Phong Nha Park is an astonishing expanse of lush jungle and limestone cliffs in the heart of central Vietnam. It wasn’t until recently, however, that it became a world-class tourist destination, not because of what’s on the surface, but because of what lies beneath.

2009 was the year that set the wheels in motion. This was the year when the title of world’s biggest cave was taken from Mulu Cave in Malaysia and given to the recently-discovered Son Doong cave in Phong Nha. 2010 saw the introduction of tourism to Phong Nha. Over the next few years more caves were found as interest in the area grew. Companies providing tours of the caves have been opened and grown rapidly in the time since. Although the tourism industry has been steadily growing in the region, it is still very young. Now is the time to visit Phong Nha, before souvenir shops and western restaurants come in to ruin the authenticity of this sleepy jungle park.The boardwalk inside the Paradise Cave

The Caves

Paradise Cave

Thiên Đường Cave, or as it’s known to tourists, The Paradise Cave, is the only cave in Phong Nha that can be explored without an arranged tour. Walk 500m from the parking lot or take a Jurassic Park-style buggy followed by a short climb up a set of stairs to reach the cave entrance. Once inside the cave, gasp at the beauty as your eyes adjust and descend down the stairs into the darkness. An easy 1km stroll along a boardwalk exposes some of the most breathtaking stalactites and stalagmites in the park. This is a great cave to practice your low-light photography skills as it’s completely dry and fairly well-lit (for a cave). The cave can also be seen as a part of the Phong Nha Farmstay National Park Tour.

If you want to delve even deeper into Paradise Cave, past the boardwalks, the lights, and the camera-toting tourists, there’s a 1-day 7km organized tour that will take you farther underground than everyone else.Stalactites and stalagmites in the Paradise Cave

Dark Cave

Named for the black limestone making up the high walls of the cave, the Dark Cave is only accessible by kayak across an emerald and blue colored lake. Get inside and a wet trek and swim takes you into the cave, progressively becoming muddier and muddier until everyone gives up and takes a dip in the mud. Don’t worry, it’s good for the skin and you’ll have a chance for a swim on the way out.

This cave is also a part of the excellent Farmstay National Park Tour.

Tulon Caves

Available in one- to four-day tours, the Tulon Cave tours explore caves, jungle, and remote Vietnamese villages. You’ll climb mountains, trek across the jungle, and swim through caves. On the multi-day tours you’ll have the opportunity to spend the night sleeping in a cave.

The one-day tour starts at a Vietnamese minority village with a trek through corn fields and into the jungle. The first cave is Hong Tun; deep and dark with high ceilings and steep cliffs. A tall ladder takes you down into the heart of the cave where you’ll escape via river swim to emerge for a lunch break.

After lunch it’s on to Hang Kim cave. Hang Kim wasn’t discovered until 2012, so you’ll be one of the first to see this magnificent cave. You’ll bring along headlamps and explore pitch-black river rapids and underground beaches. Look above for the bats that dart around at the sight of your headlamp. Arriving at the end of the cave means it’s time to turn around and return, under and over and under again until you are back at the minority village.

Tours of the Tulon Caves are run through Oxalis Adventure Tours.

The World’s Biggest Cave

Inside the world's biggest cave

Inside the World’s Biggest Cave. Image from National Geographic.

Traveling in Phong Nha you may not hear a lot of people throwing around the name Son Doong, as most tour operators would rather proudly use the title “the world’s biggest cave”.

This is the big tour, the cave that everyone hopes to see but is reserved for a select few who are willing to pay the price. They say that helicopters could fly inside of it. A block of New York City could be picked up and placed within the cave, including its 40-story tall buildings. It’s so gigantic that a trek to the cave and around the inside takes 6 days and 5 nights. Many dream of it, few actually make it.

This once in a lifetime opportunity costs $3000 US. Tours run once per year and take seven days. Oxalis is the only tour operator running tours to the world’s biggest cave.

Getting there and accommodations

Easy Tiger Hostel is the go-to backpacker stop that has recently opened up in Phong Nha. They provide cozy, small dorm rooms, a restaurant and bar, and open mic nights. They can arrange all of your cave tours for you. The hostel also provides a bus service from Hue with stops at interesting sites in the DMZ along the way. Contact Easy Tiger for more details. More independent travelers can get a train or bus to Dong Hoi and a taxi from there to Phong Nha.