Most first-time travellers to Vietnam should expect to follow a standard route from north to south. Starting from frenetic Hanoi, a Vietnam highlights journey connects the dots between scenic Halong Bay, the former imperial capital of Hue, the breezy coastal town of Hoi An, and onward to the gateway to the Mekong Delta and Ho Chi Minh City.
But when British cavers explored Son Doong Cave for the first time 2009 – now touted as the largest in the world – the highlights experience in Vietnam was forever changed. Even novice adventurers can put a visit to the caves in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park on their Vietnam to-do list.
With short guided tours delving into the cave system – including expeditions to Hang En and Tu Lan caves – this brand new highlights experience is soon to secure its place as a travel “must” in Vietnam.
Asia tour operator Buffalo Tours are one of the first to include a Phong Nha journey into its classic multi-day Vietnam tours – coupling the experience with other adventurous experiences like trekking in Sapa, kayaking in Halong Bay and rickshaw journeys on the central coast.
The Vietnam Caves, Karsts and Trekking 18-day odyssey includes these experiences and more on its route connecting Hanoi with the sleepy delta down of Chau Doc. And with the unveiling of this brand new tour, Buffalo Tours also released its top tips for making the most of a first-time cave journey.
Top Cave Experiences
Within the caves, visitors can expect to enjoy not just climbing and trekking, but views of interior river systems and lakes. More adventurous trips include swimming and visits to beaches in deeper portions of the cave system, but most will find even the basic one-day visits into the cave well worth the effort.
Only experienced cavers and climbers are advised to embark on the full Son Doong Cave experience, while less experienced travellers will likely visit either Hang En Cave or Tu Lan Cave – both breathtaking and more easily accessible.
Fitness and Physical Ability
Most combination cave and trekking tours require at least a moderate level of fitness, which trekking routes often totaling between 20-30 kilometres over two to three days. These journeys are best for travellers of all ages who regularly engage in physical activity, and those that are confident with many levels of terrain.
Lengthier cave expedition tours require more advanced levels of fitness, with a combination of trekking, basic climbing and some swimming involved in the routes. Routes that include climbing will require some rope and harness belaying and climbing, all with the guidance of a cave guide.
All routes are labeled between a Level 1 and Level 6 adventure level. Tours included in Buffalo Tours’ highlights journey are between a Level 1 and Level 3, with options to include more difficult routes.
Packing for the Caves
Tours in the caves include some key caving and trekking equipment, but some is required for travellers to supply themselves. Caving and safety gear like helmets, headlights, gloves and harnesses are supplied by guides, along with porters and shared dry boxes.
Travellers to the caves are suggested to bring along rugged clothing ready for the challenges of the caves. This includes long pants and long sleeve shirts, preferably with quick-dry material.
Though the tour operator will provide basic canvas trekking boots if needed, travellers are also advised to bring along their own trekking boots with calf-length woven socks – and to leave the ankle socks behind.
For their comfort, visitors should have a small backpack, a small towel, necessary toiletries, mosquito repellent and a fleece or warm jacket during winter months.
Weather and Best Times to Visit
During the rainier months of September through November, the caves are sometimes inaccessible due to flooding. Therefore, most cave journeys are only open for visitors from February to August. For travellers through Vietnam, this marks a good time to visit cities and towns on Vietnam’s central coast, where rainy season is similar to that of Phong Nha.
For those who would like to avoid excessive humidity, the best time to head to Phong Nha is after April, through which higher humidity between 85-90% extends. The period from May to August has drier weather with higher temperatures, but winds to keep weather more comfortable.
Getting There and Nearby Attractions
When travelling with a company, a visit to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park will likely be before or following a visit to Hue or Hoi An, depending on the direction of your trip. The nearest airport is Dong Hoi, a fairly rural area where infrastructure is still developing. Travelling here as part of a longer tour will mean transfer to and from the caves is easier and less of a hassle.
Depending on your travel style, some will travel to Phong Nha by bus, with the shortest and most comfortable journey from Hue. A leisurely visit to Hue following a cave tour is a great way to recharge after an adventure in Phong Nha.
Find out more about the Phong Nha Cave Experience from the perspective of a traveller here. See the full Vietnam Caves, Karsts and Trekking tour itinerary on Buffalo Tours’ website.
*All photo credit to Ryan Deboot