Driving west and upward from the coastal plain of Phong Nha, our motorbike routes we’ll enter a world filled with jungle-clad limestone cliffs nestled in the foothills of the towering mountains bordering Laos. It’s like driving into a scene from Jurassic Park. The massive limestone karst formation mountains seem to come out of nowhere, and suddenly they dominate the landscape. A river bisects the mountains. Tranquil farms sit on either side, where smiling locals can be seen living a fairly traditional lifestyle.
Such is a typical entrance to Phong Nha National Park in Quang Binh province, one of Vietnam’s top highlights. Although it’s made a name for itself on the international scene due to its massive cave complex and movies like Kong: Skull Island, the park is far from one-dimensional.
Adventure motorbike riders and, indeed, travellers of all types will find something to appreciate in routes to Phong Nha. According to Onyabike’s intrepid guide Hawk, Phong Nha is “an awe-inspiring place.”
Routes in and Around the Park
Phong Nha has some great roads for exploring. “Steep, bendy, just incredible,” says Hawk. “It’s just amazing that they’ve actually built them.”
The park can be approached from the south, the east, or the west. Riders will generally be pleased to note that it’s not at all necessary to take a major highway to reach the national park, so the routes there are themselves quite enjoyable: fun, well-maintained, full of exotic scenery, and generally low on traffic.
South, East or West
From the south, riders can ride the Ho Chi Minh Road (not to be confused with the trail), which snakes its way through a thoroughly forested, mountainous, and undeveloped section of Quang Binh province. Along this route, riders can expect endless subtle shadings of green upon green, with mountains and hills providing some fantastic vistas along the way.
Interestingly, Highway 20, which heads into town from the south was once a crucial military road. It cut west into Laos before bypassing the DMZ to sweep south and deliver supplies to the south. This road is known as the ‘Victory Road’ due to its vital role in helping bring about a successful resolution to the conflict.
From the east, riders can make their way to the park via two different routes from Dong Hoi, the capital of Quang Binh province. One route cuts inland quickly from Dong Hoi while the other hugs the coast before veering inland. It’s from these routes that the approach to Phong Nha becomes the most dramatic, as the coastal plain gives way to the prehistoric-looking landscape that dominates the park.
Approaching from the west would take considerable time since the Ho Chi Minh Road continues west and then north from Phong Nha. Small settlements do exist along the road in the lowlands, but the next decent-sized town is far away. Riders caught riding at night may find themselves struggling to find a place to sleep in smaller settlements.
Other Road Options
In the park and nearby are countless smaller roads that lead through farms and into forests and mountains. Some of these roads are little more than dirt tracks that are barely marked, and many come to a dead-end in the mountains. As many riders know, little-known roads like these are often the most fun to ride. Once in the jungle, a person can truly feel away from civilization. Occasionally, however, these roads lead to illegal logging operations, which are best avoided to avoid unwanted attention.
The roads themselves are generally in great condition, and are usually made of concrete. Traffic is generally light so riders can pay more attention to their surroundings than to trucks or other road hazards.
Phong Nha National Park Highlights: Caves
The most famous part of Phong Nha, at least internationally, is certainly Son Doong cave, recognized as the largest cave known to man. Visitors can indeed visit there, but at a near-extortionate cost for a one- or two-day visit. Part of the reason for this is an attempt to limit the visitors to the cave to preserve its natural beauty, and part of is obviously profit-oriented in order to maintain the cave and ensure its future as a viable attraction.
Rather than visit Son Doong, visitors can check out one of the countless other caves in the area. There are at least three hundred caves and grottoes in the park, and more are explored all the time. Around one hundred of these caves are accessible to visitors.
Some of these caves are accessible by a simple boat ride up the river, while others require grueling treks through jungle and mountain. Phong Nha Cave, the eponymous cave of the park, is accessible by an idyllic 40-minute boat ride from the center of the town. The boat ride continues into the cave and visitors can explore within, gaping at the massive stalagmites and stalactites with fanciful names like the Unicorn or the Buddha.
The park also counts the Hang Pygmy, the world’s fourth-largest cave, among its ranks. Complete with its own rainforest, it’s a wonder in its own right. Other popular caves include the easily-accessible Paradise cave, the longest dry cave in Asia, and, for the more adventurous sort, the Dark Cave, which is accessible by zipline or kayak. Dark Cave is also famous for its mud baths, so those visiting it should be prepared to get muddied up.
Phong Nha Highlights: Outdoor Activities
In addition to exploring backroads and trekking, Phong Nha offers plenty of other delightful outdoor activities as part of the motorbike routes in that area. As the park and region increase in notoriety, you can expect to see even more activities on offer.
Kayaking on the Con river is a fun and relaxing way to explore the river valley. Travelling upstream from the main part of town leads you to Phong Nha Cave as part of the motorbike routes, for which the national park is named. Following the river further upstream leads to a confluence of the Con and the Trooc rivers. This is surrounded by peaceful farms and countryside. Kayaks can be rented at a number of guesthouses and tourist service areas along the river—just look for a sign or ask around.
Ziplining over the river has also made a name for itself as a popular activity. Two lines are currently open: one at roughly 100 meters long that traverses the Chay river near Dark Cave, mentioned above. The other, far longer route, connects the animal conservation station and Dark Cave and measures roughly 400 meters. For those brave of heart or simply adventurous, a zipline ride is a good way to get your heart pumping.
Phong Nha Highlights: Flora and Fauna
The region encompassing Phong Nha and its sister reserve to the west in Laos, the Hin Nammo Bio-Diversity Conservation area, is both enormous and remote. It’s one of the last places in the region to be fully explored for its flora and fauna, and new species are being catalogued constantly.
Just as an example, the Giant Huntsman spider was discovered in Laos as recently as 2001. As the world’s largest spider species with a leg span of up to 30 cm (1 ft), scientists were stunned that it had eluded them for so long. For those who don’t like spiders, don’t fret—the spider has not yet been discovered in Vietnam. Besides, Huntsmans are sissies, usually running away, and don’t bite unless cornered.
Unlike spiders, more familiar and friendly animals can be found in Phong Nha. The Duck Stop offers a chance to hang out with, well, ducks. While a wild boar farm gives you the opportunity to get close to some of nature’s fiercest and tastiest creatures.
Phong Nha’s Botanical Gardens offer a good glimpse into local plant life. Many of the plants in these gardens are native species not found anywhere else on Earth.
Phong Nha Amenities
Although the town adjacent to Phong Nha National Park is relatively small, there is no shortage of places to stay, eat, or drink. Most of the town, where the vast majority of amenities are, is on the south side of the Con river, with one bridge crossing onto the other side.
Phong Nha Farmstay has made a name for itself as one of the premier lodging options in Phong Nha. With an idyllic farm atmosphere complete with a swimming pool, a spa, and stylish, comfortable rooms, it’s the perfect place to spend a few days while exploring the area.
There are countless other short-term stay options for those on motorbike routes going to Phong Nha, from bargain-basement hostels to high-end villas. Many of these establishments offer serene views of both river and mountains. This is truly a place a person can unwind at night after a fun day of adventures.
Food options abound as well. Both local specialties and Hanoi-style Vietnamese food are available. Some truly local restaurants may offer more exotic ‘jungle’ style food with a wide variety of meats available. Food can be wildly diverse: spit-roast pork, local bakeries, noodles, rice dishes, and many more. There’s also no shortage of western food, with pizza and burgers being available at a few spots in town. In short, visitors will not find themselves scratching their heads wondering what to eat.
Coffee shops are ubiquitous—it’s hard to throw a rock in any direction without hitting one while in town. Additionally, as with everywhere else in Vietnam, cold beer is widely available. There are more than a few pubs in town, and every guest house and restaurant will serve beer as well. Pubs and bars will serve cocktails as well should you fancy one after a day of adventuring.
Phong Nha History
The area around Phong Nha has been inhabited for a very long time. Its history goes back to the Hindu Champa empire. Relics and hieroglyphs from the era have been discovered in the region. For this reason and for its natural beauty, Phong Nha National Park is the only place in Vietnam to be twice awarded the protection of UNESCO Heritage Site status.
The region also was home to King Ham Nghi’s resistance against the French colonialists. Ham Nghi was the eighth emperor of the Nguyen dynasty and led a short-lived but nationwide rebellion against French rule.
More recently, Phong Nha represented a crucial military point of access to resupply the south. Highway 20, the ‘Victory Road’ led to Laos, bypassed the DMZ, and re-entered the country further south. Much of the highway was built by local students. The road and the local peoples’ efforts played a large if understated, role in bringing peace.
Onyabike Adventures’ Thoughts
As one of Vietnam’s up-and-coming destinations for motorbike routes, Phong Nha represents a wealth of wonder to visit, especially right now. Because it’s not yet on the mass-tourism circuit, adventure riders will be pleased to see how unspoiled it is. Thrilling roads, pristine forests, sheer limestone cliffs, and a meandering river make this a veritable paradise for riders. There’s enough to do here to fill quite a bit of time on any travel itinerary.
At Onyabike Adventures, we love Phong Nha so much we make sure to include it in several of our tours:
Get in touch with us to find out more and see which tour is right for you. You won’t be disappointed.