Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park with Mike Rowbottom

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Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park

Hello! We’re here with Mike Rowbottom of Phong Nha Farmstay and Easy Tiger Hostels in Phong Nha talking about why Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is such an up-and-coming area.

Hello, Mike! So can you give us a little history lesson about the area?

Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
The natural charm

Many people haven’t heard about it and if they have, it’s just about the caves. Phong Nha has a very unique history amongst many Vietnam tourism destinations and that’s because people have only recently caught on it. If you came to Vietnam 20 years ago, you would’ve gone to Saigon, Sapa, Ha Long Bay… all the tourist’s spots. You go back ten years to Phong Nha Ke Bang and they weren’t even using money or electricity! Before Ho Chi Minh Highway was built, it was a 6-hour journey to the nearest airport. Now it’s only 40 minutes, making Phong Nha more accessible.

When I went to Phong Nha for the first time 4 to 5 years ago, I saw a side of Vietnam I had never seen before: a really warm, welcoming side.

As one of the fastest growing areas of tourism in Vietnam, and apart from the obvious main attractions which are the caves, what makes Phong Nha so appealing is its untouched surrounding.

Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
The pristine beauty!

The Phong Nha Ke Bang caves are a part of a greater national park network that has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site. Phong Nha has purest limestone mountains and also has 45% of the biodiversity in all of Vietnam. Bears, antelopes, monkeys, snakes…. even hundreds of species of butterflies. If you are looking for monkeys, the best time to see them is in the morning and the evening. Wikipedia lists elephants but I have never seen one. I don’t think anyone I know has ever seen one.

How much self-exploration can I do?

Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
Happiness comes from within, I believe.

The area was bombed every single day for 10 years. According to The Mines Advisory Group, about 20% of those bombs never went off and there are still about 30 kilos of bombs per square meter of land on average. So they don’t really suggest wandering off. It’s getting better as many areas have been cleared away by locals to make way for farming. My advice to anyone who wants to go trekking is to do a guided tour and that’s not just because of the bombs, but because the jungle is one of the most inhospitable places. I once had to spend two days tracking monkeys and they were two of the worst days of my life! The mountains are steep and sharp, the jungle is thick and filled with poison ivy and snakes, and it’s hot. It’s a pretty harsh place.

The area was bombed every single day for 10 years. According to The Mines Advisory Group, about 20% of those bombs never went off and there are still about 30 kilos of bombs per square meter of land on average. So they don’t really suggest wandering off.

So let’s talk about these caves then.

Son Doong cave
Let the nature enchant your heart.

The biggest one by volume is Hang Son Doong, Or Son Doong. It costs $3000 to visit and is limited to 500 visitors per year. Usually, for professionals, this is for someone who wants to do something memorable, something to take to their grave. It might be $3000 but how much would it cost you to climb Mt. Everest or join any other expedition? You go in a group of 8 paying guests. But for every guest, there are 4 crew members: porters, chefs, safety experts, guides. Around 30 odd people go into the cave with the 8 paying guests. You sleep in the caves. All the guides and technical experts are great with photography. I have not met anyone who has done it who has come out and didn’t say WOW. The only permanent writer on the Nat Geo staff came out [of Son Doong] and said it was the best thing he had ever done in the 15 years of writing for Nat Geo. You’re in the cave for four nights, which includes all your food. I mean, it’s not THAT bad. But it’s normally booked up a year in advance.

Oxalis is the only company certified to allow this experience at the moment.

Let’s explore Son Doong’s caverns with these unbelievable 360° panoramas from Nat Geo.

How could an ordinary traveler replicate this experience

Phong Nha caves
Venture on!

There are some caves you can see yourself and some caves you have to do with a guided tour. The caves you can DIY are the most popular tourist caves and you don’t sleep overnight in them. They are all day trips. You can either take a tour or hire a scooter and you can go see the caves. Those are Phong Nha Cave, Paradise Cave, and Dark Cave. You can easily do all three of them in a day for $50. And during peak season, (May) you can get as many as 10,000 people in Paradise Cave. The other caves are ones you have to hike to but you actually sleep in the caves for 1 to 4 nights tours. Those are Hang En Cave, which is in the top 10 biggest caves in the world, and the Tu Lan cave system, which is an amazing river system where you swim through the caves and camp by an underground waterfall. My personal favorite tour is the two night, three day Tu Lan. And just last week, Tra Ang cave, a brand new cave opened to the public.

To be somewhere where you don’t see anyone else is quite rare in this world.

If I go on one of these things, I won’t be seeing other tourist groups is what you are saying?

Son Doong cave
There are creatures living in the dark so long that a wee bit of light can kill them.

Correct. These are real exclusive tours. If you do one of the overnight treks, or if you do something like the one day abandoned valley trek, there will be 8 or 9 of you on the tour and that’s it. You might see some locals.

How developed is the town getting?

It’s a brilliant time to come to Phong Nha because 3 to 4 years ago, there was nothing there. I seriously advise women to bring their own toiletries because it can be really hard to find these sorts of things. But now, you have good choices of Vietnamese and Western food at restaurants and cafés. There are quite a few hostels and hotels that are in the $20 dollar range. And you can get villas for $40 to $60 per night. So it’s the best of both worlds. It’s still not busy and you can have a little bit of luxury. There’s nothing really “high end.” There are also bicycle, scooter, and kayak rentals. But you don’t come to Phong Nha for the town. You come for the rice paddies, the caves, the jungle, for the local people.

So what kind of gear do I need to bring?

You can buy sim cards there. There is one ATM in the town so long as there’s power — we sometimes have power cuts— you can use it. I would suggest just bringing cash. If you are actually trekking, bring long sleeves, long pants, hiking socks, and shoes… but most tours supply proper shoes if you haven’t got shoes of your own. They give you Cambodian army boots! But if you’re size 48, bring your own. Rain gear, insect repellent, sunscreen – bring it. It pays to plan.

How do I get around?

Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
The romance cadence of the nature.

There are no taxis in Phong Nha. If you want to get around, give one of the lovely old guys down the road a dollar to rent a bicycle for a day. To visit one of the caves, you have to rent a scooter or take a tour. Speak to your hotel if you want a private car but expect to pay more.

Why are tours so highly recommended?

Son Doong cave
Team up!

You’ll get so much more information. All the guides are locals. You have an opportunity to really learn about the people, the caves, and the wildlife. Take into consideration that all the guys who are porters now… these are the guys that used to hunt animals and be the ones who chopped the trees down. By doing a tour, you’ve given them a job and have stopped them from going into the jungle and poaching. Support the local people.

How much will a tour set you back?

Son Doong cave
Your health must be qualified before you can book a tour into Son Doong Cave.

The cheapest tour we offer is 1,300,000 VND. That’s also our most popular tour, The National Park full-day tour. The tour takes you to Paradise Cave, Dark Cave, 8 Lady Temple and it includes transportation, food, and a guide. Most trekking tours run about 1.5 million to 2 million for a full day. The one-two night experience is between $200-350 USD. Four nights is around $700 USD. It’s a real chance for you to see raw, traditional Vietnam. Again, you must book in advance.

What food options do tourists have at their disposal?

Let’s just say you won’t be eating burgers inside the cave. It’s all very local but if you want, the town has Western food options. Food is getting much better. And most of what you have in town comes from the local market. It’s not a food destination but you can find Western food if you really need it.

How do you get to Phong Nha?

Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
I love the smiles on their innocent and smart faces.

If you are in Hanoi or Saigon, it’s really easy to fly. It’s approximately 50 minutes from Hanoi and an hour and 10 minutes from Saigon. Vietnam Airlines, Jetstar, and AirAsia all now operate out of Dong Hoi airport (the nearest airport). I recently did a flight, which ran me about $30 including taxes. From Hue or Hoi An, your only option is bus, train, or car. A train or bus is about 150,000 VND but a taxi is $40. From Hue, take the bus. From Hoi An, take the train.

Is this an all-year tourist destination?

Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
When human blends into the nature…

If you don’t mind the cold, then it’s an all-year travel destination. In between late September to early November, it’s hurricane/flooding season so I would email ahead and ask about the conditions. People are amazed how cold it gets between November and March. We actually light fires. But when you start hiking, you warm up. Summertime, which is March through September, is high season.

What’s your ideal itinerary for first-time travelers to Vietnam?

Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
A paradise scene!

Visit Bay Tu Long Bay for 2-3 nights and kayak among the mountains. Do either Hanoi or Saigon, but just choose one or the other. I love Hoi An. I would spend 4 or 5 nights for eating and massaging. Then, I would spend 4 or 5 nights in Phong Nha. Maybe an extra day to cycle around.

Why should I make time for Phong Nha as a traveler with a limited amount of time in Vietnam?

Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
Heavenly light

For those at home who have just booked their plane tickets and are already fantasizing about rice paddies and people in conical hats and amazing food… you know what? It’s really hard to find rice paddies and beautiful mountains and that traditional Vietnamese way of life in Vietnam. So when people arrive in Phong Nha, people exclaim, “This is it! This is what I came to Vietnam for!”

Thank you, Mike, for your time! If you are interested in a fantastic Phong Nha experience, drop Mike a line over at Phong Nha Farmstay. If you’re on more a budget, make your way on over to Easy Tiger Hostel.

Transcribed by Izzy Pulido

Read more: 25 Places in Vietnam to Add to Your Bucket List

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