Tucked away in Quảng Bình province far removed from most tourists lies the Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, home to over 300 caves including the largest one in the world, Sơn Đoòng Cave. Back in 2003 the park earned itself a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List and tourism has been slowly increasing ever since.
Although the park is quite popular with Vietnamese tourists only a fraction of foreigners make it here. (Most traveling north from Huế and Hội An just skip all the way up to Hanoi, in order to have time to squeeze in a trip to Sapa and/or Halong Bay before their visa expires. During our day there less than 5% of the visitors to the caves were westerners.)
Star Attractions Of The Park
Entrance Fee: 80,000VND ($4USD)
Phong Nha Cave
The namesake of the park is nearly 8km long (5 miles) but unfortunately only the first 1.5km (1 mile) is open to tourists. Boats line up at the park welcome center waiting to transport visitors to and through the cave. They cost 350,000VND ($17USD) each to hire and can accommodate 12-14 people.
Money-Saving Tip: Either come with a larger group to reduce the boat price or wait a few minutes and split a boat with one of the other groups arriving. While waiting feel free to read the welcome center signs:
After a scenic ride down the river the motor is killed and the boat top is rolled back to allow for maximum relaxation. There are two stops where you can get out on foot and explore a cave that has been enhanced with colorful modern lighting. Pay a little bit more money and you can continue on to Tiên Sơn Cave, although this is not recommended (see why below).
Entrance Fee: 40,000VND ($2USD)
Discovered in 2005, Thiên Đường “Paradise” Cave took the title of longest cave in Vietnam away from the name star of the park, Phong Nha Cave. At 31km (19 miles) in length Paradise Cave is more than four times longer than it’s nearby sister and has much more impressive stalactite and stalagmite formation. (In other words if you only have time to explore one of the caves, this is the one!)
Sơn Đoòng Cave
In 2009 yet another new cave outshined the namesake of the park. Although Son Doong cave was originally discovered by a local farmer nearly two decades prior, it wasn’t until many years later that the cave was actually documented and finally gained an international reputation as the biggest cave in the world. Inside giant stalagmites measure more than 70 metres (230 feet) tall!
Son Doong measures 140m (460 feet) in diameter for a straight stretch 4.5km (2.8 miles) in length! The cave continues far past that, albeit at smaller dimensions.
The biggest cave in the world, Son Doong cave in Vietnam. It’s largest cavern measures 460 feet in diameter and is nearly three miles long. Source: flickr/dknuth
Thanks to it’s size there are a variety of tour packages for those eager to step foot in the largest known cave in the world. The ultimate one is one week long and costs $3,000USD per person! Fun as that might have been, I think I can do better things with that much money and decided to skip this cave.
Tiên Sơn Cave
The final cave open to the public and oldest known cave of the park is the one kilometre long Tien Son. This one can be explored in conjunction with Phong Nha Cave. Tien Son is pretty much identical to Paradise with the colored lights and wooden walkway, only smaller. It is also located higher up in the hills and does require walking up stairs and a cement path.
Tiên Sơn Cave can easily be skipped if you have already seen Paradise Cave or if it is a particularly hot day and you don’t feel like sweating while climbing up to the entrance.