One of our favourite places to visit in Vietnam was Phong Nha. Amongst the beauty of the landscape around you when you enter Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, you'll be greeted with a warm list of activities to do there also. When we were there in April 2017, we did pretty much every activity you could think of, including some extra little adventures that we conjured up ourselves. In this blog post, we are going to share with you the top 10 things to do in Phong Nha, so you'll never be short of material for that hopefully jam-packed itinerary!
If you want some inspiration before reading scroll to the bottom and check out our YouTube video!
Numero Uno - Phong Nha Cave
One of the most popular caves (a nicer way of saying its the one that is most covered in tourists) to visit whilst in Phong Nha is of course, the Phong Nha Cave. As the first cave we went to in Phong Nha, we do have to admit, it is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Best of all, the cave can only be entered by boat as there is a river flowing through the majority of it, right until the end where you can get off the boat and explore the cave for yourself. Tickets can be purchased at the Phong Nha Tourism Centre, right next to the river where the boats will depart. It was 300,000VND to hire a boat. You can fit around 10 people on a boat, so it's worthwhile going in a big group to be able to split the cost. If you haven't got 9 other friends to go with, don't worry! We saw lots of travellers asking people in the queue if they wanted to join their group, right next to the ticket booth. Easy Tiger Hostel actually hosts a 9:30am meeting for travellers from all over the main strip, helping organise groups and filling you in on where to go and what to do. It's free and you don't need to be staying there to go along.
Jac and I opted to hire a boat to ourselves, just because we wanted to film with fewer people in our shots! We had such a funny lady driving our boat. She made us laugh as she let us sit without our life vests on for the majority of the ride, then suddenly panicked like a crazy woman when she saw some inspectors go past on the river, she whooped and shouted some Vietnamese to us at the front which meant we had to put them on, and quick! She laughed with us as they drove off. The cave entrance is literally epic. You enter the huge, gaping hole in the side of the mountain, which feels like a scene from a movie with how dramatic it is. The boat ride lasts for around an hour and a half inside. The lady who was driving the boat switched the engine off and rowed us throughout the entire cave. We couldn't believe it, considering she must this 8-10 hours a day, 6 days a week - she must have delts like an absolute champion! At the end of the cave (around 4km inside), the lady dropped us off and let us explore for ourselves. It was so awesome walking around on sandy floor, admiring stalactites and stalagmites 10-times the size of us. We got back on the boat with the lady after around half-an-hour of exploring and headed back to the boat station. You simply have to check this cave out if you are in Phong Nha!
2 - Dark Cave
For the little bit more adventurous, Dark Cave is a must! This cave caters for the thrill-seekers offering activities such as zip-lining, mud baths, kayaking and more, it was definitely one of our favourites whilst in Phong Nha. On arriving, you are fitted with a buoyancy aid, harness and helmet and then subsequently sent off the the zip-lining station. Core, they don't half process tourists quickly here! Every 10 seconds whilst waiting in the queue, we heard the "whoosh" followed by the "woooo!" of the zip-line in operation. We zip-lined on to a platform, that led into the water just outside of the cave.
As a group of around 15-20, the guide led us through the cave, which was so cool as it had super-narrow corridors at times and got muddier and muddier as it went along. After about 10 minutes of trying to remain upright whilst walking through the cave, we reached a giant pool of wet, sloppy mud. (Heartbreakingly our Go Pro actually broke at this point so we've only got a couple of poor shot to show!)
This bit was amazing! The thick muddy water was up to your waist, but due to it being mud you just floated on the surface, you literally couldn't sit on the bottom if you tried! It was such a strange/cool feeling, none of us could believe it.
After the mud bath, we moved on to a mud slide inside the cave. Top tip - don't do a 'Katie' and not realise why it was only makes with long swimming shorts on that went down this slide on their bums. There's a rope to the left-side that a few females were using, however I decided to go for the slide. Much to the detriment of my poor bare bum-cheeks in my bikini bottoms, that were scratched by all the stones buried in the mud on the way down! Core, my bottom wasn't half burning when I hit the bottom! Luckily, there's another pool of water at the bottom of the slide, which served as a cooling-relief! On exiting the cave, we were all loaded onto inflatable kayaks, which we had to paddle to get to the water park at the end. Of course, our group all threw each other out and capsized the kayak, so we had to drag it to the waterpark instead. The Waterpark is amazing, there's rope swings, zip-lines and obstacle courses that all end with you back in the water. It was so, so much fun! However, not so fun for Jac who back-flipped off of one of the swings and full-on face-planted the water! Poor thing, I was in tears of laughter but I've never seen a redder face than his at the end! Amazing cave, get yourself there!
3 - Caving Expeditions
As you go into Phong Nha, you'll see lots of tour operators offering tours to the caves. It's so hard to choose which one you will go on, as there is so much choice from 1, 2 3, 4 days and even week long caving expeditions. However, if you would like the ultimate adventure, we'd suggest a 3 day 2 night tour with Oxalis Adventure Tours! This tour included exploration of seven caves, 20km+ trekking though the jungles upon jungles and 2 nights camping next to the most beautiful waterfalls. We had such an amazing time and would recommend anyone to dive straight into a caving expedition. There are a lot of other good tour operators in Phong Nha Ke Bang Centre, but if you would like to hear our recall from first-hand experience, you can read all about it in Caving Adventure Blog.
4 - The Duck Stop
This was by-far one of our favourite activities whilst in Phong Nha. The Duck Stop is a place that's been set up by a local man and his family. He has hundreds of ducks on his farm, therefore one day he decided to let the public come and play. We pulled up outside the duck stop, to see at least 30 people were already there waiting to take part in this unique activity. The owner greeted us and showed us the price, which was 100,000VND and you'll see why in this paragraph.
Firstly, you were given a plate of ingredients to make meat/veg/peanut pancakes whilst you waited for your turn. These were amazing and were washed down with the drink that came with option. Next, we were given those Vietnamese Farming Hats and some not-so-attractive sandals to put on (much to our despair) and were led to the duck pen. The man lined us up in our group of 5 and made us run around the duck pen, one-by-one shaking the duck food tin.
This was hilarious as it made all of the ducks chase you around the pen, quacking crazily for the food! Next, he said we were in for a treat as these ducks give a good foot massage. He made us join our toes and our heels together to make a make a little bowl shape with our feet. He put some food inside the middle of our feet-bowls and set the ducks upon us! Oh my goodness, if you are like me and are ticklish beyond belief, this is so hard to withstand without crying with laughter! The ducks went crazy for the food and pecked between your feet and toes at a-million-pecks-per-second. After this, the man asked if any of us had a camera that filmed in slow-mo. We gave him our go-pro and all stood in line holding a duck. He shouted "3-2-1 let go!" And told us to throw our ducks into a pond! It was so, so funny, we didn't stop laughing throughout the entire experience.
Last but not least, we got to ride a water buffalo! We each took it in turns to ride the farms' very own buffalo (quaintly named Donald Trump). It was such a crazy feeling to be riding a buffalo, considering we'd driven past 100's on our journey so far up through Vietnam. Overall, you definitely get what you pay for at the Duck Stop, it's a brilliant place and well worth visiting in Phong Nha.
5 - Botanical Gardens and Nature Reserve
If your looking for something a bit less cavey and a bit more open-space naturey, the Botanical Gardens is a wonderful day out. Along the HCM trail, there is a stop for the Botanical Gardens. Here, is a 4km circuit around the jungle and thick forests, which features stop-offs along the way for things such as peacock viewing, monkey viewing, butterfly farms and waterfalls.
The walk is really nice and isn't very challenging so it's suitable for all levels of fitness. The waterfall stop-off is by far the best. Make sure to bring your waterproof camera and swimming clothes as you can take a dip beneath the waterfall. It's the perfect location to do the old 'casually washing my hair in the waterfall' pose for the camera! Bare in mind, the water was bone-chillingly cold when we went in April, so you'll want to be quick with those pictures! The scramble up to the top of the waterfall (alongside a barrier) is awesome and brings you up to the top viewpoint. We finished the trail at the monkey viewing section, laughing our heads off as two monkeys were doing their monkey business right in front of us here! Overall, it's a really nice day out and is something a bit different to all of the caves you will no-doubt be exploring on other days in Phong Nha.
6 - Get lost and explore the National Park
One the coolest things about Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is the scale of it. One of the best days we had featured driving around aimlessly on our motorbike, admiring the scenery and stopping to admire things a little bit more whenever we wanted. We were doing this one day and saw a humongous, black hole in the middle of a cliff-face, just off the side of a road. There was so sign in front of it, no people near it or inside and no real walk-way to get inside. We stopped immediately, dumped the bike on the side of the rode and scrambled our way inside the cave! The actual cave exploring was short lived as you could only venture about 50m inside. There was a pitch-black sheer drop-off at the back of the cave, which led down to a river at the bottom. Not fancying plunging to our deaths, we managed to find a hole that we actually crawl down into, which was so cool as we ended up having to sort-of rock climb our way back out. We got back on the bike, trying to decide whether or not we had just discovered a new cave. Considering it's absolutely massive and you can't miss it as you drive past, we figured we probably hadn't. But we would like to think we did, so this cave is there-by called the Allgonerogue Cave, feel free to go and explore! Unlike the rest of Vietnam, we won't charge you to go in!
7 - The Pub With Cold Beer
Now, if your completely sick of exploring epic caves and want a completely unique experience in Phong Nha, head to the Pub With Cold Beer. It sounds quite normal from the name, doesn't it? Well, sure, you can definitely have a cold beer. You could even have that cold beer with a delicious whole, roasted chicken... after you catch and and kill the chicken yourself. To read more about this bizarre experience, check out our Pub with Cold Beer blog.
8 - Have a drink and be social!
There's no other place that is so full of incredible nature and adventure, yet also so full of great people ready for a good night out!
In Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, there is a long strip full of quirky hostels, cool restaurants, packed bars and amazingly, there's a half-decent club that's open until 3am. You'll walk past the Easy Tiger hostel which has live bands playing every night and be tempted to go in for a few. We went in one night and it was awesome, they play all the classic cheesy sing-along songs that everyone knows, so as you can tell, the atmosphere in there is booming. We followed on from the Easy Tiger at the nightclub a few doors down! The music in here is so good and drinks aren't too expensive either! Be sure to grab a Banh Mi from the lady outside when you leave too! (Standard end-of-the-night food for us in Vietnam)
9 - Worlds Biggest Cave - Hang Son Doong
Of course, how can you talk about things to do in Phong Nha without acknowledging that Phong Nha is home to the Worlds Largest Cave. Impressive, huh?! Son Doong cave is over 200m high, 150m wide and 5km long. It is so big that is has its own river, jungle and climate.
Now, I've put this last on the list as it comes with a pretty hefty price tag. It's around $3000 to book onto a tour of Son Doong, which seems acceptable to us seeing as you are entering a cave that is biggest of its' kind throughout the entire world. However, I've chosen to put this last on our list as we understand a large majority of travellers will not have the funds to see this cave (we definitely didn't). We see plenty of blogs listing it as the top thing to do, however as you can see by the other 9 points in this blog post, you can fill your week with tonnes more activities, so don't be disheartened if you can't venture into the abyss.
10 - Kayaking along the River
If you are all caved out but still want to have fun in the waters, there are plenty of companies around Phong Nha who conduct kayaking tours. Kayaks can be also be rented privately for around $5 per hour, therefore exploring the riverbanks on your own is an option too. However, the benefit of booking a tour is that you'll be taken to better spots with more sight-seeing on the itinerary. Some of the hostels/home-stays as well as riverside bars all offer kayak rentals, so grab a beer, a paddle and get exploring.