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 along. The main strip in Phong Nha town (also known as Son Trach) is still 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
It was not that easy to get in and out of 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-like 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. These caves can easily be visited 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 see and 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, and fruits like 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.
Have you checked out my Top 10 Exhilarating YOLO Travel Experiences yet?