The bus arrived shortly after 6pm in Phong Nha. My hostel – Linh’s Homestay – was only about 200 meters away from the bus stop. I checked in and later went for dinner with 2 of my roommates (Australian girls) to the Bamboo. They served really nice food there. The girls went back after, since they had to pack and I walked around a bit. I went to the Easy Tiger (pretty much the party hostel of Phong Nha; it was nice, but rather expensive and I prefer a quieter surrounding with less puking people for sleep. They had life music every evening, pool tables, happy hour and such. I ended up playing Shithead (a card game) with a British couple – Biff and Christa – and we agreed to rent scooters the next day and explore the surrounding together.
We wanted to drive to the Phong Nha Cave but somehow ended up on the wrong side of the river at a dead end. It was beautiful there though.
We met a Canadian couple on their scooter who did the same mistake and teamed up with them. After a while of driving back and forth we finally found the Tourist Office (actually just in town not far away from my hostel) where you could get tickets for the cave. The entry fee was 150000 Dong (~5,60€) plus the boat for 360000 Dong (~13,50€). We were five people and we met 4 others who wanted to do the tour, so we shared the boat and each of us only had to pay 40000 Dong for it. We were a really nice and funny group of several nationalities. They paddle you along the river that we drove along with the motorbikes and into the cave. You can also get off the boat and walk around in the cave for a bit. It is really beautiful! The cave is an UNESCO World heritage site with 14 grottoes and an underground river. I would say it’s worth visiting.
When we got back we all went to Lantern Restaurant for lunch together. After Biff, Christa, the Canadians and I drove to Paradise Cave. The route was very scenic with nice views over the jungle.
The Canadians were pretty anxious drivers and super slow so it took us over an hour to get to the cave. We arrived at 4 pm and the cave closed at 4:30pm (well that’s when they stopped letting people in). Paradise Cave is the longest dry cave in Asia with amazing drip stone formations inside. We decided to go inside anyway and paid the 250000 Dong entry fee (~9,35€). It took already about 25 minutes to reach the entrance of the cave. The Canadians were super scared to drive back in the dark and were stressing all the time that we should leave while being super slow and holding everyone back. I would have loved to just leave them, walk a bit faster and do the whole loop within the cave, but I also didn’t want to drive back all alone in the dark, especially not with my shitty bike where I was not even sure if the light would work. So we only saw not even a third of the cave, but what I had seen was amazing. Definitely one of the most beautiful caves I had ever seen.
On the way back to our bikes they suddenly had time to dawdle like crazy and while finally driving back we had to wait again all the time for the Canadians. We anyway arrived back in Phong Nha at 6pm, so before it got dark. Looking back, we would have had plenty of time to see the whole cave and come back at day light if this couple would have walked and driven a little faster. I was pretty pissed I have to admit. While I was alone with Biff and Christa and also with the big group everything was fine, but alone with the two couples, I felt like the odd one out. So I went for dinner alone, chilled a bit and got some things done. Later I went to the Easy Tiger again where they wanted to meet for drinks. But since I was left out again, I just finished my drink and left. I enjoyed a quiet evening with watching a movie instead. The next day I got my scooter and drove to the botanical gardens – alone. I did the biggest possible loop in there, which was about 5-6 km of walking. Since most people only take the short loop to the waterfalls, I was most of the time completely alone and really enjoyed it. I actually felt less alone than with the four people I had spent the afternoon before.
The gardens are nice and so is the waterfall. If you have time, do it. If you are only shortly in Phong Nha and have to decide between the gardens and a cave, rather do the cave.
After this tour I went to the Phong Nha Vegan Restaurant for lunch. The choice was very restricted but the food was nice. I met a German couple there – Tino and Yvonne. We were talking and talking and decided to check out the Bomb Crater Bar together. The bar didn’t meet the expectations from how it was described online, but it was nice anyway and we sat there until the sun was setting.
We drove back together and handed in our scooters in our respective accommodations before going for lunch at the Dart’s where I had my first Bun Cha ever.
I really enjoyed the food, the place and the company. At 8:30pm I had to say goodbye since I had to freshen up, pack and check out before I got picked up by the night bus to Tam Coc. The bus was packed, the driver had a horrible way of driving and my back still hurt like crazy from the accident in Hoi An, so I hardly slept.
Phong Nha is definitely worth a stop. You can book tours, but it is also very easy to just get a scooter and explore the beautiful surrounding by yourself. For everything you do with a boat, it is worth teaming up with other people to share the costs. There are many possibilities for accommodation for every budget and also a lot of nice restaurants and bars. Don’t expect too much from the village itself, but the landscape around is amazing!