Quang Binh, a humble province in the Central region of Vietnam, holds hidden experiences that will surprise many travelers. Here, I share my journey over three days and two nights exploring Quang Binh’s caves, beaches, and local delicacies. Come along as we wander through this captivating part of Vietnam.
I went to Dong Hoi city in Quang Binh province on a company trip early July 2023. It was my first time visiting Quang Binh, a place I always wanted to see because of its beautiful caves. We were split into three groups, one group visiting Phong Nha Cave, one to Paradise Cave, and one to Tu Lan Cave.
Overall, the scenery was wonderful, and I quite enjoyed the local food. I think it is a good travel destination in Vietnam for nature and outdoor lovers. However, keep in mind that the service in this part of Vietnam might not be what you’re used to. There aren’t premium/luxury travel experiences or accommodations in Quang Binh yet.
Overview of Quang Binh Province
Located in the North Central region of Vietnam, with the blue waters of the East Sea on one side and the rugged mountains on the other side, Quang Binh’s geographical diversity is a visual treat for visitors.
The province’s most recognized attraction is the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park (often called Phong Nha for short), a UNESCO World Heritage Site that hosts some of the world’s largest and most awe-inspiring caves. Among them, Phong Nha Cave, Paradise Cave, and Son Doong Cave – the world’s largest – continue to impress visitors with their stalactites, stalagmites, and other mesmerizing rock formations.
I think this area is among the best places to visit in Vietnam for adventure seekers. There are numerous outdoor activities, such as camping, exploring caves, trekking jungles, and swimming in rivers.
Quang Binh is not all about caves. Its coastline is dotted with beautiful, unspoiled beaches like Nhat Le, and Bao Ninh, where you can relax in the sun. Visitors also enjoy the local food here, especially seafood.
Highlights and Tips
- Airport Arrival: Dong Hoi Airport is quite small, having only two gates. As a result, it is not busy and wait time is minimal. Please note that the air conditioning is typically turned on closer to boarding times for scheduled flights. Therefore, don’t arrive at the airport too early.
- Weather Consideration: Summer in Quang Binh can be very hot and humid, with heatwaves not being uncommon, especially from June – August. To avoid the intense heat, schedule your activities in early morning or late afternoon.
- Pack Appropriately: As mentioned, Quang Binh can be extremely hot during summer. Pack lightweight, and breathable clothing. Don’t forget to bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and hats for sun protection.
- Stay Hydrated: With high temperatures, staying hydrated is crucial. Always carry a bottle of water with you and keep sipping regularly.
- Local Cuisine: Don’t miss out on the local cuisine. Try bánh xèo, a savory fried pancake stuffed with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. Also, taste the local seafood and dishes like mì Quảng, a noodle dish that’s a specialty in the region.
- Local Guide: It is a good idea to hire a local guide for cave tours. They have extensive knowledge of the area and can provide safety instructions and fascinating insights. Some places like Tu Lan and Hang En caves require special tours operated exclusively by some tour company. The number of visitors per day is restricted, so you need to reserve the tours well ahead.
- Budget-Friendly: Compared to larger cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Quang Binh, and Dong Hoi, in particular, offer a more affordable experience in all aspects, including food, accommodation and activities.
- Service Standards: Be aware that service standards may not always meet five-star expectations, even in some of the larger resorts. Adopting an attitude of patience and flexibility can help enhance the enjoyment of your trip.
Day 1: Arrival and Unwinding in Dong Hoi
My trip began with an early morning flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Dong Hoi airport, a small facility with just two gates. Upon arrival, I was greeted by the intense heat of the area. The temperature was already around 32°C at 9:30 in the morning and it soared to around 40°C by noon. The local tour guide informed us that it could even reach a whopping 45°C on certain days.
Before heading to our accommodation, our group stopped at Paven Coffee in downtown Dong Hoi for brunch. This café offered us a nice escape from the heat. As I settled on the 4th floor, I got a refreshing cup of coffee while taking in panoramic views of the city and the peaceful Nhat Le River. Though the food and drink were not extraordinary, the view certainly compensated for it.
Celina Peninsula Resort
By mid-afternoon, we arrived at our accommodation, the Celina Peninsula Resort which is on Bao Ninh beach. The heat was still quite intense so I opted to remain in my room until it subsided a bit.
This is a relatively new local beach resort with basic, yet clean and comfortable, furnishings. It has a nice swimming pool and a private beach. The staff, while friendly, seemed to need more training in terms of hospitality.
Given these factors, I would rank the Celina resort 3.5 stars. If you prefer a branded hotel with more standard service, Melia Vinpearl Dong Hoi may be a better option. However, that property is a hotel, not a beach resort.
When the afternoon heat began to subside at around 4:30 pm, I made my way to the resort’s private beach. The waves were gentle and the sand was smooth under my feet. I particularly enjoyed the distinctive breeze with a scent of sea salt that brought back fond childhood memories of beach visits in northern and central Vietnam.
Compared to other Vietnamese beaches I’ve visited, this one offered a reasonably good experience. It doesn’t have the dramatic mountainous backdrop of Nha Trang or Da Nang, but it’s perfectly fine for relaxing or swimming. However, it can get a bit crowded, particularly early in the morning and late in the afternoon.
Day 2: Exploring Phong Nha Cave
Day two started with a quick breakfast at the Celina Peninsula Resort. There was a wide variety of food, with both Vietnamese and Western options including an egg station. They even served local dishes like banh phu the and banh cuon, but to be frank, they lacked the authentic flavor that I, as a Vietnamese, would have preferred. Nevertheless, there’s ample choice to keep you full even if it’s pretty average.
After breakfast, I was off to the Phong Nha Cave in Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park. The bus ride to the park was a scenic treat, with lush green fields and quaint Vietnamese houses along the way.
We arrived at a boat station after about 30 minutes on the bus. The boats were identical, long and narrow, very basic, but functional. They had a roof that could be removed once we entered the cave for an unobstructed view.
I was surprised to see that each boat was operated by a local woman and a teenager or kid (not much has been done about child labor in Vietnam, unfortunately). As the men usually work as fishermen, local women and children often work in tourism services like this.
Overall, the boat ride to Phong Nha Cave provided a mix of serene landscapes, and a glimpse into the rural life of Vietnam. As we moved along the river, the stunning backdrop of limestone karsts and mountains unfolded before our eyes. It reminded me of the scenery in Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay. Occasionally, we spotted locals tending to their buffaloes. However, I must note that the strong gasoline smell from the boat’s engine, while not overpowering, did somewhat detract from the otherwise tranquil atmosphere.
The entrance to the cave marked a point where they needed to switch off the engine. From here, the women and children had to row the boat manually, which seemed like a heavy-duty task. I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for them.
Inside Phong Nha Cave
Phong Nha Cave itself was a sight to behold. The cave’s stalactites in all kinds of shapes were nothing short of amazing. There were colorful spotlights strategically placed throughout the cave to enhance its beauty.
We observed these nature’s wonders from the boat for about 25 minutes, then disembarked for a 20-minute walk to view the stalactites up close. The place was packed as you can see in the photo.
Even though the cave was impressive, it was quite crowded. I still found the walk inside Phong Nha Cave quite enjoyable since it was my first visit. However, ultimately, I would prefer a more tranquil and personal experience.
A different group in my company chose to visit Paradise Cave and mentioned that it was both more beautiful and less crowded. If you’re up for an incredible adventure, consider Hang En, Tu Lan or Son Doong – they promise a truly unforgettable experience.
Lunch & More Beach Time
After the stroll, we returned to the boat station. From there, we went to Doan Gia Resort, just 5 minutes away from Phong Nha. We had a simple yet decent lunch with traditional Vietnamese food at a restaurant there. It was quite convenient due to its proximity to Phong Nha.
Once we finished our meal, we hopped on the bus to head back to our resort. I spent the rest of the day relaxing on the beach and participating in team building activities at the resort.
Day 3: Departure
The last day of my trip, I decided to skip the hotel breakfast and instead, had brunch at the Tree Hugger coffee shop in downtown Dong Hoi. The café had a relaxing atmosphere, which made for a lovely start to the day.
The prices were very reasonable. I ordered a fruit pancake that was both filling and delightful, and it cost only five dollars.
After brunch, I made my way back to Dong Hoi Airport, reminiscing about the 3-day journey through Quang Binh as I boarded my flight.
Additional Attractions in Quang Binh & Phong Nha – Ke Bang
Quang Binh is a destination filled with nature’s wonders, cultural richness, and hidden gems. Places that are easy to access such as Phong Nha Cave can get crowded with tourists. But don’t worry, there are less busy options too. For example, if you prefer a quieter experience, you can visit Tu Lan Cave. It requires a special tour and the number of visitors is restricted, so you can enjoy a special trip there without a lot of other people around.
Here are additional attractions to consider in Quang Binh province.
Paradise Cave (Thiên Đường Cave)
A little distance away from Phong Nha Cave, still within the boundaries of Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park, lies the magnificent Paradise Cave. Renowned as one of the world’s largest and most striking caves, it captivates visitors with its grand stalactites and stalagmites formations. The well-designed internal lighting illuminates these formations, further accentuating their beauty.
Though I did not personally visit this cave in this trip, my co-worker who is a Quang Binh native told me that Paradise Cave, with its more significant and impressive stalactite formations, is more memorable than Phong Nha Cave.
Tu Lan Cave
Tu Lan cave system is truly an adventurer’s paradise. This hidden gem provides an experience that’s quite different from the more-visited Phong Nha cave.
The exploration of Tu Lan demands a fair amount of physical exertion, involving activities such as swimming through subterranean rivers, and hiking through dense jungle foliage. Inside the cave, you will stand mesmerized by formations of stalactites and stalagmites, sparkling pools, and awe-inspiring landscapes crafted by Mother Nature over millions of years.
As of now, the tour to Tu Lan Cave is exclusively run by Oxalis Adventure. Some of my co-workers opted for this tour, sharing that it was exhausting yet fascinating. One element they noted was the lack of a spectacular, tangible final destination as the “prize” for the hard work. This sentiment might stem from the expectation that there’s a distinct endpoint, rather than understanding the journey itself is the main reward.
Hence, having the right expectations beforehand could significantly enhance your overall enjoyment of the trip. Understanding that the beauty of this adventure lies in the journey and not the destination can make all the difference.
Hang En Cave
Hang En Cave is the world’s third-largest cave, leading to the renowned Son Doong Cave. This cave can be explored with an overnight Hang En Adventure offered exclusively by Oxalis. The journey to Hang En includes a night camping inside the cave, an unforgettable experience worth considering.
Son Doong Cave
Venturing into Son Doong Cave, the world’s largest cave, is an adventure like no other. Situated in the heart of Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park, Son Doong Cave is part of a larger network of caverns.
Visiting Son Doong requires multiple days, and it is not a casual trip since it requires a high fitness level and the help of expert guides. Son Doong expedition tour is currently only offered through Oxalis Adventure Tours, and you will need to reserve many months in advance.
Chay River and Dark Cave
For thrill-seekers, visit the Chay River and Dark Cave (Hang Toi). Here, you can take a zip line to the entrance of the Dark Cave, kayak on the Chay River, or take a mud bath inside the cave. It’s a great place for adventurous activities.