When I return from a trip, I usually write about my favourite place first. From our December 2018 trip, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park (Phong Nha) in Vietnam was that place. This magical UNESCO world heritage site is set in lush surroundings in Central Vietnam, and features the most amazing caves. It’s listed as the number three place to visit in all of the country by Lonely Planet, but it’s still off Vietnam’s beaten track. So if you’re looking for what to do in Phong Nha with kids (although all can be enjoyed without kids), read on.
Phong Nha is the beautiful rural Vietnam you might imagine. Giant green karst mountains (the oldest in Asia) rise around the turquoise Son River, which is dotted with picturesque boats carrying locals wearing conical hats. Rice fields soak up the sun while water buffalo trod diligently. The main strip in Phong Nha town (also known as Son Trach) is quiet and clean, with restaurants and hotels. It’s the best of the old and new Vietnam – the surroundings tell the story of old, while the commercial development tells the story of new. And yes, I found good wine.
We arrived in Phong Nha at night and pulled up to our accommodations, Victory Road Villas, with intimate strung lights, colourful lanterns, a lit up pool and an ever-inviting vibe. All we could say was “wow.” Phong Nha was night and day from the craziness (albeit awesomeness) of Hanoi.
How to get to Phong Nha
We took a flight from Hanoi to Dong Hoi with Vietnam Airlines (alternatively you can take a train), then an hour private transfer to Phong Nha that we booked through our hotel. When we left Phong Nha, our next destination was Hoi An, which required a six-hour private transfer. We stopped in Hue and at Marble Mountain to break it up for the kids. Again, you could take the train, but we opted to pay more for comfort, convenience, and wifi.
Although we were only in Vietnam for 10 days, we found Phong Nha was worth the extra travel. It’s proximity to Dong Hoi is good and if Hue is of interest, it’s only three hours away.
Caves, Caves, Caves
The biggest draw for what to do in Phong Nha is its widespread system of more than 300 caves. My best advice is to pick your top three or four and see one or two each day. Most of the caves take a while to get to, explore, and get out of. Since we had our young kids with us, we chose the Paradise, Phong Nha, and Tien Son Caves. They are three of the most easily accessible, yet incredibly impressive caves.
Do not attempt to see these three caves all in one day with kids, even though Tien Son is right by Phong Nha. Unless you’re super physically adventurous and love to completely exhaust yourself before dinner.
There are many caves to choose from, and if we didn’t have kids with us, we may have checked out the more adventurous yet ominous sounding Dark Cave, complete with ziplines and mud baths – too scary for our four-year-old. Or Tra Ang Cave, where you swim in cold turquoise water into 600 metres of darkness. Although you have to hike to both, they could be done with older kids.
Of course there is also the largest cave in the world, the commanding Son Doong Cave. Visiting it will only require $3000 per person and a few days of trekking. Oh and don’t forget to book a year in advance. My research indicated that Oxalis and Jungle Boss are the best companies for organized tours of the caves.
You’ll need three to four hours total to visit this cave. We hired a private driver through our hotel for the 45 minute drive from town, but you can visit on a tour or hire Phong Nha Riders motorbike guides or a Ural car driver (ask your hotel). Once there, you either walk about 20 minutes flat and 10 minutes uphill (we did this on the way in, and saw one of the biggest spiders I’ve ever seen) or take a golf cart at a price for the flat part, then walk the 500 metre uphill path to the entrance of the cave.
Once at Paradise Cave, you’ll want at least 30 minutes inside it, as it’s massive and the lit boardwalk stretches a kilometre. Add on getting back to the parking lot and back to town, and it easily takes a half day. If you’re a super-duper keen caver, you can book a seven-kilometre guided underground trek of Paradise Cave with head torches.
It’s impossible to explain the size and beauty of this cave. It’s way bigger than I expected – blowing away any other cave I’ve entered. There’s a boardwalk and lights, illuminating the magnificent and gigantic speleothems (translation: cave formations), including stalactites and stalagmites. Science lesson for the kids – check! My take on why it’s called Paradise cave is the feeling you get while inside – kind of like you’re in a speleologist’s version of heaven. The cathedral ceilings and lofty alien-like formations are stunning no matter which way you turn.
Paradise Cave should be on every Phong Nha itinerary.
Phong Nha and Tien Son Caves
I grouped these together as they are beside each other and require only one trip. You’ll need three to four hours round trip to see both caves. Don’t plan anything too strenuous for the rest of the day – a hotel with a pool is ideal. You can easily visit these caves without booking a tour. Walk to the tourist centre on the main drag in Phong Nha town and buy a ticket to take the boat to Phong Nha cave. The 30-minute boat ride down the river passes fishing boats, riverside houses, and that peaceful rural Vietnam scenery.
Once at Phong Nha cave, your boat guide will paddle you inside and through the one-kilometre length of the cave each way. The cave is fairly well-lit, but slightly eery, as there are no people walking through it. It’s massive and commanding, with high ceilings and a fairly wide canal of water. We then got off the boat near the mouth of the cave to explore the dry areas, which were even more behemoth.
To get to Tien Son cave, exit out the dry side of Phong Nha cave. Alternatively, look for the stairs on the right side of Phong Nha Cave while facing it. You’ll see an area with drinks and snacks (try the fresh pressed bamboo juice), and a sign for Tien Son cave. Save some energy for this one folks – there are no less than 480 stairs to get to it. We heard all sorts of numbers ranging from 300-500, so my son was determined to count and tell you all the exact number.
The stairs were worth it. Why? Because when we arrived, we were stunned to see that we had this mammoth of a cave to ourselves! The other caves had had quite a few people in them. Maybe it was luck, but to explore this cave just the four of us felt like we had been teleported to another planet. And we got to try out the only squat toilet we saw in all of Vietnam before entering, so that was a bonus.
There are also lookout points from the stairs up to Tien Son, which provide sweeping views of the valley.
The Duck Stop
With kids, the bizarrely awesome Duck Stop should be on everyone’s “what to do in Phong Nha” list. Its reviews on Trip Advisor are excellent, so we wanted to see what all the fuss is about.
The owner of our villa drove us the 30 minutes into the scenic Bong Lai Valley to the Duck Stop. It’s a working family farm that decided to add fun activities for tourists, and has succeeded, even with its middle-of-nowhere location. When the paved road turned to a bumpy and muddy dirt road, we were definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Friendly family members greeted us, all with excellent English learned from tourists. They fed us fresh peanuts with spices and took us on an informal tour to see pepper, rice, peanuts, guava and jackfruit growing.
Then we headed into the field to visit “Donald Trump,” the 700-pound water buffalo, who is actually very gentle and docile, unlike the real DT. It was time to ride Donald Trump! Whaaat? My kids were DEFINITELY not having that. And Nick…well, Nick grew up on a farm and is not fond of “dirty animals”. The farm family were adamant that someone ride DT, so mama took one for the team.
This was one of those moments where looking back, I could have been stupidly hurt. “Awww, how did you break your arm?” “Well, I was riding bareback on a water buffalo in a field in rural Vietnam and he bucked me off!” HAND OVER FACE. But when travelling, I put trust in locals and believed them when they said “very gentle” over and over. So on I hopped onto DT, bareback, with nothing to hold onto. YAHOO!
Then shit got hilarious. First we walked through a nice dugout full of dirty water (and DT piss?). Then I was told to do different poses on DT, while the young Vietnamese boy took photos like a modelling shoot. When I showed these photos to some girlfriends the other night, we died laughing. They are not blog-worthy (more just embarrassing), but if you ask me nicely, I’ll show you.
After my bull riding success, it was time for some duck fun. Amongst three hundred ducks, there were no shortage of silly and fun things – duck massages (don’t ask, just do), duck chases, throwing ducks….! I won’t give it all away, but rather tell you to embrace the silliness and try not to think about germs or dirty duck dwellings. We survived, and so will you.
Next it was time to enjoy some Bahn Xeo made by the farm mom. OMG, YES. It’s a savoury Vietnamese pancake made of rice flour, meat and veggies, topped with raw grated veggies and rolled into a rice paper, then dipped in fresh peanut sauce made from the farm peanuts. SO. GOOD. If anyone has found good Bahn Xeo in North America, please inform me ASAP.
The Duck Stop may seem kitschy and weird, but I’m telling you, it’s not to be missed. As the t-shirts hanging for sale in the eating area say, “What the duck?” Yes, what the duck is right. And if you fancy a beer and killing your own chicken to eat after your Duck Stop fun, head to the Pub With Cold Beer. Phong Nha is full of surprises.
Where to stay, eat and drink
For around $250 Canadian per night, you get a large villa and the absolute best place to stay in Phong Nha – the modern and inviting Victory Road Villas. This place was awesome, with tasteful decorations and a magical outdoor eating and drinking area. Our Family Villa had a kitchen (stocked with wine!), living room, and outdoor tub/shower on the main floor. The upstairs had a huge master bedroom with a balcony and swing. It features a pool with mountain views, a great restaurant, sauna, and staff that help you with every aspect of your time there, even driving you around.
The owners of Victory Road Villas also own the Phong Nha Farmstay, a less expensive and wonderful option. We visited on our way back from the Duck Stop to eat ice cream and hang out in the lovely pool area which also has a restaurant, pool table, and kids play room. It’s a bit out of town, but superbly quiet and borders a rice paddy. So while you’re lounging at the pool with a mojito, you can gaze out into the quiet abyss.
What to do in Phong Nha when you’re hungry or thirsty? The Villas Restaurant at Victory Road Villas was lovely and somewhere you’d want to consider for a “nice” meal. The Bamboo Cafe was a chill spot with a good vibe and yummy cocktails, like the passionfruit mojito. It would’ve been better if I wasn’t annoyed with my whole family while there, tempted to down few shots in a row (I can’t remember why, but this is the reality of family travel sometimes, people)!
We also loved Momma D’s, a rooftop bar with pretty stellar views and sunset. It has happy hour and a plethora of board and card games to keep kids (or adults) occupied.
If you’re young and hip, or craving a throwback to your backpacker days, visit Jungle Bar. At the Easy Tiger Hostel, I felt like I had stepped back into my life in 2002, partying in hostel bars with randoms from all over the world. Except this time I had a husband and two kids with me, and felt like a dinosaur. It’s the most lively place in town with cheap drinks, a pool table, and decent food.
How Phong Nha helped change my travel priorities
Given we ended this trip in Bali (which was rather touristy, traffic-y and dirty), I promised myself to travel more to lesser known or off-the-beaten-track destinations rather than highly touristy places. Phong Nha feels worlds away from Bali. As our kids so cutely said in Vietnamese, “cam on” (pronounced come oon, which means thank you). Cam on, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, for your charm and the chance to discover you before it’s too late.
Looking for more on Vietnam? Check out my 10 Day Vietnam Itinerary, read about our Bai Tu Long Bay cruise, or buy a couple children’s books about Vietnam that will teach your kids more about this awesome country.
Have you checked out my Top 10 Exhilarating YOLO Travel Experiences yet?
Awesome ideas for kids friendly things to do in Vietnam! I’m sure they must have loved those caves 🙂 They seem really cool!January 25, 2019
I think this looks fantastic for adults (as well as kids)! What an amazing holiday.
I mean, I always love visiting caves, but the three you visited all look truly epic. I love the look on those columns on the edges of each cave! The duck stop looks really fun too. I’d be up for riding DT (and I NEVER expected to type those words!!)January 26, 2019
First of all, you have a beautiful family! Second, those caves look amazing and so much fun to explore! I don’t think visiting all three in one day is doable without children – that sounds like a lot! Sounds like a lovely trip I hope to experience with a family one day. Thanks for sharing.January 26, 2019
I have never been anywhere outside the U.S. other than Jamaica. Our next door neighbor is actually headed to Vietnam next week. While she doesn’t have kids, I do know that she likes to explore nature. And if my family would ever travel there, I would definitely love to check out the caves.February 13, 2019
This looks stunning! My new goal has been to visit at least one national park in each new country I visit. My fiance doesn’t really have any desire to visit Asia, but maybe these caves will change his mind…February 13, 2019
Vietnam looks beautiful! And those caves are amazing!!! I can’t believe how phenomenal Paradise Cave looks. We’ve visited some caverns here along the East Coast of U.S. and I’m always amazed by them. They almost always shut off the light so you can see how dark it truly is. I can see how that can be scary (I get scared!) and we visited one where I kept reminding my kids not to walk anywhere near the edge (and they’re teens. lol.)February 13, 2019
Wow! This looks like a great trip. I love the accommodations that you featured, and those caves look incredible. I’m not sure about riding that water buffalo though, but I guess YOLO. 😉February 13, 2019
Oh my gosh! You were riding a water buffalo! What an experience! Phong Nha Cave is just amazing with its stalactites and stalagmites formation. Like you said, Phong Nha National Park is not only for family travelers. It suits everyone.February 13, 2019
This sounds and looks like such an amazing trip!! I have not heard of this area before but now I really want to go!! The area looks so picturesque, those caves look amazing, and that duck stop farm sounds so hilarious! I’m so curious about those pictures you took there now lol!!! btw your kids look so adorable!!February 13, 2019
I never knew of Phong Nha National Park in Vietnam before reading your post. I loved all the attractions of this place and especially kids would love it. Riding on water buffalo must be so funny. Going in the caves must be interesting and also Son river looks very beautiful.February 13, 2019
These caves look amazing!!! It’s awesome that you do these off the beaten path trips with your kids, I hope to do the same with my little one!February 14, 2019
So many things to do! I’ll definitely have to add Dark Cave to my list if I’m ever in the area – you had me at “zipline” and “mud bath”.February 15, 2019
What a stunning place to get off the beaten track! I also just love getting down into smaller communities to really learn about the area, meet people, and check out the natural areas. I did Vietnam too past, just a day or two in each city. I wish I would have slowed down and taken more time in smaller towns like Phong Nha. Thanks for the recommendations! Great shots on the water buffalo…so glad you didn’t break your arm getting bucked off by DT. Happy travels!March 6, 2019
You know, we almost didn’t got to Phong Nha as it’s not really close to anything else and wasn’t easy to get in and out of. But I’m SO glad we made the effort, as it was the most memorable place we visited in Vietnam. Can you imagine if DT bucked me off and I was incapable of being a proper mom or enjoying the rest of our trip?! OMG. The things I’ve done while travelling…May 17, 2019