My Epic Adventure in Phong Nha
Words cannot describe how amazing Phong Nha was. From the ride in, to the scenery around, to the caves themselves, it was all a surreal experience. The view all along the road leading up to it was spectacular. So amazing in fact, that it made the ride rather hazardous as focusing on the road instead the scenery was near impossible. The caves are, of course, what Phong Nha is famous for, and they far surpassed my expectations. But no trip can be this epic without a great crew, and I was fortunate to have met the most amazing people on the way to make it extraordinary.
Table of Contents
This grew to quite a large post as there is a ton to say about Phong Nha. Use the thumbnails below to navigate to the various sections.
The Ride in Phong Nha
As I quickly learned during my ride in, Phong Nha is not only about the caves. The trip getting there is just as important, as the beautiful mountains stretch far beyond this little town, all of which you don’t want to miss. There are, of course, plenty of smaller towns around it, but you’ll likely be coming from quite far as the only ones that are relevant for anything more than a stop through are Hanoi and Nimh Binh to the north and Huê to the south, all about 400km away. The trip in is therefore rather substantial. Hats off to Tom at the Vietnam Coracle for putting together this great guide to traversing the Ho Chi Minh Road to Phong Nha, which helped a lot.
In terms of nearby cities to Phong Nha, Đồng Hới is only about 50km east and on the coast, but whether you’re going there or Phong Nha the distance to other relevant cities is about the same. Many backpackers actually spend their nights in Đồng Hới though and do day trips into Phong Nha. I actually did my own trip to Đồng Hới after Phong Nha, and it is indeed a charming beach community worth spending a night or two in, not yet adulterated by the hotels and business of the growing tourism industry.
A Lưới and Khe Sanh
My trip started from the south, in Huê, which I think is more appropriate as the mountains tend to gradually increase in magnitude and glory coming from that direction, and dip rather quickly to the north of Phong Nha before picking up again around Nimh Binh. This made for a very exciting ride in, with the view getting progressively better as I went along. After every turn, I was left wondering how the backdrop after the next one could possibly get any more impressive, thinking that there is no way it could be any more picturesque, and yet being proved wrong every time. I would literally try to imagine a view that was more spectacular than the one I just passed and my mind turned a blank, until I rounded the corner and nature showed me once again that it was always capable of more.
Leaving from Huê, I spent a night in both A Lưới and Khe Sanh. Realistically, however, A Lưới can be skipped as it’s only about 100km from both Huê and Khe Sanh and both those legs can be done in one day. It does have a few interesting sights but they can all be seen while passing through. That being said, I was fortunate enough to meet some friendly locals (Linh from A Lưới) who showed me around and fed me some juicy homegrown papaya, which made for a fun experience.
Khe Sanh is a bit of a bigger city and a good spot to do some maintenance as the following 250km to Phong Nha (if you go along the windy but scenic Ho Chi Minh Road), are untouched and dead empty. This makes for a great ride but I made sure to check my tires and brakes, change my oil and stack up on some reserve gas, because there would be no where to do it on the way.
Khe Sanh also has a more legit war museum just north of it that might be worth checking on your way out. English speaking Vietnamese guides are available to help explain the war relevance of this area, situated right near the border between South and North Vietnam.
On to Phong Nha
The REALLY good views on the road to Phong Nha started after Khe Sanh, with limestone colossuses covered with thick mossy trees exploding from of the earth and between the rivers, forcing the road to carve meticulously through them. The hilly, winding path was a blast to ride through, but make sure you know when that next turn is coming if you’re caught gazing at the world around you. An added bonus is that very few cars and trucks take this road, often opting instead for the QL1A, a straight road along the coast that avoids the winding mountains. After I had left Khe Sanh, I’m sure I saw less than 10 of them before making it to Phong Nha.
While stopped on the side of the road to take some pictures of a particularily nice view (I say particularily nice, but they’re all amazing. This just happened to be a point where I couldn’t take it anymore and had to stop), a fellow backpacker pulled up behind me and did the same. We got to talking while admiring the river slicing through the valley formed by the endless mountains, and we mentioned how amazing it would be to jump in it. We introduced ourselves (Matias from Chile), and agreed that if either of us sees a way down to the river, we’d stop and try it out.
It didn’t take long until we found one. We parked our bikes and descended down through the bushes to the river. After a few hours of motorbiking through the hot sun, this refreshing river could not have been any more welcome. I thought of everyone that might be doing this drive in a hot sweaty bus, only able to dream of jumping in. Some water buffalos decided to join us on the other bank and I felt the true nature of the location. They weren’t aggressive and seemed happy to share the river with us. We stayed in there for as long as we though was doable with the milage left ahead of us. After an experience like that, it goes without saying that you’re traveling the rest of the way together!
Matias mentioned he had not had lunch so as we drove forward, we kept an eye out for a community that might have some food to offer us. We found a tiny one, with houses on either side of a single road leading off the highway, and stopped to check it out. They had drinks but no food, so we had a beer and enjoyed the view for a bit, dreaming of what it would be like to live in a place like this. Fortunately, further down, we did find a little market that was selling various vegetables. No meals and nothing cooked but we bought some tofu and tomatoes and took a bite of one and a bite of another to get a little boost. They were incredibly fresh, a solid reminder of what food is supposed to taste like when it’s truly local and homegrown.
We decided that we should really try and make the rest of the trip to Phong Nha in one go from there as, needless to say, these roads were not lit and the sun was looking a little tired. We set out and probably made it another 40km before something else caught our attention. It was a narrow little suspension bridge, clearly built exclusively for motorbikes to cross the valley. It led straight into the woods on the other side of the river to an unseen location. We had to check it out!
As we crossed the bridge, we passed some excited teens that started taking pictures with us. Clearly there must be some sort of community on the other side. There was indeed a tiny one, seeming to consist simply of a communal hut, a volleyball court full of kids, and a few living huts scattered around. The area down the mountain from their community, leading towards the river, was the most picturesque farm environment I’ve ever seen. Crops and free range livestock spanned the entire area. It would have been a great place to fall off the grid and chill for a few days.
As soon as we showed up in the community, everyone’s attention turned to welcome us. The communal hut was filled with men, sitting around cracking jokes, smoking, drinking their local rice wine, and being tended to by the women, as frequently seems to be the case in Vietnam. They immediately invited us inside and offered us some of everything. It was a joy to be a part of. Seeing how minimalistic everything was in these communities, and yet how happy everyone was, really makes you realize how nothing material, from objects to money, can really change your overall mood as long as you have the right people around you. After a few sips of rice wine, and having to politely yet assertively deny any more from the generous locals while attempting to mime out that we were driving after all, we spent a few minutes playing volleyball with the kids, and said our goodbyes. What we hoped would only be a quick pit stop ended up being almost an hour of chilling, and now we really had to get going.
The sun was dipping quickly, and it was soon going to drop behind the tallest mountain. We still had over 80km to go. I let Matias go first as his headlight was stronger than mine, but it wasn’t long before we were riding in pitch black. At first, this was a little concerning, but we scaled down our speeds and got used to the fact that our headlights were only sufficient to see where the side of the road was and that that was all we had to go by.
As we dipped into a valley, the cool night air dropped some mist around us. We stopped to wrap our heads around this new visibility situation and laughed at the fact that this was the last thing we needed. The mountains had one more surprise for us though. As we sat there thinking about how we were going to get through these dark, misty, winding roads, we noticed lights among all the trees. Fireflies had filled them and were twinkling in the darkness around us, as if the stars had descended into the forest. This gave us a happy boost and we carefully powered through the rest of the way.
About 20km away from Phong Nha, we reached a fork in the road and had no idea which way to turn. Out of the darkness emerged a Vietnamese man that pointed to the right after we said “Phong Nha”. We had no idea where he came from, there was literally nothing around, but we decided to trust him. He showed up right on time and, twenty minutes later, we had made it!
The Caves in Phong Nha
That night, we joined the backpacker crowd at the Easy Tiger, the main hostel in the area, but rather than sleeping there, Matias and I decided that best would be to share a room at the hotel across the street. We got the benefits of a cheap, quiet private room, and were still able to hang at the Easy Tiger as much as we wanted. There, we met a few more travelers (Araceli and Sandra from Sweden, none of which were actually Swedish and who didn’t have motorbikes so they rode with us, Dan from Israel and JP from Chile), and made plans to check out the famous caves in the region the next day.
The Dark Cave
First stop was the Dark Cave, which actually had an entire adventure theme around it. There were various zip lines, including a long one to a dock at the mouth of the cave to start things off, kayaking, and even a rather challenging in-air zipline oriented obstacle course. The whole thing was really fun.
Unfortunately we only set out around noon after lots of morning dillydallying, so we ended up in a large group. This meant that we had to wait quite a while for everyone to finish the first zip line to get to the front of the cave, but we splashed around in the water and marvelled at what might be beyond the entrance. Finally, everyone finished flying across the water and we swam to the cave.
Once entering, we realized that the cave really was pitch black. We were each given a helmet with a headlamp as our source of light, which made for a very authentic experience. As we dwelled deeper into the cave, thick mud start accumulating around our feet on the cave floor and some of my steps landed me knee deep. Supposedly, it was healthy for your skin though, which is good because the final cave chamber was very large and the mud got very deep. In fact, it was so deep and so thick that we started floating! I couldn’t have sank if I wanted to. At one point I got into the lotus position and was still able to float, the mud only reaching my belly button! It felt a little dirty at first but as soon as we realized that nobody is coming out clean and accepted the mud, we had a great time. There was a moment when we were able to convince everyone to turn off their headlamps so we could appreciate the darkness, but it only last a few seconds as people started to freak out and turned theirs back on.
On our way out, Matias and I discovered a few passages diverging from the main path our guide was leading us through. We quickly ducked away from the group and slithered through one of them and found ourselves in a rather large underwater pool. It was fascinating to see how different things can be below the surface. Looking at this mountain, you would never realize how interesting it is on the inside.
The rest of the afternoon, we paddled along the surrounding lake on kayaks, ziplined around and tried to complete the rather challenging in-air obstacle course. It always ended with one of us wiping out rather fantastically in the water below.
Once we got ourselves cleaned from the mud and dried up, it was time for a post cave snack (bring them yourselves) and to get on to the next adventure!
This was definitely the most amazing day I've had so far in Asia. We trekked through two caves, the first very dark, narrow, and muddy. It ended with a mud pool so dense you could float cross legged and everyone in our group was playing and splashing around. After the first cave, only four of us wanted to proceed to the second and I'm so glad we did. By then, it was the end of the day and no one else was around. We had the whole cave to ourselves and the silence we experienced was palpable. It felt like it was going forever, deeper and deeper into the mountain. In front of a huge stalactite, we took a few moments, mediated, chanted and ohmed. The sounds and vibrations we were able to create and feel in there were indescribable and the echos divine, as if the mountain itself was answering and joining. #caves #explore #phongnha #meditate #ohm #echo #mountain #mud #mudpool #love #wanderlust #moment
This was by far the most amazing experience I’ve had in Vietnam. Yes, the cave was spectacular, but the context in which we were able to visit it made it surreal. Only Matias, Araceli, Sandra and I wanted to keep going after the dark cave, so we jumped on our motorbikes and headed towards the Paradise Cave. We arrived around 4:30pm, and the last entrance is at 5. We were therefore the last ones in that day, and pretty much had the cave to ourselves!
The pictures you can see here show the amazing stalactites, stalagmites, and columns in the cave, and the fascinating colors and shapes they form. Nothing, however, can do the experience justice. When we stopped talking, the silence was palpable. The cave created a curious pressure in the air which you could feel vibrating gently against your ear drums.
As the only group inside the cave, we were free to keep silent whenever we wanted, really enabling us to feel the cave. I know it sounds weird, and maybe it was just the mesmerizing effect of its grandeur, but it really felt like there was a presence there, like there was more to the mountain than just rock and dirt. Matias quickly became our spiritual leader and together, we chanted a few Sanskrit mantras that reverberated powerfully against the walls of the cave and created some palpable vibrations.
Needless to say, the experience would have been drastically different if we got our things in order earlier in the morning, like we had planned, and not ended up at the cave so late. Who says procrastinating never leads to anything good?
We stayed there so long that the cave personnel eventually had to ask us to leave around 6pm, but we milked as many moments as we could. By the time we got out, it was already getting dark, so for the second day in a row, Matias and I motorbiked through Phong Nha’s dark roads in search for our hostel. We were all starving by that time and had a few more caves for tomorrow.
Phong Nha Cave
Phong Nha Cave requires a boat along a beautiful river channel, dotted with cattle and buffalo, church steeples and locals’ homes to the mouth of the cave. The dock is very close to the main road so a motorbike is not required for this one. Pro tip: head out with as many people as you can for this as 16 people fit on the boat and the price is split among you. You’ll head out using the boat’s motor, but once you enter the cave, the motor is shut down and the tour guide paddles you gently along the cave’s winding gut.
The rock formations were similar to what we saw in Paradise Cave but no two caves will ever be alike and both were equally impressive. The boat, which added an interesting dimension to this one, was used for the first half after which the cave carried on above water level, and circles back to the front.
At the front of the cave, you’ll come out on a bit of a cliff. As soon as we saw the water below us, I had to jump in. Apparently they don’t let you do that, I can’t see why not, but we jumped in before they could say anything and got to experience swimming in a cave, which they can’t take away!
Tien Son Cave
Tickets to Tien Son Cave can be bought at the same time as to Phong Nha cave. It’s situated right above it, 330 steps above it to be precise. The view from the top is amazing and the cave itself, again mesmerizing, but nothing can compare to our experience in Paradise Cave. We were spoiled from the start!
As is always the case, we all headed our separate ways after Phong Nha but it was an amazing experience. No one should ever come to Vietnam without experiencing it. Truly astonishing landscape, the caves are incredible natural wonders, and I never felt overwhelmed with tourists. It really is in the middle of nowhere so it takes a bit more of a commitment to get here than it would to get to places like Ha Long Bay, which are relatively close to the major cities, but it is well worth the trip!