The first time I’ve heard about Dong Hoi and the Phong Nha Ke Bang National park was from the owner of my homestay in Hoi An. After her recommendation, I’ve read about it and decided to go.
Phong Nha Ke Bang national park is located in Central Vietnam and its main draw are the many caves and the karst mountain scenery.
The plan was to go to Dong Hoi after my visit of the Vinh Moc tunnels, spend the night, visit the two caves – Paradise cave and Dark cave – the next day and leave on a sleeper train for Ninh Binh that same night (at 00:49).
Another option that a lot of people take (instead of staying at Dong Hoi) is a stay at the Phong Nha Farmstay, located a bit closer to the caves (but still a ~45 minute drive). I couldn’t do that, because two nights is a minimum that you can stay there. Anyway, the Phong Nha Farmstay is widely covered on various other travel blogs.
Dong Hoi is located an hour and a half drive from Dong Ha or around three hours and a half from Hue. It’s a nice, quiet town, located near the river. There is no bar scene (one hostel is one of the rare “drinking places”), but it is the closest town to Phong Nha Ke Bang national park and a good place to base yourself if you want to visit the caves.
If you are in Dong Hoi, be sure to visit the 7th Heaven restaurant. I stumbled upon it completely by chance and it was an amazing experience. The guy who owns it (nicknamed “The Doc”) and what he does is mindblowing.
He was a doctor in the American War and has now been living in Vietnam for 10 years with his wife. They are helping the people of Vietnam that were affected by Agent Orange by trying to teach them various types of work (waiters, cooks … ) to get them employed and off the streets. He’s also a painter and all the money from his paintings (selling them in the US for 2.000 – 5.000 USD for a piece) goes into building houses for these people.
I was there on a Sunday evening. That’s when they host an “English club” so the Vietnamese have a chance to learn English and meet other cultures by talking to restaurant guests. I’ve joined in and it was a great evening and an experience I will never forget.
Visiting the caves from Dong Hoi
Tours are available in Dong Hoi (the price at my hotel was 1.350.000 VND for a tour of the two caves I visited and somewhere around a 1.000.000 VND for any combination without the Dark cave). I’ve decided to rent a motorbike and do it on my own (again).
It’s around 60 km from Dong Hoi to the Paradise cave (and 5 km less to the Dark cave) and should take an hour and thirty minutes of driving.
The road was one of the easiest I’ve ridden in Vietnam. In great condition, a lot of the way just straight and not much traffic, so you can drive fast. Just watch out for the cows, especially on your way back when people are walking them back home and the roads are full of them. They can be unpredictable and do a sudden change of direction just as you pass them by.
Maps are available in hotels or you can use the GPS. I used Sygic (doesn’t need data) and it worked perfectly here. I’ve learned later – when driving the Northwest and Northeast loop – that it’s OK until you stay on the main roads, but goes completely crazy if you want to use the more remote paths. I’ve lost a day because of it, but more on that in one of the future posts. Unfortunately Google Navigation doesn’t work in Vietnam (but Google Maps works great, you just have to manually scroll the map and check your location).
I left Dong Hoi at 9:00 in the morning and it was plenty of time to see both caves, have a lunch and return just before dark.
It took me one hour and thirtyfive minutes to get to the Paradise cave, the first one I’ve visited. You pass the Dark cave on your way there (5 km away from the Paradise cave), but I stopped there on my way back.
The Paradise cave is the pretty, easy cave of the two. Admission fee is 250.000 VND + 50.000 VND (one way) for the electric cart that takes you almost to the entrance (2 km, but you still have to walk the 576m uphill).
And the cave itself? Well, it’s big and very beautiful. The walk through the cave and back should take around an hour, but I’m not very relevant for this info, since I spend too much time everywhere – the camera demands that from me 🙂
When you exit the cave, the heat really gets to you after the pleasant temperature inside, so taking the cart for the way back is a good idea … and you’ll also save some time.
If you visit only one of the caves around Phong Nha Ke Bang national park, it should definitely be the Dark cave, because it’s so different and a lot of fun. Be sure to take swimming shorts and waterproof camera, so you’ll be able to take some pictures in the mud (wait, what?!). I’m so pissed that I didn’t have one and had to keep mine in the waterproof bag.
This cave is different because the emphasis of the visit is on the adventure. You zipline to the entrance, jump in the river and swim inside. Soon after, when walking in and out of the river for a bit, you go into a very narrow corridor and as you walk the floor gets muddier and muddier. Very soon you find yourself gazing in the mud to your ankles and after crossing a tricky pile of mud, jump into a pool of it … and have a mud bath. In the dark. With random people.
And when everybody turns off the lights and the mudslinging begins, it’s crazy. Unfortunately I couldn’t use my camera inside the cave, but just google it … and don’t miss this if you are anywhere near the Phong Nha Ke Bang national park!
On your way back, there are some mud slides and after you wash all the mud off in the river, you kayak back to the entrance.
There’s also a small “zipline” at the end, where you can ride and jump into the water … and the cold river is perfect in the hot weather.
A fun day this was … but it was time to head back to Dong Hoi, get something to eat and catch the sleeper train to Ninh Binh.