Vietnam can be traveled in one of two ways, North to South or South to North. After spending a couple of weeks in the North it was time to make my way south to Hoi An via Ninh Binh and Phong Nha.
Ninh Binh is also known as the Inland Halong Bay.
Phong Nha, is home to multiple caves, one of which is the largest in the world. Some of the caves were used in the Vietnam war for multiple things such as shelters and army bases.
Spending the last few days in one of my favourite cities, Hanoi was an amazing experience. One thing I love about the old quarter is the balance you can get in the city. When I first arrived, I was in party mode and staying at one of the biggest party hostels in the city. Yet this time around I wanted something a bit more chill. This ended up being Cocoon hostel, a modern building with pod like accommodation.
Getting a bus south or north can be done one of two ways. Purchase a bus ticket for your initial destination or get an open ticket to your end destination which will work out to be a lot cheaper. This means that you have a ticket from location to location but it is not set schedule. All you need to do is message the ticket provider when you are ready and jump on the bus.
The bus to Ninh Binh departs midday from Hanoi and arrives 8 hours later in the small town. There are two different places you can stay. In the township of Ninh Binh or out in Tam Coc, a village about 15 mins away closer to the destinations that you are going to see in Ninh Binh.
I planned on staying 2 days which was the perfect amount of time I feel. Enough time to comfortably do the activities without feeling rushed or bored.
Hiring a scooter is a must. If you are not competent on a scooter it will get expensive if you have to taxi from place to place. All the must do destinations are within a 30 min radius of Tam Coc.
Day 1 -Dragon stairs and caves
My first day there I headed to the Dragon stairs and caves. They are located about 10 mins south of the village back towards Ninh Binh. Reaching a religious like place where you can walk around some caves and climb a mountain to a little temple.
The caves are little but fun to walk around. Prepare to get your feet wet, you will be walking through a maze which the locals have lit up. It doesn’t take too long but a fun little experience.
You can then climb up the flight of stairs to the best view of the area, in my opinion. Although I would not recommend going there in the heat of the day as its too hot to be climbing up 300 stairs. At the top of the stairs is a little temple and a dragon. You can look out over the river and big limestone cliffs that resemble Halong Bay.
There are so many places to get lost, I would highly recommend just taking random roads wherever you can. Follow them around the local farms and landscapes where you will come across some hidden gems.
If you are there around the end of May/start of June they will be harvesting rice which is an incredible experience to witness. They work around the clock harvesting the rice, drying it on the road (you literally drive over it) and processing it right in front of your eyes. If you never knew how they did it, it is an interesting process to watch.
Day 2 – Catch a Boat
Its only right that on day 2 I did the boat tour, most likely the biggest attraction to the area. You catch a tiny boat, big enough for a few of you and the driver. Then following the river upstream for a couple of hours as you go through and under numerous caves. Finally reaching the main attraction and the photo opportunity you came to get. Limestone cliffs stand tall either side of you while you are relaxing on the river.
Simply beautiful, it can get extremely hot though. If you are visiting during the heat I would recommend doing this trip either in the morning or the evening. After this, I then took a night bus which departed at 9pm to Phong Nha.
Arriving at 4am in Phong Nha, many accommodation providers are very understanding that the buses come in at this time. They tend to allow you to check in straight of the bus which gives you a free nights accommodation essentially.
There is one hostel in Phong Nha, which is called Easy Tiger. Otherwise there are multiple cheap hotels where you can stay if you want the comfort of your own room. Its easy enough to go to the hostel if you are inclined to socialise. Again, Phong Nha is a place where you can get most of the main attractions done in 2 days. Or if you like caves and want to experience more I would recommend staying a few extra days.
Day 1 – Main Caves
Visiting Phong Nha cave itself is a must do. More than likely its the reason your in this part of Vietnam and it is well worth it. To get there you need to take a boat from the local harbour on the river.
The boats take about 8 people and have a set price. So, it doesn’t matter how many people you have the boat price is going to remain the same. If you are travelling by yourself or just with a friend the best thing to do is go to the harbour and meet up with other travelers who are looking to share a boat as well. That is exactly what I did which worked out extremely well as within 5 mins of being there we had 7 people together.
You purchase a boat and tickets to get into the national park from the office at the harbour and then head down to the boats where you be assigned a number.
You jump on the boat and head up river about have an hour until you reach the cave. They will then shut off the engine and slowly row you in. This cave was used as a hospital and army base during the Vietnam war. The entrance to the cave was blasted off from the American Army trying to bomb the inside of the cave. I’m not sure how deep they thought the cave was, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have affected the Vietnamese.
As the boat is quietly rowing you through the cave you are in complete awe. Firstly the scale of the cave is unlike anything I have seen before in a cave. The height and sheer depth of it seem to keep going and going. For about half an hour you keep going deeper and deeper as the cave winds and turns in different directions and keeps producing the unique structure. At one point you get to jump off the boat and walk for a bit.
There is another cave just above Phong Nha cave, which is only accessible by foot. Yet again this cave is incredible and a must do if you have gone all the way towards Phong Nha. This cave is just as mind blowing as the last.
Day 2 – The Jurassic Loop
The next day I hired a scooter and did the National Park loop via the botanical gardens. You can hire a scooter easy enough from one of the many stores on the one and only road in Phong Nha and they will give you a map which is easy to follow.
You can do the loop one of two ways and will take a couple of hours allowing for stops along the way. This is also the way to access a few more caves. However to get the full experience you need to book tours, so it would make sense to get them from Phong Nha as oppose to getting a scooter.
Being a bit caved out from the previous day we only took one stop at the botanical gardens. That stop included a nature walk, swimming hole and an epic waterfall. After walking through the lush jungle for an hour or so the swimming hole is welcoming to hang out in.
You then have about an hour’s ride left to complete the loop. The rest of the ride is something out of a movie, it feels like you are driving around Jurassic park. Winding your way up, down, around bends as you make your way through the National Park. Following a river, surrounded by mountain and jungle.
As you leave the National Park, you make your way through local farmland and rice fields. If you timed it right then on your way back to Phong Nah you can witness the most beautiful sunset. Absolute bliss and the best way to end the day.
The only downfall, and it’s very very minor is that there is only one bus schedule. It arrives at 4am which means that it departs at the same time. So, after a couple of action packed days, it was time to get a few hours’ sleep and catch the next bus south at 4am.