with a cold glass of beer in the mountain air and drinking in the serenity - not a single skyscraper in sight. Bliss.
I went to Phong Nha on a promise to visit a friend who lives up that way and now runs one of the most popular and oldest hotels in the area, Phong Nha Farmstay. What I didn’t realize at the time was the extent of what you can do in the park, leading me to pose the question: Is this the next big thing in Vietnam?
I was lucky to get a guided tour around the park with extensive commentary on what’s available to see and learn about the developing tourism industry in a mostly untouched area.
We visited “The pub with cold beer” – which earned its name after the fact that the first time anyone dropped by, there wasn’t any cold beer! Placed on a small hilltop, it offers stunning views towards the west and the river that passes below. Another great stopover is “Bomb crater bar” next to the river on the northern side of the valley where you can take a dip in the river and chill out at sunset.
There are lots of little spots for a quick refresher before heading off in whatever direction you please, and that’s half the fun! Just watch out for cows sleeping on the roads…no joke!
It’s not really the kind of place for a quick daytime visit as it takes time to do it justice. It deserves a few days to have a really good look around, not just at the caves but the outlying rivers and forests and the park itself. There’s plenty to do too; get around the park on scooters, take a ride on the rivers, visit the caves and hang out at one of the remote pubs circling the park after a hard day taking selfies!
You’ll notice I haven’t written about the caves themselves. I’m sure most people can find out about them on their own, so I’ve highlighted the other features of the park instead.
Phong Nha Village, at the far western edge of the main valley, includes one main street with hotels, hostels and restaurants that include possibly the most spectacular backdrop imaginable. Looming over the village is the first of the great Karst Mountains, next to a drop-dead gorgeous river that leads to the main caves by boat. Behind the main street you can drop in at any of the local restaurants that sit right on the river’s edge.
This stream is the far southern side of the valley leading towards Phong Nha Village - which is more of a small town than village. This photo was taken at "the pub with cold beer" in the Boi Lai Valley.
More upmarket eateries and homestays are beginning to appear in the village and in some lesser known but equally beautiful spots around the park – perfect for the more upmarket tourists. Although the park is already well known along the backpacker trail, it’s only really started to attract larger groups of overseas tourists in the last few years.
There’s so much to mention that this article is now in two parts! Read on!