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Phong Nha Cave Tour – Exploring Underground Cathedrals of Central Vietnam

For adventure travellers who want to get a little dirty, immerse themselves in untouched nature, and are up for a physical challenge, Phong Nha, Vietnam is the place to do it. Cave trekking in Phong Nha Phong Nha Ke Bang is a unique experience that can’t be matched anywhere else in Vietnam — it’s a must-do for adventure-lovers. Read on to discover everything you need to know to have an amazing time doing a Phong Nha Cave tour.

Despite its UNESCO World Heritage status, Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park is still an off-the-beaten-track destination in Vietnam. In Phong Nha, there are outstanding karst landscapes to be discovered, country roads to wander, and, of course, amazing cave systems and underground rivers to explore.

phong nha water

The world’s largest cave, Hang Son Doong, is there, along with dozens of other caves — some have been fully developed for tourists and many are still completely unexplored.

Whether you just have a single day or you want to spend a week underground, the caves in Phong Nha Ke Bang will provide. Here’s the lowdown on caving in Phong Nha, including arranging a tour, what to expect, what to bring, and finding the best Phong Nha accommodation.

Our Exciting Phong Nha Cave Tour

To visit any of the caves inside Phong Nha Ke Bang, you’ll have to join a tour with Oxalis Adventure Tour, the only company authorized to bring people into the park. Oxalis has been entrusted with preserving the environment of the park and ensuring that it doesn’t become overrun with tourists.

Since there aren’t any competing companies, cave trekking in Phong Nha might be one of the most expensive activities you do on your Vietnam adventures. But it’s worth it to experience the outstanding beauty of these underground cathedrals – created completely by nature and unchanged by human hands.

Because I was travelling Vietnam on a budget, I opted for the Hang Tien 1-Day Discovery tour, which meant I could spend the day underground and still sleep in my comfy hostel bed that night.

The tour started as all Oxalis Tours do, with a short presentation by the Oxalis staff about cave safety and preserving the environment. After the lesson, we piled into an SUV for an hour-long bumpy ride through the lush Vietnamese countryside.

The hike to Hang Tien starts on a wide muddy track but soon veers off onto a narrow jungle trail.

trekking in phong nha vietnam

As tropical vines and leaves snatched at my face and arms, I tried hard not to imagine the spiders, snakes and other creatures lurking just out of sight. I was especially thankful for my knee-length socks, purchased the night before in Phong Nha town, which were there to protect me from the jungle’s thirsty leeches. Yuck.

Though the group successfully avoided any creepy crawly encounters, it was a relief to arrive at an open rocky slope that heralded the ascent into Hang Tien.

As the guides handed out our headlamps and helmets, giving final instructions for staying safe inside the cave, I felt a giddy excitement rise in my belly.

Though I’ve been obsessed with caving since I was a kid, this would be my first time inside a cave that wasn’t Disney-fied with strings of lights and ankle-friendly walkways.

As we ascended towards the gaping cave entrance, an eerie quiet enveloped our group.

We were leaving behind the noise and heat of the busy rainforest and stepping into the cool silence of another world. It’s similar to stepping off a busy city street into a cathedral, where the real world falls away, replaced by a supernatural silence.

In just a few minutes, daylight disappeared behind us and I could only see what was illuminated in the bob and weave of my fellow trekkers’ headlamps.

I stopped frequently to gaze at the intricate beauty of the cave walls and ceilings, carved entirely by nature’s hand. The formations are literally breathtaking – the awe I felt was more powerful and spiritual than any I’ve experienced in a man-made cathedral.

A few hundred metres inside the cave, we descend to a natural beach where the guide asks us to stop and switch off our headlamps. The silence inside the cave is vast and deep, as though it echoes from deep inside the earth.

I wait for my eyes to adjust to the dark, for faint shapes to appear in the blackness. But it doesn’t happen. There is no ambient light here and without our headlamps, we are as blind as the bats that flit past our ears at frequent intervals.

It is indescribably moving to be present in a place to otherworldly and foreign, right here on Earth.

This trek isn’t for the faint-hearted or the unfit. Over the course of a few hours, we climb huge boulders blocking narrow passageways, leap across rushing underground streams, and balance over rushing streams on narrow shelves of rock. There’s one crossing so wide and high, I’m not entirely sure I’ll make it. I manage to scramble up, but fervently hope we’ll go back a different way.

We do, and all too soon, the trek is at an end. We emerge blinking, back into the jungle’s harsh light and cacophony of sound.

My first real caving experience has left me wanting more.

And there is so much more to explore just in Phong Nha. Oxalis offers 11 different tours in all, from 1-day treks like the one I did, to a 4-day trek into Son Doong – the ultimate Vietnam bucket list experience.

What to Bring On Your Phong Nha Cave Tour

Long socks and long pants.

If you’re planning on doing any trekking in Phong Nha, you’ll be required to wear long socks – preferably ones that you can tuck your long pants into. Yup, there are leeches in the jungle and, though they’re relatively harmless, the yuck factor is pretty high.

Rain gear.

If you’re in Vietnam during rainy season, be prepared for wet and windy days and nights. Phong Nha’s attractions are almost all outdoors, so bring your rain gear! Luckily, once inside the cave, you’ll be protected from the weather.

Tripod and remote for cave pictures.

Taking good pictures inside caves is tough, so if you want to come away with something better than a blurry smear of lights, make sure to bring a tripod for your camera and a remote shutter release.

phong nha big cave

Mosquito repellent (the strong stuff).

In Southeast Asia, mosquitos are not just a nuisance, they can make you seriously ill. Though the risk for malaria, dengue, and zika is not high in Vietnam, it is present, especially in rural and jungle regions. Wearing mosquito repellent is a must.

Plenty of cash.

Though you won’t need your cash while trekking, it’s a good idea to bring money with you to Phong Nha. There is an ATM in town, but it is known to be unreliable, and many places still don’t take credit cards.

Other Things To Do in Phong Nha

Boat Ride to Phong Nha Cave

If you don’t like the idea of walking all day, or you have limited time, hop on a boat from the dock in the centre of Phong Nha town. You’ll motor up the river, with breathtaking karst mountain views on either side, and then slip inside a tiny cave entrance. There, the boat crew cuts the engines and paddles you through the eerie quiet to a sandy shore. Disembark to get a closer look at the wonderful cave formations of Phong Nha Cave.

phong nha cave tour

Paradise Cave Tour

Paradise Cave is a majestically vaulted dry cave 31 km long. Since it’s outside the national park, you can visit yourself by motorbike. If you want to go beyond the well-kept walkways and artificially lighted areas of the cave, join the 7km Paradise Cave Underground Trek with Phong Nha Discovery.

Dark Cave Adventure

Dark Cave has been developed to appeal to backpackers and other adventure tourists. Arrival at the cave entrance is by way of Vietnam’s longest zip line. After that, flip on your head torch and slog your way through a pool of deep gluey mud before emerging into an underground river where you can rinse off. Return by way of kayak for a wet but fun mini-adventure.

One-Day National Park Tour

You can experience Paradise Cave, Dark Cave, the botanical gardens and a few more sights, like The Pub with Cold Beer, on a day tour. Just enquire at your hostel or hotel when you get to Phong Nha and your tour will be set up faster than you can blink.

Explore by Bicycle

The best way to meet locals almost anywhere in Vietnam is to grab a bicycle and peddle out of town. As soon as you get away from the centre of Phong Nha town, you’ll discover a different side of Vietnam.

Small wooden homes, with chickens and pigs scurrying in front yards, dot the riverside. Half-naked kids shout hello while their mothers work in the yard tending to the plants and animals that sustain them. Locals going by on motorbikes will almost surely stop and chat, although it’s doubtful they’ll speak English.

A bike ride is a simple, yet fulfilling way, to get to know the people of Phong Nha a little better.

How to Get to Phong Nha

Part of the reason that Phong Nha isn’t as overrun as many other Vietnam highlights, like Ha Long Bay or Sapa, is that it’s not that easy to get to. Whether you’re coming from the north or the south, Phong Nha really is off the beaten track.

Getting to Phong Nha From Hanoi

By sleeper bus.

You may have heard horror stories about the busses in Vietnam — but those tales are mostly outdated. I almost always travel by bus in Vietnam and have never had a bad experience (yet).

The 9-hour bus journey from Hanoi won’t be the best night you ever spent, but if you come prepared with lots of entertainment loaded onto your phone, you’ll survive. The bus arrives in Phong Nha around 4am, but hotels and hostels in town are used to the schedule, so will be on hand to greet you when you get there.

By sleeper train.

If you like trains, book a sleeper berth on the overnight train from Hanoi to Dong Hoi, which is about 45 minutes from Phong Nha. Just be warned that Vietnamese sleeper trains tend to be bumpy, noisy, and either way too cold or way too hot!

Trains from Hanoi arrive between 5am and 6am in Dong Hoi. You’ll have to hire a driver there to get you to Phong Nha. If at all possible, don’t plan your trek for the day you arrive, since Vietnamese trains are not that reliable.

By air.

You can fly into Dong Hoi from Hanoi, and then get a local taxi to take you the final 45 minutes to Phong Nha. However, we don’t recommend it because flying is terrible for the environment and by far the least adventurous way to travel!

From Hue or Hoi An to Phong Nha

If you are coming from the south, take the bus or train from Hue to Phong Nha. Going all the way from Hoi An to Phong Nha in one day is a bit too much for all but the heartiest of travellers. Instead, take a [motorbike tour from Hoi An to Hue], spend the night and the next day in Hue, and then head to Phong Nha by bus in the late afternoon.

Where to Stay in Phong Nha

Nguyen Shack

I loved my stay at Ngyuen Shack, a hostel where the rooms are in a long, low bamboo hut. Rooms have either a set of bunk beds or a double bed, and only three walls. The fourth wall is open to the elements, with just a curtain to separate you from nature. Fall asleep with the jungle breeze wafting over you.

Nguyen Shack also now provides accommodation at a bigger property in the hills outside of town.

where to stay in phong nha

Easy Tiger Hostel

With dorm rooms, a pool, daily info sessions, tour booking, and live music in their bar, Easy Tiger hostel is by far the most popular backpacker option in town.

Phong Nha Homestay Community

If you want private accommodation away from the, admittedly minimal, bustle of Phong Nha town, the Phong Nha Homestay Community is a great option. This collective of homestays, including Jungle Boss and Minh’s Homestay, work together to preserve the natural beauty and non-touristy atmosphere of Phong Nha.

Phong Nha Lakehouse Resort

There’s not much in the way of high-end accommodation in Phong Nha (yet), but if you’re looking a little extra comfort, try Phong Nha Lakehouse Resort. Located on the shores of Dong Suon Lake, about 10 minutes out of town, you can swim and kayak right out your front door.

Guest Post Author Bio

Hi, I’m Jane, founder and chief blogger on My Five Acres. I’ve lived in six countries and have camped, biked, trekked, practiced yoga, and explored in 50! At My Five Acres, our mission is to inspire you to live your most adventurous life and help you to travel more and more mindfully. Follow me on Instagram and Facebook for more travel adventures!

Last updated on October 13th, 2023 at 01:06 pm

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