Local Insight: Phong Nha
If you’re planning to travel to Phong Nha - the site of the largest cave in the world, Son Doong - do so before it gets spoiled by tourism. This is one of the most gorgeous hidden gems you’ll find in Central Vietnam, and even the country.
The area - located in the Quang Binh Province - has already been used by Hollywood for the latest Peter Pan and King Kong movies, and the town is rapidly growing to cater to increasing demands of new tourists. Phong Nha is best to visit from December to August, as the weather is cooler. From September to October, the flooding is so bad that most businesses close for those months. A minimum of two nights is ideal. Infrastructure is limited, but the town did just get a bank and ATM this year.
“From September to October, the flooding is so bad that most businesses close for those months.”
To get to Phong Nha, take a flight from HCMC to Dong Hoi, then take a taxi, private car or bus to the town. If you want to take a bus, there is a station 1 km from the airport, and the ride takes about 90 minutes. The local green and white B4 bus is labeled Dong Hoi - Phong Nha and runs about every hour starting from 5:20 a.m. up until 5:00 p.m.
The attention to the previously isolated destination first reached a mass audience from the media frenzy surrounding the discovery of Son Doong, the world’s largest cave, in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. For the past two to three years the town has been growing at a rapid pace, changing now every week. And indeed - the caves in Phong Nha have left tourists speechless, with even two Mount Everest veterans claiming this is the best things they’ve seen in their lives.
Oxalis Adventure is the original tour provider to offer cave tours. The tour company was started by Nguyen Chau A, a local man, in 2011, and focuses on cave tourism as well as helping locals get jobs. According to Howard Limbert, Oxalis’ tour designer, Son Doong is booked up for the year, but there are plenty of things to do in the area that many travellers are unaware of. When Limbert first visited Phong Nha in 1990, a thousand people died in a week due to poor conditions. This was one of the poorest area in all of Vietnam, but now looks set to be the new adventure capital of the country.
“Cycling around the beautiful villages is easily one of the top choices.”
There are plenty of activities in Phong Nha besides caves. Right off the bat, plan like there is no tomorrow. Many travellers wing it and swing by and this simply doesn’t work. Especially if you decide to stop over in September and October. Best to do your research and book any adventure activities in advance from reputable operators - some tour companies are not so professional, do not care so much for safety, and must be avoided. Next, create a plan of what you will do as this is not a stop-and-go type of destination. Below are some excellent options.
Cycling around the beautiful villages is easily one of the top choices. The area is not oversaturated like the once docile Sapa Town, and provides authentic scenery. The people of Phong Nha have until recently worked and sustained themselves via the jungle. Lately, to preserve Phong Nha’s environment, jobs in the tourism sector have kept locals employed and out of the wilderness.
“In the near future, it looks set to be the new adventure capital of the country.”
Dzung Le, aka Jungle Boss, has lived in Phong Nha for seven years, and has formed the Phong Nha Homestay Community to promote tourism. He provides an excellent and warming homestay and gives tours in English, including the Abandoned Valley one day tour through a remote area of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The Phong Nha Mountain House is another quality option, a spotless treehouse in the middle of a local village.
There are plenty of eco tours in Phong Nha; we recommend heading to the Bamboo Cafe. The wildlife tour gives ample opportunity for bird watchers and animal lovers to see all kinds of rare, exotic creatures. Alternatively, travel through the park with a local guide. Other activities here include kayaking and ziplining.