Okay, so I know Phong Nha and relaxing aren’t exactly suppose to go hand in hand. One of its nicknames is “the adventure capital of Asia,” so I’m pretty sure most people who visit are looking forward to swimming, visiting caves, and trekking!
However, about two weeks before our trip, a second wave of the pandemic hit Danang, so many of the tours and attractions we planned on visiting wound up being closed and we found ourselves with a totally new homestay and a much more relaxed itinerary.
In my case, my 5-day itinerary was even shortened to 3 when I arrived at the airport and discovered my flight had been cancelled and rescheduled to Friday night. Lesson learned: no more booking via Kiwi and no more booking with VietJetAir…
Luckily, I managed to get a spot Thursday night on the same flight as Lee and Alyshia, and when our initial homestay cancelled on us, Alyshia found Phong Nha Farmstay! After all the hubbabaloo beforehand, we landed at Dong Hoi Airport ready for our proper city escape…
Almost because I then accidentally left my passport on the plane and we had to wait for someone to go get it and bring it to the Vietnam Airlines counter because of course when I make one rookie mistake, I managed to make about ten more in the process lol.
Check In: Phong Nha Farmstay
Anyway, we arranged with Phong Nha Farmstay to send us a shuttle since Dong Hoi is roughly 40 to 50 minutes away. It’s about 500k VND for the whole thing, so quite cheap when split in a group! Our driver was lovely, and he even tried stopping at multiple pharmacies so I could try to find contact solution (spoiler alert: never found any and got some eye drop solution instead which lasted two nights).
Then we arrived at night to a pretty lively vibe! The homestay is split into a common area and pool and then the rooms. Turns out a few families had extended their stays in Phong Nha both because of COVID and because they genuinely enjoyed the area.
We settled in at one of the tables for dinner and a welcome drink while getting a quick introduction to the area, the Farmstay, and suggestions for what to do while we were there!
Cannot recommend this place enough. Its owners, Ben and Le Thi Bich, really love their home and they do a really great job of introducing guests to the area. In fact, they’ve had quite a hand in bringing foreign tourism to Phong Nha!
Booking-wise, you can book on Booking but I’d recommend checking out their website as they might have deals there they don’ t offer on other platforms.
Now… onto the itinerary!
3 Semi-Relaxing Days in Phong Nha
Day One: Biking and Phong Nha Cave
For our first day, we decided to bike into town and visit Phong Nha Cave, which you can only do via boat. Phong Nha Farmstay has its own bikes, and you can leave them at there sister place, Victory Road Villas! The nice thing about them being sister accommodations is that you’re able to leave your bikes there and use the pool. If you don’t want to bike back, there’s a free shuttle that runs a few times a day. We obviously picked this option :p.
Biking into Town
After breakfast and a little morning swim, we got our bikes and took off! I did the directions this time, and we frequently got off to take photos and admire the views. If you bike straight, the whole thing takes about 45 minutes but it’s so pretty, you’re going to want to stop!
There are also quite a few places along the trail that offer drinks and food, though most of them were closed for us. We did find one place to get a beer and, for me, a Diet Coke while checking out a church across the river.
Anddd when we got to Victory Road, we also took a quick drink and ice cream break before walking back to get to the ticket booth for the river boats, heh heh.
Once we felt refreshed, we walked back through town to the ticket booth for Phong Nha Cave. Here you can buy tickets for both the boat and the cave entrance. I can’t remember exactly what things cost, but I know the boat was overall around 500k and split between everyone on it.
Basically, they’ll tell you where to go and which boat to get on, and the boat’s owners will take you along the river and into the cave. You’ll be surrounded by locals going about their business as well as some of the stunning limestone views Phong Nha is known for.
Phong Nha Cave
Once we reached the cave entrance, our boat owner hopped off to pay the entrance fees and then took us right in! Once inside she turned off the motor and she and her son began to manually row us through. I actually can’t imagine rowing upwards of 14 people, which is how many this boat can fit.
While Phong Nha Cave is almost 8,000 meters long, you can really only go in the first 1,000 or so meters before turning around. Once you turn around, you’ll be dropped off at this walking section were you can see the cave even more an ten meet your boat on the other side. If you want some more history on the cave, check out this podcast Ben recommended us.
Before we left to cycle, Ben mentioned arranging for the local Indian place to open for their guests around 6:30 PM, so we figured we had a few hours to swim in the river and at Victory Road Villas’ pool!
VRV has a nice little sitting area on the riverside, so we went out there before going in for a swim and ordered a pizza to split and tide us over until dinner. Next door to this spot had a nice nuoc mia machine too.
Dinner at Omar’s Namaste Indian Restaurant
Ben sent a shuttle to bring us to Omar’s an we met other guests and ate some good Indian food! The butter chicken was delicious. Just a warning the naan is huge. Like we each got one and it was too much. I think maybe two between three people would even result in some leftovers!
Afterwards, we checked in to rent motorbikes for the next day, and then I was pooped so I went and fell asleep like the earliest I’ve slept all year!
Day Two: Motorbiking and Mudding
Whoo park exploration day! On this day we decided to get motorbikes to bike around Phong Nha Kẻ Bàng National Park and stop off at some of the sites! There are actually a lot of places to visit in the park and initially I was highly ambitious of fitting in three but it makes much more sense to do one if you want a more relaxed pace and maybe two if you’re trying fit a lot in. Some places:
- Dark Cave
- Nuoc Moc Eco Trail
- Mooc Spring
- Paradise Cave
- 8 Lady Cave & Temple
- Ban Arem Minority Village
- Botanic Garden
You’ll want around 2 hours for each place, if not more. They all open around 7:00 AM and closed at 3:30 PM, so unless you’re an early riser, there’s really only time for one a day. If you can’t guess by the title of this post, we were not planning on being early risers lol. Because we wanted to swim, we decided to do the Dark Cave and if we had time, we’d stop off at the Botanic Garden.
Driving around Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
After a slightly earlier breakfast, we signed some paperwork for our motorbikes and then prepared to go off for the day! From Phong Nha Farmstay, the Dark Cave is about an hour. It sounds like a lot, but I promise the views are so incredible and it’s so fun riding a motorbike, you won’t notice. Like bike riding, you’re probably going to stop off more than few times, so be prepared to be on the road for longer!
Here’s a map of the loop you can do, which is around 31 miles (50km). We started out by going up the Ho Chi Minh Highway first so I could get comfortable on the bike and we could do a circle instead of retracing our steps.
Guys, even if you didn’t stop at a single attraction, there’s so much to see in just the small part of the park that the loop covers. I’m surprised there aren’t more accidents from people just gawking at the views and forgetting they’re on motorbikes! Its karst formations date back 400 million plus years, thus making it the oldest in Asia and every time you turn on the road, you’re greeted with the kind of views they CGI into movies.
Once we made it to the Dark Cave, we parked our bikes and headed over to the entrance. Here you’ll buy your ticket and leave your things in a locker. Your options are either to buy the package with the zipline, Dark Cave, and swimming or just swimming. We did the former.
How it goes is that first you’ll zipline over to the entrance of the dark cave. They’re super strict on dress code (to the point of illogic). Women can’t wear shorts with their suits and no one can wear a rashguard. I’m not really sure how they’d handled someone who needs to wear a burkini, so that’s something to be aware of. They also provide life jackets and hard helmets with lights.
Keep in mind that the zipline, which is the longest in Vietnam, has a weight limited. You must be between 88lb/40kg and 198lb/90kg. Otherwise you can use one of the kayaks to kayak over.
Once everyone’s over, you have a short swim over to the cave entrance, which is absolutely hilarious with the life jackets. From there you’ll see why the Dark Cave has its name has you navigate about 6km through stony grounds, water, and finally mud with just the light from your helmets to guide you!
At some point you do ditch your life jackets because it’s about to get muddy. I have no photos of the experience but if you look up video of the Dark Cave I’m sure you’ll get the idea. Let’s just say we reemerged with baby soft skin!
Once you kayak back over to the main area, you’re free to swim around! They have a short zipline where you drop into the water, a slide, and a little obstacle course to enjoy. Keep in mind you have to keep your life jacket on on the whole time, which I 100% understand why but, still, they were VERY annoying.
Like I said above, we wanted to do the whole loop, so we continued on into the park after we left. The drive around the rest of the loop was nothing short of incredible! Since we were eager to eat dinner, we didn’t stop off too often, and I’d say it took another hour or so to get back to town.
Dinner back at Victory Road Villas
We did try to find different places to eat on the way and in town but, like I said before, everywhere was closed. In the future I’d LOVE to try some famous spots like the Pub with Cold Beer, but that’ll have to wait until a post-pandemic time.
After driving past Victory Road Villas and finding no luck, we decided to go back and get dinner there. After all, we loved the pizza and it has such a nice view of the river, why not?!
I wound up getting the duck salad and the Hawaiian pizza again, though this time I had to save half of it for the next day. We were also visited by some very cheeky kids who wanted to show us their Spiderman moves before jumping into the river to swim across!
Otherwise, we just relaxed after two busier days and enjoyed the sunset. I swear, if you don’t see the sun slowly descend over karst mountains and river with the sound of kids laughing and splashing far below and don’t find it magical, I’m not sure you’ll find anywhere in the world particularly charming!
Motorbiking in the Dark & Dessert
As it began to get dark, we head back to our the Farmstay on the same path we’d cycled on the day before. Managed to get two new experiences in: motorbiking in the dark and filling up the gas! Both, obviously, not that difficult lol. We were warned to watch out for the cows as they get their walks in in the evening, so it was quite fun to zip by as some cows and their owners meandered along the side of the road.
Once we made it back, we sat down in the common area for some drinks and dessert! I’m such a sucker for anything chocolate cake related these days, and this did not disappoint.
Day Three: Lounging and Sunburning
Since Alyshia and Lee were on their first holiday of the year, we knew we wanted at least one day that involved doing nothing. We had bucolic farm views, a cool pool, and a shady lounge area to enjoy. Why on earth would we attempt going anywhere else? Our flight didn’t leave until almost 9:00 PM that night and our hosts graciously let us check out late so we literally had all day to relax.
Morning Pho & Coffee
I got up first and went down to get some breakfast and a ca phe sua da. The last two mornings I’d gotten a more Western breakfast option so this morning I decided on some pho because what could be a better combo in Vietnam than coffee mixed with condensed milk and a nice, steaming bowl of beef pho?
I then took my ca phe sua da and proceeded to sit on one of the stairs in the pool and start on the next book Elissa picked for our two-person book club: The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran. Funnily enough, when Elissa mentioned her scheduled had freed up enough so we could resume our book club, I texted back, “Okay! Let’s say two weeks from now? I should be able to read it all by then.”
Well… I managed to read most of the book on our chill day and then finished it the next. It’s so good! All about Nefertari and her love story with Ramses the Great. By the end of the day, I texted her that I could chat this weekend since I finished it quite quickly ha!
Swimming, Lounging, Photos, & Sunburning
Lee and Alyshia eventually came out and we proceeded to alternate between swimming around, sleeping on the lounge chairs, ordering drinks or food, and taking a photo here or there. Obviously, we also managed to turn a few shades darker or redder because the Vietnamese sun does not play! The next two days my skin had that parched feeling and if you compare the color of my arm to the color of my stomach, you’d think you were looking at two different people!
Tam Biet, Phong Nha
Eventually the day grew darker, which meant it was time for us to pack up our things and head to Dong Hoi. We immediately all wished we’d been able to stay for longer and I’m mentally making plans to return once the tours are operating again!
The trip to the airport was fast and Dong Hoi is so tiny, you make it through everything in less than 30 minutes (probably less than 15 on a slow day). There aren’t really great food options, so eat before you go. All outlets are against one wall or there’s a few in the “cafe” in Terminal 2. Otherwise the flight back down to Saigon was pretty uneventful. I read more of my book and stared out the window regretting that I left my headphones in my backpack.
Phong Nha Photo Diary
Now because I took so many photos and this post will never be long enough to incorporate all of them, enjoy a little photo diary below!
Hope you enjoyed that little peak into our semi-relaxing Phong Nha itinerary! Let me know if you have any questions :)
for more vietnam
After a 2+ week trip in 2016 and now accidentally calling Saigon home for the year, I’ve been able to see quite a bit of Vietnam! If you’re planning your own trip, start with this trip planning guide.
For specific areas, I’ve been slowly getting to know Ho Chi Minh City (don’t miss District 5!) better and I’ve been to Hanoi, Hoi An, the Marble Mountains in Danang, Halong Bay, the Mekong Delta, and Sapa to visit with the Red Dzao tribe.