North Central Vietnam

Thai Binh - Ninh Binh - Around Ninh Binh - Phat Dien - Cuc Phuong National Park Vinh - Around Vinh - Phong Nha Cave - Dong Hoi


IDD Code: (+84) 52
The complex karst formations stretching throughout the surrounding Ke Bang National Park were formed approximately 400 million years ago, making them the oldest in Asia. Part of this system, Phong Nha Cave (tell: 675 110; admission 30.000d, charter boat 100,000d; 7am-4pmS is the largest and most beautiful cave in Vietnam. Located in the village of Son Trach, 55km northwest of Dong Hoi, it was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 2003. It's remarkable for its thousands of metres of underground passageways and river caves filled with abundant stalactites and stalagmites. In November and December the river is prone to flooding and the under ground cave may be closed. Phong Nha means Cave of Teeth, but, unfortunately, the 'teeth' (or stalagmites) that were by the entrance are no longer there. Once you get further into the cave, it's mostly unspoiled. In 1990 a British expedition explored 35km of the cave and made the first reliable map of the underground (and underwater) passageways. They discovered that the main cavern is nearly 8km long, with 14 other caves nearby. Tien Son Cave (tell: 675110; admission 20,000d; 7am-4pm) is a dry cave in the mountainside just above Phong Nha Cave. You can walk to it from the entrance to Phong Nha Cave (10 minutes) - look for the sign at the foot of the stairs. The Chams used the cave's grottoes as Hindu sanctuaries in the 9th and 10th centuries; the remains of their altars and inscriptions are still here. Vietnamese Buddhists continue to venerate these sanctuaries, as they do other Cham religious sites. More recently, this cave was used as a hospital and ammunition depot during the American War. The entrance shows evidence of aerial attacks. That US war-planes spent considerable time bombing and strafing the Phong Nha area is hardly surprising: this was one of the key entrance points to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Some overgrown remains of the trail are still visible, though you'll need a guide to point them out to you. You should be aware that Phong Nha is heavily visited by Vietnamese groups. The cave itself is fantastic, the experience less so. That is, unless you like your World Heritage sites to incorporate litter, noise, people climbing on stalagmites and cigarette smoke in confined spaces. Of course these things are prohibited, but enforcement is lax to say the least. Presumably these distractions can be avoided if you arrive early in the morning. The toilets might be less putrid then, too. The Phong Nha Reception Department, an enormous complex in SonTrach village, organises tourist access to the cave. You buy your admission ticket here and organise a boat to take you to the cave. Boats seat up to 10 people and it's cheaper to share. The cave system is electrically lit, but you may want to bring a torch (flashlight).
Sleeping & Eating
There is better accommodation available in Dong Hoi, but staying in Son Trach may help you to beat the crowds.
Saigon Phong Nha (tell: 675016;rUS$13;This hotel provides rooms with en suites and hot water, and free breakfast. In Son Trach itself there are plenty of cheap com pho places. Don't expect haute cuisine. Make sure you bring cash, as there are no banks here.
Getting There & Away
From Dong Hoi head 20km north on Hwy 1A to Bo Trach and then turn west for the 30km to Son Trach. Some hotels in Dong Hoi offer tours, but a cheaper option is by motorbike The actual cave entrance is 3km by never from Son Trach. The one-way ride takes about 30 minutes and gives a great glimpse of the life of river people. Overall, it takes about two hours to visit the river cave, or about four hours with a trip to the dry cave too.
The Nam Phao/Cau Treo border (7am-6pm) is 96km west of Vinh and about 30km east of Lak Sao in Laos. While the most travelled and shortest distance of the four crossings in north central Vietnam, there are still lots of horror stories from travellers on this route. This area is well known to drug smugglers and other dodgy dealers. Lao Bao, near Dong Ha in Central Vietnam, is a much better option, 30-day Lao visas (US$30) are available on arrival in Nam Phao, but Vietnamese visas still need to be arranged in advance; try the Vietnamese embassy in Vientiane. Buses from Vinh for Tay Son (formerly Trung Tam; 10,000d) leave 10 times a day between 6am and 2pm. A lot of travellers have reported bad experiences on this local bus, including chronic overcharging and being kicked off in the middle of nowhere. From Tay Son it's a further 26km to the border. Take a minibus or hire a motorbike to cover the last stretch; both cost 50.000d. The last 25km climbs through some spectacular steep and forested country. There is absolutely nothing here except the border post itself, so stock up on water and snacks in Tay Son when passing through. The Vietnamese border guards have been known to close the country for lunch - any time from 11.30am to 1.30pm. It's also quite common for them to ask for a US$1 fee to stamp your visa. From the Vietnamese side it's a short walk to the Laos border. Once in Laos, jumbo (three-wheeled taxis) and sawngthaew (pick-up trucks) to Lak Sao leave the border when full or cost about US$10 to charter. Coming the other way from Laos to Vietnam, sawngthaew (US$ 1.50,45 minutes) depart regularly from the market. Once in Vietnam the vultures begin circling to arrange transport to Vinh. Many will try to charge USS20 per person to Vinh, but US$5 is more sensible. Try to hook up with as many other people as possible as you cross the border to improve your bargaining position. A common scam exists with minibuses in Lak Sao offering travellers a ride directly on to Vinh. Once they're in a suitably remote section on the Vietnamese side they stop and demand an extra US$20 on threat of abandonment in the dark. There are four direct buses a day and a ticket should cost no more than US$10.