Things to Do in Phong Nha for the Moderately Motivated

Things to Do in Phong Nha - Paddy Fields
I heard you like rice paddies and open skies

Phong Nha is a small town but it is big on activities. It already has a lot of options for adventure, but with the discovery of the Son Doong Cave (currently the world’s largest known cave system), it’s quickly building a bigger and better reputation as one of the world’s top adventure destinations. With its caves, camping, and hiking, there’s something for everyone – even kids! If you’re looking for a bit of outdoor adventure, and get a better idea of things to do in Phong Nha, then this article is the best place to start.

What is Phong Nha?

Things to Do in Phong Nha - River Running Through Vietnamese Countryside
It’s like one of those Chinese landscape paintings, but in colour

Phong Nha is a rural district in central Vietnam, and is made up of small villages located amongst limestone karst mountains. The area has evidence of early Champa settlement from as early as 1000 years ago. It’s a little known fact that Champa Buddhist script has been found scribbled on cave walls, in Phong Nha – most people visit for the adventure though, not for the history.

The name Phong Nha comes from the Vietnamese words for ‘wind’ and ‘cave’ (Feng Ya in Chinese) which is quite fitting given the natural wonders found in the area. The most famous of these is the Son Doong Cave system, but tour fees for that are quite prohibitive (starting at 3000USD per person), and you’ll have to get on a very short list in order to get in.

Thankfully, there are plenty of other caves, hiking trails and things to do in Phong Nha that won’t cost you an arm and a leg. More details on this below, but first…

How to Get to Phong Nha

Things to Do in Phong Nha - Phong Nha Ke Bang Highway Sign
Even the road leading up to town is awe-inspiring

There are a few ways to get to Phong Nha, depending on your budget and where you’re coming from. The most common way for international travelers is to fly into Dong Hoi airport (airport code: VDH), which is located about an hour away from the Phong Nha town.

Direct flights from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to Dong Hoi are quite evenly spaced across the day, and aren’t overly expensive, but if you’re coming from elsewhere (or just want to try something different) you can also take an overnight train to Dong Hoi, or take one of the smaller inter-city or tourist bus routes from Hue or Danang.

Once you’re in Dong Hoi, the best way to get to Phong Nha is by private taxi which can be arranged at the airport, or through your hotel/hostel. The journey should take around an hour, and costs hover around 500K to 600K VND.

For some reason, Grab was not readily available from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha, but not a big loss. Apparently, there’s also an intertown bus between Dong Hoi and Phong Nha, but haven’t been able to get much info on it.

Tips on Where to Stay in Phong Nha

Things to Do in Phong Nha - River running through town
Any half-decent hotel will have a similar view

As with many smaller towns dependent on tourism, covid has not been kind to Phong Nha, and many places have closed their doors for good – but there are still a few solid choices depending on your budget.

We made it a point to book at a homestay (Applebee’s – approx 300K per night, breakfast included), as well as a mid-range hotel (Oxalis House, the starting point was for our adventure – approx 600K per night) to get a feel for different types of accommodation, as well as to support the local economy.

Both locations had very idyllic settings (stunning views of the river running through town, where you can just sit down, enjoy a coffee and watch the world pass by) but the service at each was quite different.

Applebee’s felt much more like staying with family with kids being chased around by grandparents, while the uncle manned the front desk – which can be great or not so great depending on your preferences. Meanwhile Oxalis was very polished and professional, with a full dining menu and an adequately stocked bar.

For budget travelers, guesthouses can be found for as little as 5USD per night for their dorm rooms, but these are often quite bare-bones and may not have private bathrooms. Travel with a friend and just get a double room at a homestay, pay the same amount and get free breakfast.

Tips on Where to Eat in Phong Nha

As with hotels and places to stay, covid has also forced many restaurants in town to close, but there are still a few solid choices depending on your budget and what you’re in the mood for.

Cheap Eats – You and Me Restaurant

Things to Do in Phong Nha - You and Me Restaurant
They also sell bus tickets

Located on the main street running through town, You and Me Restaurant is a great choice if you’re looking for cheap and tasty Vietnamese food. Menu has quite a range of local dishes. Vegetarian options available. This place seems to be family run, with the mother-figure often in the kitchen while kids wait tables and do homework at the same time. Be sure to try their mango salad, which was surprisingly delicious.

Mid Range – Tree House

Things to Do in Phong Nha - Tree House Cafe
This would be a great place for a few beers. Also, there’s a hostel in the back.

More of a coffeeshop than a restaurant, but the place itself is quite nice, with a retractable roof for when the weather is good. The food menu at Tree House is limited to just pizzas, but what they do have is quite tasty. As a bonus, if you’re looking for a place to sit down and work, this place has good coffee and reasonably stable wifi.

Upscale – Victory Road Villas

Things to Do in Phong Nha - Victory Road Villas
Things to Do in Phong Nha – Victory Road Villas

This is one of the fancier places in town (with villa rentals going for about 1.7M VND per night). Didn’t stay at Victory Road, but came in a few times for food and gin. Wide range on the menu and is highly recommended if you’re looking for a steak or some Western food. The ambiance is quite nice, with a great view of the river if you’re sitting outside. The staff are very good, I have to say, with the night manager very proactive and positive at her job.

Worth the Trip – Phong Nha Farmstay

Things to Do in Phong Nha - Phong Nha Farmstay
Things to Do in Phong Nha – Phong Nha Farmstay

A bit out of town, but still easily reachable on one of those rinky-dink bikes from your hotel, Phong Nha Farmstay is an excellent choice if you want to have a nice meal with a stunning view of the surrounding area. The food here is top notch, with lots of vegetarian options. If you’re into time-lapse videos, this would be a great place to go for sundown beers – or wine, if that’s your thing. Stay for dinner, the ambiance is worth it.

Things to Do in Phong Nha = Caving

Things to Do in Phong Nha - Cave Picnic Grotto
You’ve grotto see this yourself!!!

So, why Visit Phong Nha? In a word, adventure.

The biggest draw of course is the caving. There are a few different operators offering tours into the surrounding caves. We went with Oxalis, as they seem to be the most professionally run, and definitely safety as a top priority. Their website is very informative, with a range of different tours on offer, as well as prices to suit all budgets (and ages).

It’s also a testament to their organization that after sign up, you receive a pre-formatted email with information specific to the trip – what to expect, what to bring, how to cope. Very professional indeed.

They’ve got about a dozen different tours to choose from, with varying levels of difficulty (and price). We did the “Wild Tu Lan“, which had a “moderate” difficulty rating, and was worth every penny.

Didn’t see a balrog, but didn’t die either

The experience of exploring the caves on a professionally guided tour was quite positive for me, especially when my one of my earlier attempts involved following Smeagol’s Laotian doppelganger, who only had a small, flickering flashlight, and vague promises of not leaving us to die.

With Oxalis however, you start off at basecamp and have a well polished info session detailing everything from rats in the toilets, to snakes in the toilets, to spiders in the toilets.

After this, you get kitted out with all the gear you need – water resistant backpacks, waterproof tubs for your electronics, helmet, headlamp, water bottle, basically everything you need for the hike.

All your other stuff (clothes, toiletries, misguided preconceptions of being able to take a shower for the next few days) go into bags that Oxalis porters bring to the next camp.

Things to Do in Phong Nha - Oxalis Composting Toilet
Things to Do in Phong Nha – Oxalis Composting Toilet

The hike itself was very well organized, and quite well timed. Didn’t feel rushed at all, and we had ample day light left at the end of each day. The campsites are minimal (as it should be) but still quite comfortable. Perhaps, the only thing that really annoyed me was the toilet situation, which needed a few sharp kicks to make sure no pesky critters were in the bucket.

But I was told that the rice husk method they currently use is already much better than previous iterations (which involved some sort of hole in the ground, and a stick in the ground for foreigners to be able to hold and maintain the “Asian squat” while doing their business).

Things to Do in Phong Nha - Oxalis Tour Food Vegetarian and Meat Feast
Pro-tip: If you’re hungry, don’t sit with the other guys. Girls eat much less.

Meals were quite a feast, with more than enough meat and veggies for everyone. Moreover, vegans and vegetarians rejoice – Oxalis is more than able to tailor meals for you. Purified water, coffee, and tea were also readily available, along with some “happy water”. Don’t party too much though, as hangovers and hiking don’t mix.

Things to Do in Phong Nha - Hiking Sandals
Jungle Gucci – Footwear for hiking guides

The tour staff were quite impressive. You can immediately tell by the way they seem to float on top of rocks that you’re in safe hands. They walk up mountainsides with the same speed and surefooted grace as Rocky Mountain goats.

While you’re on all fours, slowly crawling your way downhill, the guides will gently float through the tour group on routes that are not visible to mere mortals. Which is even more impressive, considering the footwear they have.

If I were to do another trip, perhaps, the single biggest thing I would change is to just bring more clothes – in particular, socks and underwear. Whatever they say on the welcome email, add 50%. Also, if you’ve got big feet (bigger than 46 – which is roughly 11 in freedom units), would strongly suggest using your oldest pair of trainers.

Some More Reasons to Use Oxalis

Things to Do in Phong Nha - Limestone Hill Hiking
We’re taking the hobbits to Isengard!
  • Tour leaders are required to reach a certain number of hikes (as as safety assistant), and pass a gauntlet of practical tests before they can lead a tour. Sometimes, this process can take as long as 3 years. These are professionals.
  • They’re required to give a written report at the end of each tour, give safety recommendations for the groups that follow on the same trail, and mark down any potential dangers along the route. They will report loose rocks, fallen trees, mud levels, etc. It’s the details that matter.
  • The guides won’t tire of taking the same photos over and over (believe me, this will be a big part of your tour)
  • All their guides are local to the area, so you’ll indirectly be creating high quality jobs and economic opportunities for their communities.
  • They earmark 5% of their revenue for community projects (like education, toilets, handicrafts, etc)
  • Some (very limited) insurance is already included, but you might want to get extra cover.

B-Tier Things to Do in Phong Nha

Things to Do in Phong Nha - Pub with Cold Beer Sign
There are two places with the name “The Pub with Cold Beer”. One of them is fake. You’ll have to figure out which one.

If you’re all caved out, you can take things a bit slower with a bunch of other activities including:

  1. Cycling – There are a bunch of roads coursing through and between farms. Most of them are unpaved, but will be an easy task for even the humblest of pushbikes you can borrow from your accommodation. You might not be able to ride all the way to the more interesting caves, but it’s still an interesting activity for an afternoon and there are a bunch of cool places to get a beer. At the very least, you’ll get some fresh air and stunning views of the countryside.
  2. Botanical Gardens – Highly recommend renting motorbikes for this one. Make sure you know how to ride, as there are some steep roads coming and going. They have some modest waterfall hiking, and nice “jungle trails”. The ride over is already a treat in itself, and if you’re lucky, you might also be able to come across some of the critters that call this area home.
  3. OZO Ziplining – This one was a bit disappointing, but I’m sure it was only because of covid. When we got there, the ziplines (and pretty much all the other activities which were supposed to be automatically included in the ticket) were out of commission, rendered useless with rust. Their wooden parts rotten and breaking. The kayaking is available though, and the food was well worth the money.
  4. Boats to the Caves – I skipped this one, as my idea of “Paradise” certainly doesn’t involve being stuck on a footpath with hundreds of other tourists trying to take photos of the same tacky lighting. However, if you’re only in Vietnam once, go for it anyway. You’re already here anyway, might as well.

Conclusion

Things to Do in Phong Nha - Oxalis Map of Tour
Magic Minh – Seriously wishing this guy all the best in his career

Even if you’re traveling alone, I would highly recommend at least 4 days in Phong Nha. It’s not heavily visited, at least compared to the likes of Hoi An. You can still get a relatively untouched vibe – especially when you’re on a hike, with no electricity and no internet.

It’s your chance to do something you’ve probably never even considered – like swim into an underground river system with no lights on.

During the trek, was lucky to have chats with our guide, Minh, who was nothing short of patient, helpful, and enthusiastic. He works full time at Oxalis, as a tour leader, and is definitely a good starting point if you want to join a tour group, or even set up your own tour.

You can touch base with him via his Facebook, or Zalo. I highly recommend touching base with him directly, if only to get more information (might be a bit late with replies though as he’s underground about 22 days per month).

Now, just need to start saving money for that big one…


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