We arrived into Dong Hoi airport first thing in the morning and were picked up by our hotel’s van and taken back to the Phong Nha Farmstay, 40 minutes away in Phong Nha (and the only hotel that The Lonely Planet recommends), which is famous for all of its great caves, including the largest cave in the world. We were hesitant when booking our room at the Farmstay because it’s located about 5km away from town, but after reading all of the stellar reviews and looking through their website at all of the great information and tours they offered, we decided to give it a shot. As soon as we got there and were ready to get out for the day, we regretted it.
As a hotel that prides itself on being the premier tour destination of Phong Nha (their website says that they are the ones who actually started tourism in this area), we expected them to make all of the logistics of our stay extremely easy. The first cave we wanted to see in the afternoon was the Phong Nha Cave, which is a three hour tour in which you take a boat through a cave.
We were talking to the people working at the Farmstay about our options for the day, in particular, about how to get into town, where the Phong Nha Cave is located. None of the options they gave us were good ones. They told us that they didn’t rent motorbikes at their hotel, so if we wanted to rent one for the day, we’d first have to get into town. We could do that by a) renting a bike (this wasn’t a good option because they charge by the hour and we’d end up paying $6 each to rent a bike to have it just sit in town – bikes usually cost around $2 for 24 hours), or b) we could take a taxi into town, but that would cost us $5 each. Considering the fact that we paid $20 to go 40 minutes from the airport, we were not very happy about paying $10 to go 5km. I’m sure to those reading this, it all sounds like so little money that we’re talking about that you may be thinking… “Who cares!” But, $5 can get you a meal for 2 people. $10 can get you a night at a hotel in many places. So, even though it doesn’t seem like a lot of money we’re talking about in US terms, for SE Asia travel, it actually is!
Anyway, finally we decided to just take the taxi into town so that we didn’t waste the whole day and we did the Phong Nha Cave tour. To rent a boat costs about $15, so we found 2 other couples to split it and go with. The tour was three hours long, the first half hour we were boating down the river to the cave which was very pretty (surrounded by lush green mountains and locals frolicking in the river). Then we spent about an hour boating through the cave. It was very pretty and I had never boated into a cave, so that was cool. The tour itself though was a little long/boring, but we’re glad that we were able to see the famous Phong Nha Cave.
It was about 2pm by the time we were done and we hadn’t eaten lunch yet so we stopped at a restaurant near the caves and had our first Pho Bo (beef noodle soup), which I had been dying to try. We also got another beef noodle soup, which was great too.
After lunch, we decided we didn’t want to spend any more money on taxis so started to walk back to our place. After a couple kilometers, we weren’t 100% sure that we were going the right way, so we stopped a guy on a motor bike to see if he knew the way to the Farmstay. He showed us his map and confirmed that we were headed in the right direction but then when he offered us a ride, we couldn’t turn it down (we still had about 5km left to go). My first time hitch hiking!
The guy was an engineer from Portugal living in Paris and was on his 3 week holiday traveling just through Vietnam (but he still had 2 more weeks of vacation time, which he would spend “chilling on the beach at home”). He dropped us off about a mile from our place at The Lakehouse, which is a restaurant on a lake. Dave went for a swim, we spent a few minutes chatting with him, and then we continued on our journey home.
Once we got back, we checked email for a bit, jumped in the pool at our hotel, showered and changed, and then ate dinner at our place (there weren’t any other restaurants around us to eat at).
We enjoyed our tour of the Phong Nha Cave, but our experience with our Farmstay in the morning left a pretty bad taste in our mouth and spoiled our day a bit. The next day though, we were signed up for an awesome sounding tour, so hopefully that would make up for our experience on day 1.
And, it did!
For our second and final day in Phong Nha, we were signed up for the Tu Lan 1-day tour, which from what we’d heard was the most adventurous of the day tours in the area. It also sounded very similar to the cave tour we’d done in Belize a few years ago, which was one of the coolest things we’ve ever done. For the Tu-Lan tour, we’d hike for an hour and then swim through a couple of caves, which sounded pretty awesome.
We were picked up at 7:30, drove about an hour to the starting point for the tour and then started on our hour-long hike. The scenery all throughout this area of Vietnam is gorgeous. Everywhere you look, you see green fields, green mountains, corn fields, cows/bulls grazing, and it is so peaceful and beautiful. We walked through corn fields, peanut fields, and saw tons of workers wearing their triangle hats and working in the fields. It looked exactly like what you would think of when you think of Vietnam.
There were 3 other people on our tour, all of whom we liked very much. There was a couple from Newcastle, England taking a 3-week honeymoon and another guy from London who had been traveling for a few months and was now on his way up through Vietnam by motor bike (which is a very common way to travel here; he bought his motorbike in HCMC and plans to sell it in Hanoi). We love these tours obviously for the adventure part, but also for the opportunity to meet and spend time with new people. We love trading travel stories, learning about other people, where they’ve been, and giving them advice about where we’ve been. The couple from Newcastle was very into animals and nature. They loved hearing about our Everest Base Camp trek, our time in the Amazon, and some of our other adventures. They were very cool and we really enjoyed spending the day with them.
Anyway, most of the hike was pretty flat, but then at the end we hiked uphill to the first cave we’d be going to. The cave is called the porcupine cave, though our guide wasn’t sure exactly why. After hiking up to the cave, we hiked down a ladder deeper into the cave, turned on our headlamps, and got into the water for about a 15 minute swim. The water was so warm, it felt like we were swimming in a bath. It was really nice (other than the bats flying above our heads, which was a little troublesome).
After our first swim, we had a great picnic lunch (DIY spring rolls, bread, sausage and cheese, etc.) and then swam and walked to the second cave, Kim Cave (called Kim Cave because it was discovered by a man from the Netherlands named Kim). Side Note: I have no idea how people actually discover these caves. Even if they do find them, I could never imagine seeing the entrance to a dark scary cave and thinking, “ok, now I’m going to go in and explore this unknown area by myself.”
Anyway, before we hopped in the water, our guide told us that we had to turn our headlamps off for the swim. He said anyone who turns on their lights would not get a beer at the end of the tour. He’s so tough!
So, we got in the water, turned off our headlights and were immediately just consumed by the darkness. It was so dark that no matter how long you were in there, your eyes could never adjust. The swim seemed like one of those team building games that you play. Dave and I were holding hands the whole time calling to the other people in our group trying to figure out where everyone was and where we were going. It surprisingly wasn’t very scary, but by the end of the swim (40 minutes later), I was getting a little sick of being in the dark for so long. At one point we all agreed to turn on our lights for a second just to get our bearings and see where we were. We decided it was worth risking the beers for. We turned on our lights, saw our guide and also the porter for the day. The porter was right by us and as soon as we saw him, Dave grabbed a hold of him and didn’t let go until the swim was over – the guide couldn’t stop giggling!
Finally, the blind swim was over and it was time to go back, this time with our lights on. This time, the swim only took about 15 minutes, but now we were able to see bats swooping down over our heads near the water. It was pretty scary! Dave had to dunk his head a couple of times to avoid the bats.
After the second swim, it was time to head back through the first cave and then through all of the corn and peanut fields that we walked through earlier in the day. Before we knew it, we were back where we started, having our beers (our guide didn’t hold up his threat of taking our beers away for turning on our headlamps!), and then on our way back.
We didn’t get home until almost 8, so we immediately had to order dinner (Pho Bo and spring rolls) since our place stops serving food at 8.Then, we showered, packed, and called it an early night to get ready for our 7am van to Hue.
Even though we had a rough start and weren’t the biggest fans of our guesthouse, the couple of days we spent exploring the caves around Phong Nha National Park were great and very memorable. If you like caves, beautiful scenery, and being in nature for a few days, we’d definitely recommend this as a stop in Vietnam.
Another aside-we decided to skip the most famous cave in this area, Paradise Cave, because although it’s supposedly huge and beautiful, it’s also dvery touristy and not very adventurous (it has a walkway with lights so after swimming through a cave in the dark, it didn’t do much for us). It also would have set us back a half a day and cost us a lot more $, mainly because of the inconvenient location of our hotel. Lastly, we also didn’t get to see the largest cave in the world which is also in this area, because to see that cave takes 6 days of hiking through the jungle and costs $3,000 pp. It’s also sold out for the rest of the year. Another time perhaps!