You have a number of choices on how to get from Hanoi to Phong Nha, the most popular option is to use the sleeper bus service (also know as an Open Ticket bus tour). Other travel options to get to this increasingly popular world heritage site include using the train which will take about 9.5 hours to cover the 383 kilometres or you could fly. Flying is a less popular option though as the flexibility and the number of flights are currently quite limited.
From Hanoi to Phong Nha by bus
The easiest, cheapest and most popular way to get from Hanoi to Phong Nha is to use the sleeper bus service. The buses leave from Hanoi at 6pm daily and your journey will take around 10.5 hours so you will arrive in Phong Nha at around 4.30am.
Depending on which tour operator you book with, tickets cost between USD10 and USD15 one-way per person. Tickets can be booked online or from a travel agent in the Old Quarter in Hanoi. The bus driver will drop you off in Phong Nha town centre near the Thanh Phat Hotel.
One of the advantages of using Open Ticket buses is that they will pick you up from a pre-arranged place which your booking agent should confirm at the time of booking. This helps to avoid the need to go to Giap Bat Central Bus Station in Hanoi.
Open Ticket buses are also popular with tourists in Vietnam because they offer more flexibly in that you can hop on and off the bus at any major city but just be aware that you need to confirm your onward travel at least 24 hours before you want to travel with the tour operator.
The buses are reasonably comfortable, air-conditioned and sometimes have free Wi-Fi, too – if you're lucky. The sleeper bus to Phong Nha stops en-route near Ninh Binh so you can stretch your legs. There are also basic toilet facilities available on each of the buses.
Tip Another thing worth pointing out is that you should choose your seat when you board the bus carefully! The legroom available between the seats varies so some people get more than others.
From Hanoi to Phong Nha by train
To get from Hanoi to Phong Nha by train you would need to book your train ticket to Dong Hoi and then transfer from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha, which is about 45km to the northwest, by taxi. It would cost USD20-USD30. This option is popular due to the flexibility it offers as Dong Hoi connects with all the major cities in Vietnam via rail.
Although there is a public bus service from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha, transfer by taxi is the recommended option as the buses between Dong Hoi and Phong Nha are not very reliable. Also, if you are travelling with a group then the taxi fare can be split between you, which will make it cheaper.
The train from Hanoi to Dong Hoi take about 10.5 hours overnight and we would recommend that you book one of the soft sleeper SE trains as they are more comfortable than the hard sleeper/hard seat TN train option. There are various daily trains from Hanoi to Dong Hoi, which depart Hanoi between 6am and 10pm with SE1, SE3 and SE19 arguably being the best variant as they arrive to Dong Hoi early in the morning leaving you with the whole day for exploring the area ahead of you.
Instead of getting off the train at Dong Hoi, you can consider doing that at Minh Le station. It is closer to Hanoi (373km) and thus the ride is about one hour less. The only issue with this option is that not all the trains between Hanoi and Dong Hoi stop at Minh Le, and probably your only chance to do that is to take train SE7 at 6am. The train journey from Hanoi to Minh Le costs between USD18 and USD25, dependant on the time you travel and the class of your ticket.
The long distance sleeper trains in Vietnam offer an interesting way to see the country. They are reasonably comfortable and come with a soft sleeper option (SE Trains) and a hard sleeper option (TN trains). There are not currently any hard sleeper TN services from Hanoi to Minh Le but there is a TN service between Hanoi and Dong Hoi.
The SE sleeper trains in Vietnam generally have a small communal bathroom with a shower and toilet in each sleeper carriage as well as a service carriage where you can buy snacks and drinks. There is also usually a kiosk in the service carriage that sells convenience items like cigarettes, snack and toiletries.
Flights from Hanoi to Phong Nha
The quickest way to get from Hanoi to Phong Nha would be to fly to Dong Hoi Airport (VDH) from Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport (HAN) however there are limited options in that Vietnam Airlines have only one daily direct flight which leaves Hanoi at 7am arriving at Dong Hoi Airport 1.5 hours later at 8.30am. Fares start at around USD100 per person, one-way. This flight is very popular so you would need to book your seats well in advance.
Once you arrive at Dong Hoi Airport you will need to get a taxi to Phong Nha, which will be between USD30 and USD40 one-way which may seem a little expensive but if you're in a group then you can split this cost between you, which would make it better value.
There is also a public bus service from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha, which runs hourly between 6am and 5pm. Fares are USD1.50 per person.
Why go to Phong Nha
The main and probably the only reason to go to Phong Nha is to visit the incredible namesake cave system. Phong Nha Cave is located in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, about 50km northwest of Dong Hoi in Quang Binh Province. Phong Nha was recognised as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2003 because of the incredible caves that can be found here.
Unesco recognised seven unique aspects of Phong Nha, these include the longest water cave, largest stone and sand beaches, the nicest underground lake, most significant and marvellous stalactites, longest subterranean river, highest and widest cave entrance and the largest dry cave.
The park’s main attraction is Phong Nha Cave, which hosts an underground river that has many interesting passageways and is usually explored by boat. Then there is Paradise Cave, a massive underground cathedral adorned with beautiful stalactites and formations. If you have a real sense of adventure, then Dark Cave is going to thrill you – here you can venture into the cave’s dark interior and take a swim in a huge mud bath!
If money is no object for you then you could arrange a tour of Hang Son Doong which is 5km long and has sections so large and beautiful they will leave you speechless but before you get too excited you probably need to know that there are only 500 places available a year and they get booked up more than a year in advance.
Onward travel from Phong Nha
Once you have taken in the splendour of Phong Nha Cave, you might want to visit another of Vietnam's many popular UNESCO sites – the famous Halong Bay. To do that you would need to head back to Hanoi and then travel from Hanoi on to Halong Bay.
If, however, you have already explored the north of Vietnam, then you could keep moving south and take in the wonderful history of Vietnam's former imperial capital, Hue, which you can get to by bus directly from Phong Nha. From there, you will be able to proceed further south either by train or bus to Danang, Nha Trang, Dalat or Phan Thiet.
Even further south in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh's chaotic charm awaits you and is only 1.5hrs by plane from Dong Hoi Airport or an epic 24-hour rail journey away.
The only international destination from Dong Hoi airport which has direct flights is Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand served by Jetstar Pacific. For all other international destinations connect via Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh.