Our next destination, Dong Hoi, was a huge war zone now transformed to the stopping point for people who wish to visit Phong Nha National Park, which is noted for its caves and grotto systems that house the largest wet and dry caves in the world. During the war this place was only jungle and the caves were used as shelter for soldiers. The National Park is described as a trip to another world and that it was.
The park includes the largest cave in the world, Son Doong Cave, has room enough for an entire NYC block of 40-story buildings. It was discovered in 2008 and many wanted to open it for mass tourism but as of now only 84 people are allowed in next year for a 7-day tour at $3,000 per day!
We couldn’t wait to get dropped off by the bus when we arrived in Dong Hoi since they were blaring awful local music the whole ride. Usually when a bus in Vietnam drops you off, taxi and motorbike drivers who are fighting to get your fare accost you. But in the sleepy, unassuming town we were dropped off on a random street corner with no idea which direction to go. As we started walking in what we hoped would be a direction with more answers, an Aussie named Malty and his Vietnamese wife, Yim, stopped and threw us a lifeline. They own a homestay closer to Phong Nha City named Pepperhouse Homestay and pointed us in the right direction to our hotel. The short conversation with this couple reassured us that we could rent a scooter and do a self-tour of the caves for half the price and triple the satisfaction.
Nam Throm Hotel is the best hotel in Dong Hoi, but if we had more time we would have stayed at Pepperhouse Homestay. Even though the area is a tourist hotspot it is off the beaten path since many travelers don’t have the time to go here. While in town it was so nice not to be in the crosshairs of an army of touts (people trying to sell you something). The next morning we took at scooter 40km to Phong Nha National Park with a Vietnamese coffee stop at Pepperhouse that included invaluable information from Malty with a map and directions. Once in the park we made our way to Paradise Cave, which is the largest dry cave in the world and only open to public for the past three years. The cave was impressively large with and abundance of stalactites, stalagmites, and helictites (yeah, I said Helictite, look it up). We walked on our own to the entrance of the cave but you can hire a golf cart to take you to the 500m of stairs that leads to the entrance.
On our way to Paradise Cave we came across a secret jungle runway built during the Vietnam War used for the one and only jet plane the Vietnamese used during the war and only for one flight (it’s a crazy story). After racing up and down the runway that is now a part of a highway we went to Phong Nha Cave, one of the largest wet caves in the world. To get to the cave we had to hire a boat that went up the river and into the cave for about 2km then allowed us to walk along an underground river beach amidst spectacular geological rock formations. Once out of the caves we had to hightail it 40km back to Dong Hoi to beat the setting sun. Another unique Vietnam experience!!
Paradise Cave/Phong Nha Cave from Dong Hoi on your own (for travelers):
To get to Dong Hoi you have the option of a tour from Hue, tourist bus or local bus
Stay at Nam Throm Hotel or Pepperhouse Homestay (much closer to Phong Nha Park)
Rent a motorbike 200,000 Dong per day + 100,000 Dong in gas
Ride 40 km to the park (Phong Cave ticket office/boat hire near the entrance of the town)
Ride 30 km more to Paradise Cave
Paradise Cave 120,000 Dong per person with 5,000 Dong fee for bike parking
Phong Nha Cave 80,000 Dong per person with 2,000 Dong fee for bike parking
You have to take a boat into Phong Nha Cave. This boat costs 320,000 Dong. This charge is not per person so the more people in your boat the cheaper it is per person. The boat can hold up to 14 passengers. There are many people looking to share boats during the morning and middle of the day, but fewer the closer you get to closing time which is 4:30 pm. We got 2 other ladies to share our boat with us at the last minute, as we were later in the day.