Between Hue and Hanoi, we stopped in two cities with incredible nature – Phong Nha and Ninh Binh. They are also the two cities where I saw my first karst formations of limestone mountains.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Phong Nha is a tiny town that is undergoing a huge tourist boom. The largest cave in the world was “discovered” around 10 years ago here and there are dozens of other amazing caves as well.
We stopped in to do a tour and it was worth the expensive price tag we paid for it. With eight other people we visited the botanical garden, Paradise Cave, Dark Cave, zip-lined over a river, and had free-time in a fun river obstacle course. The botanical garden was a waste of time, but everything else was beautiful.
In the mud pool, we plunged into the cold, gritty mud and let it cover our entire bodies. One thing I was not expecting was to float. It was exactly like being in the Dead Sea – you could not go under even if you tried. Floating on our backs in the dark of the mud pool, it is easy to forget about everything else back in “the real world”.
Other Experiences in Phong Nha
Stu playing badminton with our homestay owner’s mother.
On our last night in Phong Nha, we walked around them main drag looking for some rum or whiskey to drink. Every single store only had vodka to sell, but we were determined not to drink it. At the third or fourth store we walked into, when we told the woman we didn’t want vodka, she went into the back of her store and brought back a 1.5 liter water bottle full of brown liquid. Jackpot.
She poured us a sample shot and it must have been homemade rum of 50-60% alcohol. We bought 12 ounces for $2 and hoped we would wake up the next morning.
Hostels & Homestays in Phong Nha, Vietnam
When we got off the bus in Phong Nha, the Duong Homestay was right at the “bus station”. The staff didn’t really speak English, but they were very nice and even invited us to eat a free meal the family had made once we stayed a few nights. Our private, twin room was clean, the A/C was cold, and bathroom was the best we had in Vietnam. It is not a party hostel, so if you are looking for that, you should check out Easy Tiger across the street.
Oh, Ninh Binh. We got off on the wrong foot when our night bus arrived 3 hours early and dropped us off in the industrial town at 3 AM. Not only was there nothing open and nowhere to go, but when we called the homestay we had booked online, after multiple hang ups, they finally said they were permanently closed for business. It was a rough start to the morning.
In the distance, we spotted a neon flashing light and headed towards it. Luckily, it got us to a hotel at 4:30 AM and we woke up the owners to let us in. At night, we knew it looked like a random area, but in the morning we could tell it was in the outskirts of town.
Activities in Ninh Binh
On our one day in the area we took trips to the Trang An Caves and the Mua Caves. Both places had stunning views. It was a little confusing that this amazing nature was located just a few miles from a dumpy, industrial city with next to nothing in it.
The tour through the Trang An caves and temples was interesting from the start, as we had a middle-aged Vietnamese woman rowing the boat for four tourists in 100+ degree heat. I felt pretty bad, but she beasted through it pretty easily.
The tour took us through looming mountains, seven caves, and three temples. After seeing almost one hundred temples in Vietnam, they start to blend together, but the mountains and the caves were very memorable. You can also watch a short video of the tour ride here.
The second half of the day we got a taxi to the Mua Caves. The cave itself was pathetic after visiting Phong Nha. It was only 20 feet long, had a bit of water in it, and was littered with garbage everywhere. Luckily, the cool part of visiting this cave is the viewpoint 500 steps above it.
In the blazing heat, we trudged up 500+ steep, rocky stairs, sweating out every drop of liquid we had. The view from the top made it all worth it, though. Limestone mountains filled the landscape as far as the eye could see, along with farms and the city on the opposite side.
Heading to Hanoi
One of the mistakes we made in these cities was staying 2 nights each. Everything you want to do can be done in one day, if you wake up early and get started. Then you can hop on a night bus and go to your next destination with out missing anything. The food and the nightlife in these towns is nothing special.
Around noon the next day, we walked to the main street and within seconds a bus honked at us and asked if we were going to Hanoi. We jumped on and were on our way to the capital.
If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to my blog here and be sure to follow me on social media