Lying 500km south of Hanoi is the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park containing some of the largest caves in the world. To access the National Park, we took the train from Hanoi to Dong Hoi and spent the night in town before exploring the caves the next day. In Dong Hoi we stayed at Nam Long Hotel, nothing too fancy but perfectly adequate for a one night stay. As soon as we arrived the hotel staff tried to sell us their organized tour to the caves (at a cost of 800,000 VND or $38 US per person) but we were determined to do this trip with motorbikes on our own (even with a cold and rainy forecast).
With the two automatic motorbikes we rented, a digital map for the area (downloaded on our City2GoMaps App) and plenty of warm clothing, we set off for the 55km journey to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Our goal for the day was to visit two caves within the Park – Paradise Cave and Phong Nha Cave. In an attempt to avoid the largest crowds, we decided to visit Paradise Cave first because the organized tour from our hotel would be visiting Phong Nha Cave first (and we suspected most other organized tours would follow a similar itinerary). It took us approximately 2 hours to reach Paradise Cave from Dong Hoi, travelling at a leisurely pace and stopping for pictures along the way. Here’s how to reach the Paradise Cave from Dong Hoi:
– Get yourself to Ho Chi Minh Highway and follow the road north to the National Park;
– Stay on Ho Chi Minh Highway, passing Son Trach on your left (do not turn left here, ignore the signs for Phong Nha);
– Approximately 10 minutes later, you’ll enter a small village, turn left at the sign for Dong Thien Duong (the name for Paradise Cave in Vietnamese);
– Follow this road, pass through the park gate (and pay the fee) and continue following the road until you reach the large wooden sign for Dong Thien Duong on the right (turn right here obviously).
The latter part of the drive to Paradise Cave from Dong Hoi takes in some beautiful scenery and as we passed through one of the small villages we were greeted by almost 50 school children waving and yelling “hello”.
When we reached the parking lot of the of the Paradise Cave we had the option to walk to the cave’s entrance or take a golf cart (for an extra fee). We were happy that we chose to walk as it took only 15 minutes. Besides, the golf cart only took you half of the way, everyone has to walk up the hill to the mouth of the cave.
Once inside Paradise Cave we were in absolute awe of its size and beauty. A long boardwalk and well placed lighting provides for wonderful viewing opportunities. Please don’t ask us though the difference between a stalagmite and a stalactite – we can never keep track of which one is which.
After spending about two hours at Paradise Cave, we hopped back on our motorbikes and made our way to Phong Nha Cave. It’s not necessary to back-track in order to return to Son Trach (where you catch the boat to Phong Nha Cave), the road makes a convenient loop:
– When leaving the driveway for Paradise Cave turn right on the road (the opposite way you came);
– Eventually you’ll reach a 4-way intersection where you’ll turn left;
– Once you pass through another park gate (and show your ticket) and some buildings, the road will come to a T where you’ll turn right (in the direction back to Ho Chi Minh Highway);
– After another 5 minutes, you’ll see the Phong Nha Cave boat launch on the left.
Again, the drive from Paradise to Phong Nha took in some great scenery – it took us about 45 minutes, including stops for pictures.
When we arrived at the Phong Nha boat launch, we waited around for about 15 minutes until we were able to hook up with some other visitors to split the cost of the boat to the cave. Note that the boat (which fits 14 people) costs 320,000 VND / $15 US, so the more people you can get in the boat, the less it will cost.
The boat ride to the cave takes about 30 minutes down a shallow river. Once inside the cave, the motor is cut, the roof of the boat is peeled back and you’re paddled through some spectacular scenery. On the way back out of the cave, there’s an opportunity to jump out and explore portions on foot. The whole visit to Phong Nha Cave took just over two hours.
With the sun beginning to set and an evening train to catch, we had to get back to Dong Hoi in a hurry. Unfortunately, Patrick’s motorbike ran out of gas on the way back – it appears the gas gauge which had sat on empty most of the day wasn’t broken after all. Fortunately, it was only a 5 minute push to a small store that sold gas. Ultimately, we made it back to Dong Hoi and then to the train station with about 20 minutes to spare before the train’s scheduled departure. Of course the train ended up being an hour and a half late anyways…
Here’s a breakdown of our costs for the whole day:
Motorbike Rental – 200,000 VND x 2
Gasoline – 180,000 VND total (the bike that ran out of gas was an absolute pig)
Motorbike Parking – 15,000 VND x 2
Paradise Cave Entrance Fee – 120,000 VND x 2
Phong Nha Cave Entrance – 80,000 VND x 2
Our Share of the Boat to Phong Nha Cave – 80,000 VND total
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park Entrance Fee – 40,000 VND x 2*
TOTAL FOR BOTH OF US – 1,170,000 VND / $56 US
*Note: We suspect (but aren’t sure) that if you visit the Phong Nha Cave first, your entrance ticket to the Phong Nha Cave might allow you access to the National Park without having to pay the extra 40,000 VND park fee. That said, our plan to avoid the crowds by visiting the caves in “reverse” order appeared to work.