Visiting Phong Nha Caves in the Central Highlands of Vietnam

Visiting Phong Nha Caves in the Central Highlands of Vietnam
Photo by Andrew Svk / Unsplash

Situated in the limestone karst zone dating back to 400-500 million years, the jaw-dropping Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the perfect base for exploring the magnificent Phong Nha caves.

If you are planning to head there, plan to stay for a couple of days to enjoy everything that this world-class national park has to offer. From world-famous caves to eco-farm stays, Phong Nha is one place in Vietnam you don’t want to miss.

Visiting the Famous Phong Nha Caves

There are around 30 caves in Phong Nha that are accessible to visitors, but below 4 are the most popular and affordable (except Son Doong). All 4 can either be visited independently or with a group tour.

Since both Phong Nha Cave and Tien Son Cave are usually explored on a Phong Nha Cave tour, we’ve merged them into one experience rather than two separate caves. But you could explore the Tien Son Cave separately if you wish.

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Phong Nha Cave

Entrance into Phong Nha cave
Phong Nha Cave

Also called the 'First Wonder,' the 8km underground river cave is one of the most visited caves in Phong Nha. You don't need to book a tour if you don't want to but bear in mind that you can reach it by boat only. Head to the jetty at the end of the main street (near the bus stop) to book one.

Once on the boat, you’ll be whisked away on a scenic cruise through the Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park and sail right into the grotto through the cave’s mouth. Same as the Paradise Cave, you only get to explore 1 km which is just enough to chill and enjoy the sights before you stop at a beach inside the cave.

Remember to wear comfortable shoes. Once inside, you’ll get to explore the cave and admire the stunning million-years-old stalactites and stalagmites throughout the cave. As you explore, follow the signs and climb the steps to reach the beautiful Tien Son Cave. The steps are very steep though.

The Tien Son Cave is also known as ‘Fairy on the mountain’ to the locals and sits 100 meters above the Phong Nha Cave. Your boat skipper will wait for you as you explore.

You'll find the inside of the cave carefully lit up to showcase the ancient rock formations without taking away the beauty of this natural wonder. With a wooden walkway across the cave and artificial lighting, it’s similar to the Paradise cave, but not as spectacular.

Useful information about Phong Nha Cave tours

You'll reach the Phong Nha cave by a 'Dragon' boat which costs 360,000 VND ($16.14) per trip. It’s a good idea to see if anyone else is going to the caves to split the boat costs.

Tours to Phong Nha Cave are often paired with a visit to Tien Son Cave and a trip to the Paradise Cave which is great if you are staying in Phong Nha for a day or two.

You can visit the Tien Son Cave independently by walking up to the cave. The entrance fee is 80,000 VND ($3.59) per person.

Alternativeley, check out these day trips from Hue and Dong Hoi:

Phong Nha Paradise Cave

Phong Nha Paradise Cave
Paradise Cave in Phong Nha

If you only have time to see one cave in Phong Nha National Park, make it the Paradise Cave. You can either explore it independently or take the above-mentioned tour.

Discovered by a local farmer in 2005, the 31m long UNESCO World Heritage Site is considered to be the longest cave in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park. And the most beautiful too.

During the explorations, explorers from the British Cave Research Association were so impressed by the striking stalactites and stalagmites inside this cave that they named it ‘Thien Duong Cave’ (Paradise Cave).

The rock formations are truly impressive and you can look at them up close inside the cave. They are tastefully lit up using special lighting that’s not overly damaging to the cave.

You will not need any special equipment to explore the cave. It’s not even that cold down there. But wear comfortable footwear for walking along the wooden footpath.

How to get to the Paradise Cave

To access the cave, you can either walk for around 1.6 km from the main car park along a paved footpath or take a golf buggy. If walking, prepare for a slight incline at the base of the cave mouth.

Check out our quick tips on how to get to the Paradise Cave on a bike if you’re planning to explore it independently. Otherwise, for convenience, pre-book the above-mentioned Phong Nha Cave and Paradise Cave tour.

If you, however, are more adventurous, you’ll want to join a dark cave tour for the ultimate Phong Nha experience.

Paradise Cave: Visiting the Most Beautiful Cave in Phong Nha
Located in the spectacular Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Paradise Cave in Vietnam is a must-see destination in Vietnam. Home to the 360-million-year-old rock formations, the 31 km-long Thien Duong Cave is the longest and the most beautiful cave in Phong Nha, th…

The Dark Cave

The adventurous Dark Cave is precisely what it says, dark. The lack of artificial light and the grey and black rock formations inside are exactly what lends the cave its name.

This smaller version of the world’s largest cave is best explored with a group tour which is a lot of fun if you are prepared for zip-lining, swimming and mud baths. Headlamps, kayaks and other special equipment will be provided.

You’ll start your tour by zip-lining into the cave. Stretching 400m from the wildlife observation centre to the mouth of the cave, it’s the longest zipline in Vietnam. During your speedy journey into the darkness, look down to admire the gorgeous Chay River beneath your feet.

Once inside, you’ll proceed to explore the cave, swim across the Thuy Tien Lake and have a mud bath and kayaking adventure if you like.

Useful Information About The Dark Cave Tours

Tours from 15 March - 15 September cost 450,000 VND per person ($20). The price includes the entrance fee, kayak, zip-line, mud bath and tour insurance.

In low season, between 16 September - 14 March, tours to the dark cave can cost nearly half price - 250,000 VND ($11.21). But beware of floods during the rainy season.

For 80,000 VND ($3.59), you can visit this cave independently, however, you can only explore as far as 150m.

Just like other tours, a group tour to the Dark cave can be booked on the spot at the jetty.

Son Doong Cave - the Largest Cave in the World

Son Doong Cave - the Largest Cave in the Word
Son Doong Cave

Finally, if you are ready to spend $3,000, you can visit Son Doong, the largest cave in the world.

Discovered by Ho Khanh, the same local man who discovered the Paradise Cave, the 3 million years old Son Doong Cave has been open to a very limited amount of visitors since 2013.

Oxalis Adventure Tours is currently the sole tour operator that can organise a 4-day expedition to the cave. They offer a 4-day trekking experience through forests, swimming in the cave’s blue waters and spending a night camping at the Nuoc Lan Cave.

For around $300 per person, they also offer other 1-day and 2-day tours to Phong Nha National Park, Tu Lan Cave, Hang Tien Cave, and Hang En Cave.

Other Things to Do in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Things to do in Phong Nha
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

The 'Adventure Capital of Asia' and home to rain forests, underground rivers, and fascinating caves, the Phong Nha national park is one of the must-see places in Vietnam.

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And while the caves are the main focus in the area, you don’t have to be a die-hard adventurer to enjoy this UNESCO-listed site. There are more fun things to do in Phong Nha if you decide to stay here for a couple of extra days.

Enjoy Phong Nha's Botanical Garden

Located only 10 km from Phong Nha, the lush Botanical Garden is a beautiful nature retreat complete with walking paths for easy explorations. To get there, we recommend renting a motorbike at your accommodation.

Botanical Garden entrance fee: 40,000 VND per person

Walk the Mooc Springs Eco-Trail

Constructed in 2011, the Nuoc Mooc Eco trail is another great thing to do in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

The walkways made from stone and sturdy bamboo will keep you safe and dry while you hike above the spring past the beautiful orchid garden. But if you feel a little more adventurous, then take a dip in the crystal-clear waters or rent a kayak.

Mooc Springs Eco-Trail entrance fee: 80,000 VND

Kayak rent: 100,000 VND

Visit the Tragic 8 Ladies Cave

Located on the legendary Highway 20, the cave is a witness to a tragic fate of 8 young war volunteers, 4 men and 4 women, who died inside the cave during the Vietnam (American) war.

On 14 November 1972, Americans bombed the road going to HCMC so badly that the nearby rocks blocked the cave's mouth trapping 8 volunteers inside. The temple built above the cave is a tribute to the brave 20-year-old victims.

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Temple entrance fee: Free

Cross the Xuan Son Bridge

Be sure to venture out of Phong Pha town to cross the Xuan Son Bridge. The bridge itself is nothing spectacular, but the views are. Especially at sunset.

Spend a Day at a Farmstay

There are quite a few farmstays in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park if you are after some downtime in spectacular surroundings.

Check out the Phong Nha Farmstay and Chay Lap Farmstay and Resort. Here you can chill out by the pool, enjoy local cuisine, ice-cold beer and cocktails.

Explore Bong Lay Valley

The Bong Lay Valley is a 12km circular trail with a few watering and fresh food stops run by local families. The main stops include The Pub with Cold Beer, Wild Boar Eco Farm, Moi Moi restaurant and the Duck Stop.

Phong Nha Travel Tips

Phong Nha

How to Get to Phong Nha

The easiest way to get to Phong Nha is to take a local bus from Dong Hoi, which takes around an hour to get to the town.

Dong Hoi is on the main train line between Hanoi and Hue making it easy to get to on an overnight train. You can also catch an overnight bus, but we opted for a sleeper train and had a restful ride to Dong Hoi from Nim Binh.

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If you are considering booking a sleeper bus, make sure it's a tourist bus as it's way more comfortable and better designed for taller travellers.

To book train/bus/air journeys in Vietnam, we used the super friendly 12Go Asia website. We compared and booked our tickets online and showed them on our phone when boarding the train or bus. No printing needed, easy.
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How to catch a local bus for Phong Nha in Dong Hoi

There are at least 2 different bus stations so follow the map below to locate the right one. The bus you need to catch stops on the road opposite the bus station and not at the bus station.

Bus to Phong Nha

It departs on the hour from both ends of the route. You'll need to wait by the blue and white bus stop sign in Dong Hoi and enthusiastically flag it down when it comes past.

Like most of the local buses, you'll find the destination (Dong Hoi -Phong Nha) displayed on the top of the window screen.

You can also take a taxi, but it will cost you 400,000 VND ($18). Even if you share a taxi with other 3 people, it will still be expensive compared to a local bus which is just 35,000 VND ($1.57).

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Phong Nha Accommodation

To get the most out of your visit, you’ll want to stay in Phong Nha or at the many nearby framstays.

Due to the size of the town, it’s best to book accommodation in advance during the peak season. But with the national park and caves growing in popularity, more options are popping in and around Phong Nha.

We had a pleasant stay at Heritage by Night Hotel located a few doors away from the beloved Easy Tiger Backpacker Hostel.

Alternatively, you can book a place to stay in Dong Hoi, the closest city to Phong Hna, which also has a good range of accommodation options.

Where to Eat in Phong Nha

A Vietnam Corner

A Vietnam Corner

We discovered A Vietnam Corner, a traditional Vietnamese restaurant and hostel, on our first day in Phong Nha. It's right across the street from the Heritage by Night Hotel. A very welcoming and cosy place that serves lovely Vietnamese food and tasty Vietnamese coffee.

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This is another place we recommend if you need a break from noodles and crave some good hearty food. They serve amazing stone-baked pizzas and delicious homemade cakes.

They also sell lovely cards with scenes from around Vietnam captured by an ex-pat. For a small fee, they'll gladly post them for you.

Local Stalls

There are some local food stalls by the main coach station where you can buy cheaper food too. Be sure to investigate the local food scene while visiting Phong Nha.

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