First published July 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS
The landscape around Phong Nha, in Central Vietnam’s Quang Binh Province, is some of the most sublime in the country. The limestone karsts of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, whose jagged, jungled peaks extend all the way to the Lao border, provide a quintessentially exotic backdrop to oceans of rice paddies that spread between languid, blue rivers around the village of Phong Nha, on the plains. Over the last few years, the road network through this incredible landscape has improved markedly. Dirt roads have been paved, back-roads widened, old roads upgraded, highways extended, and new roads constructed. It’s ideal for a motorbike road trip. And yet, outside of public holidays and peak times, traffic is still very light, and, although visitor numbers to the area are increasing, most people tend to stick to an established route, leaving the greater Phong Nha area practically deserted and ripe for independent exploration. In this guide, I’ve mapped and described five different routes and loops in the Phong Nha region. Each loop can be ridden separately or stitched together to form a ‘Great Phong Nha Loop’. Providing you have good weather, I don’t see how it’s possible not to fall in love with Phong Nha if you spend a few days riding around on two wheels. I’ve been coming here for 10 years: every time it leaves me breathless.
*My thanks to all the people in Phong Nha who helped me research these routes – too many to mention, but you know who you are.
PHONG NHA: 5 ROUTES & LOOPS
In this guide, I’ve mapped, described and illustrated five motorbike routes and loops in the Phong Nha area. On the main map, I’ve plotted all five routes in different colours. However, each of the five routes also has its own separate map, which has much more detail, including road conditions, places to see, eat, and drink. Any of these five routes can be mixed and matched and stitched together as and how you like, in order to create longer or shorter loops. Find suitable accommodation in Phong Nha and make it your base for at least a few days while exploring the wider region by motorbike (or bicycle). Ideally, I’d recommend riding all the routes and loops in this guide. What’s more, I’d suggest riding them in the order in which they’re written: starting with Routes 1, 2, and 3, which are gentler rides covering many of the main attractions in Phong Nha, and finishing with Routes 4 and 5, which are longer, wider loops, taking you more off the beaten path. The best time to visit Phong Nha is March to September, when the weather is generally good. October to February can be quite bleak.
- ROUTE 1: Caves & Country Loop (50/90km)
- ROUTE 2: Bridges & Back-Roads Loop (40km)
- ROUTE 3: Bong Lai Valley Loop (15km)
- ROUTE 4: Ho Chi Minh West is Best Loop (290km)
- ROUTE 5: King Kong Loop (190/220km)
Phong Nha by Motorbike: 5 Routes & Loops
Route 1: 50/90km | Route 2: 40km | Route 3: 15km| Route 4: 290km | Route 5: 190/220km
View in a LARGER MAP
ROUTE 1: Caves & Country Loop
- Route: a classic loop of the national park’s main attractions, plus an optional side route
- Distance: 50/90km
- Time: half-day or full-day
- Scenery: blue rivers, spectacular caves, forest walks, waterfalls, jungle, limestone karsts
- Road Conditions: good, smooth-surface roads, light traffic
ROUTE MAP: Caves & Country Loop (50/90km: blue/red route)
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DESCRIPTION: This is the classic Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park loop: an easy-to-ride, easy-to-navigate, and highly scenic route on good quality roads around many of the main sights, caves, and activities on offer in the area. One day is enough to complete the loop, although if you want to visit and explore all the sights, you might need two days. You can ride the Caves & Country Loop in either direction, but I prefer going clockwise: starting from Phong Nha village and heading due south on Road DT20. The main loop (the blue line) is only 50km, and it’s easy to follow, fun to ride, and packed with things to see and do. I’ve marked many of the sights and activities on my route map. These include: hiking around Nui Doi semi-wild enclosure; scrambling through the jungles and waterfalls of the Botanic Gardens; kayaking and walking the treetops at Ozo Park; exploring the gigantic, cathedral-like subterranean world of Dong Thien Duong (Paradise) Cave; taking the zip-line and swimming in the astonishingly blue water at Nuoc Mooc springs; getting muddy at Hang Toi (Dark) Cave; and settling down to a delicious, local, barbecue dinner at Quan Binh Hoa, before returning to Phong Nha village for rooftop cocktails at Momma D’s.
In addition to the classic loop around the park, I’ve included an optional side route on Road DT562 (the red line), heading due south, deep into the national park, towards a remote Lao border. On this fully paved side route, which ploughs through extraordinarily dense jungle and wonderful scenery, there are a couple of stops, including the Eight Lady Cave (Hang Tam Co) war memorial, Tra Ang Cave, and the isolated minority village of Arem. Even if you don’t stop at any of the possible attractions on the Caves & Country Loop, the riding and the scenery are sublime. *[Check out my guide to Where to Stay in Phong Nha]
IMAGES: Caves & Country Loop
ROUTE 2: Bridges & Back–Roads Loop
- Route: an inner Phong Nha loop on back-roads along the river, local villages & farms
- Distance: 40km
- Time: 2-4 hours
- Scenery: bucolic agricultural river valleys, limestone karsts & local villages
- Road Conditions: decent paved back-roads, some rough patches, light traffic
ROUTE MAP: Bridges & Back-Roads Loop (40km: blue & red route)
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DESCRIPTION: A quiet, delightfully scenic circuit on mostly paved back-roads and small lanes with a few rough patches, this loop is a rural, local, and laid-back figure of ‘8’ that can easily be completed in just a couple of hours. However, because there are several good swimming spots, food and drink options, chances to meet local people, and lots of lovely vistas across classic Vietnamese agricultural plains, you could easily fill half a day. The Bridges & Back-Roads route features two connecting loops: one around the river east of Phong Nha village; the other around the river west of Phong Nha village. The figure of ‘8’ can be ridden in either direction: clockwise or anticlockwise, it really doesn’t matter. The distances are short, but the loop focuses mostly on small roads, so riding can be quite slow. Also, navigation can sometimes be tricky, so keep checking the route map. This loop is all about farmland, local hamlets, communities, and local life. It’s the most intimate and personal of all the Phong Nha routes in this guide. The scenery is very pretty, but it’s not on a grand scale. Rather, this route is about slowing down, getting off the beaten path, meeting local people, and seeing behind the scenes.
The Bridges & Back-Roads Loop focuses on the agricultural land on the plains surrounding the river, which is crossed on six separate occasions, including a pontoon bridge, a wooden canoe ferry, and three suspension bridges. The character and road conditions change quite dramatically from one side of the river to the other. South of the river, roads are smooth, wide and paved, and the agricultural landscape is dotted with homestays, bars, cafes, and casual dining. In short, this is part of the travellers’ circuit around Phong Nha. By contrast, north of the river, the roads are sprinkled with potholes, dirt sections, and earthen dykes between rice paddies. It’s a very local area without any tourist infrastructure – no hotels, no boutique cafes, no noodle joints with English menus. This, of course, is the whole point, and the slightly rougher edge north of the river can be a relief if you’ve spent too much time on the touristy main drag in Phong Nha village. Local people (many of whom are Catholic, hence the presence of several large and ostentatious churches) are exceptionally friendly: children, men and women all smile and wave you by. In the villages, some of the homes are beautiful wood-and-brick structures. Cattle linger by the road or tethered to bamboo posts in the fields, and it’s fascinating to observe the agricultural work on the land and in the homes. The river, a beautiful seam of clear, vivid-blue water that bisects this loop, is a constant presence. The idea is to linger on this loop, stopping regularly to soak it up. I’ve marked several places – such as, swimming spots, food and drink options, scenic areas, churches – where you might want to stop. Ideally, aim to end this loop at dusk on the river at Bomb Crater Bar, with a cocktail and some tubing on the water as the sun goes down, making silhouettes of the wooden fishing sampans and the karst mountains behind.
Notes: if you take the very short, boggy, off-road section (the red line), then you don’t have to join QL15 at the west of this loop. But if you don’t have an appropriate motorbike or experience, stick to the main route (the blue line) instead. Also note that the ferry and pontoon crossings on this loop require a small fee. *[Check out my guide to Where to Stay in Phong Nha]
IMAGES: Bridges & Back-Roads Loop
ROUTE 3: Bong Lai Valley Loop
- Route: a short but activity-filled loop of the scenic Bong Lai river valley
- Distance: 15km
- Time: 2 hours to half a day
- Scenery: mountains, rivers, local cafes, farms, food, walks & community based activities
- Road Conditions: decent paved lanes & dirt roads, some muddy patches, no traffic
ROUTE MAP: Bong Lai Valley Loop (15km: blue route)
View in a LARGER MAP
DESCRIPTION: A scenic and short route leading up and down a lush river valley just east of Phong Nha village, this ride is perfect for a relaxing half-day excursion on two wheels. The Bong Lai Valley lies about 7km east of Phong Nha village. Accessed to the south of the Ho Chi Minh Highway, small roads run along both sides of the valley, connected by the Bong Lai suspension bridge, about 2.5km upstream. This creates a lovely, short loop peppered with great stops for food, drink, sightseeing, swimming, tubing, hiking and even farming, among other community based activities. The distances are short, but the things to see, do and eat are many: take your time, soak it up, and fall head over heels for Vietnam’s agricultural, rural charms. You can ride the loop in either direction, but I prefer going anticlockwise, starting on the west bank of the river, on a dirt lane going upstream, and returning on the east bank along a paved lane going back downstream to the main road. This is because it’s best to do the dirt road in the morning, before the afternoon showers, which, if and when they come, can make road conditions slippery.
The scenery is gentle, green, and gorgeous. Unlike the jagged limestone karsts of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, here in the Bong Lai Valley there are rolling hills, fruit trees, crop fields, plantations, and long mountain ridges receding into the distance. The river is clear and good for swimming: join the buffaloes wallowing in the cool water, or rent a tube from the Pub With Cold Beer or Rattan House and float downstream. Take the ride slowly and stop regularly along the way at places like: the Duck Stop, where you can be a farmer for a couple of hours as well as enjoying their bánh xèo (savoury, sizzling pancakes); or the Rattan House, with fine views and a breezy wooden gazebo; or test your nerve (and snap your Instagram photos) on the swings at Nature Farm, which hurl you out over the river valley; or swim in the cool water at O O Lake Silence, among many other potential stopping points. All this should work up a good appetite, which is gloriously satisfied at Moi Moi with a flame-grilled whole chicken, lemongrass pork cooked in a length of bamboo, and bánh lọc – little tapioca dumplings with peanuts steamed in banana leaf. There are also plenty of opportunities for coffee, beer, cocktails, and smoothies: check out the views at East Hill Coffee, or drop into Pepper House Homestay or Lake House Resort for a sundowner. It’s all a lot of fun and the scenery is beautiful. But don’t expect to have it all to yourself: the Bong Lai Valley Loop is a fairly popular and established day-trip for Phong Nha backpackers these days. *[Check out my guide to Where to Stay in Phong Nha]
IMAGES: Bong Lai Valley Loop
ROUTE 4: Ho Chi Minh West is Best Loop
- Route: a dramatic loop south of Phong Nha on the Western & Eastern Ho Chi Minh Road
- Distance: 290km
- Time: 1-2 days
- Scenery: jungles, mountains, amazing limestone karsts, minority hamlets, blue rivers
- Road Conditions: good, very mountainous, paved roads, light traffic
ROUTE MAP: Ho Chi Minh West is Best Loop (290km: blue, purple & red routes)
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DESCRIPTION: The Western Ho Chi Minh Road, undoubtedly one of the most spectacular roads in the country, leads south of Phong Nha village through sublime scenery near the Lao border. Of all the sections along the 2,000km length of the Ho Chi Minh Road, the west is best. Soaring over limestone peaks, darting in and out of thick jungle, skirting the edges of blue rivers, and with enough hairpin bends to make you dizzy, the Western Ho Chi Minh Road is a real stunner. And yet, there’s hardly anyone on it.
This loop covers roughly 130km of the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, heading south from Phong Nha all the way to Tang Ky junction. The ride along the Western Ho Chi Minh Road is so good that, if you had no choice but to ride back to Phong Nha on exactly the same route, you’d have no complaints at all. However, in the last few years, the three east-west roads (DT563, DT10, and DT16 – the purple lines) linking the Western (the blue line) and Eastern (the red line) branches of the Ho Chi Minh Road, have been upgraded and fully sealed. This means you can now create a loop (or figure of ‘6’, or figure of ‘8’ – whatever takes your fancy) by utilizing any of these scenic, smooth-surfaced east-west roads and connecting them with the Western and Eastern branches of the Ho Chi Minh Road. I’ve marked all of these roads on my route map, but you can mix and match them however you like, in order to create whichever loop you want from Phong Nha and back. But remember: west is best – it’s all about trying to spend as much time as possible on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road between Phong Nha and Tang Ky.
Although the distances on this loop are quite large, if you start early it is still possible to ride a loop from Phong Nha and back in one (very long) day. However, it’s much more rewarding to spend two days riding this loop, by breaking the journey at the only hotel on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, Duc Tuan Guest House (read more about that here). Also, bear in mind that gas stations are irregular: there’s only really one on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, located in Long Son village. For other gas stations and other guest houses, you’ll need to head down to the Eastern Ho Chi Minh Road. Make sure you start the day with a full tank; bring your camera, bring your swim stuff, and prepare to be well and truly awed by the Western Ho Chi Minh Road. On my route map, I’ve marked several of my favourite swimming spots, and some of the most scenic areas. [*Check out my full Ho Chi Minh Road Guide]
IMAGES: Ho Chi Minh West is Best Loop
ROUTE 5: King Kong Loop
- Route: a big loop north of Phong Nha on roads less travelled, with dirt-road options
- Distance: 190km/220km
- Time: 1-2 days
- Scenery: rivers, jungle, limestone karsts, King Kong filming locations, beach option
- Road Conditions: paved back-roads & highways, optional dirt-road sections, light traffic
ROUTE MAP: King Kong Loop (220/190km: blue/red routes) *[red=dirt-roads]
View in a LARGER MAP
DESCRIPTION: A large circuit north of Phong Nha, the King Kong Loop utilizes some small and spectacular back-roads through jaw-dropping karst scenery, as well as some good highways, with several potential detours and optional dirt-road sections. Certain scenes from the Hollywood blockbuster, Kong: Skull Island, were shot in the landscape to the west of this loop. Although the loop can be ridden in either direction, I’d recommend going anti-clockwise, because this leaves the long, smooth section of the Ho Chi Minh Road (QL15) back to Phong Nha for last: an easy homecoming after a long day’s ride. The King Kong Loop covers a lot of ground with a great variety of landscapes – lush river valleys, desolate beaches, isolated local villages, dense jungle, and limestone pinnacles – but the distances are nonetheless doable in one day, as long as you start at a decent time in the morning. There are two optional dirt-road sections on this loop (the red lines), both of which should be perfectly manageable in dry conditions. But, if the weather has been wet (and especially if you’re not used to riding on unpaved surfaces), these dirt-roads should probably be avoided in favour of the on-road route (the blue lines). The dirt-road loop is marginally shorter in distance (190km) than the on-road route (220km). But, in terms of duration, they’re about the same. A potential side-route is to continue north up Highway QL1A along the coast to Canh Duong (the green line), where there’s an interesting mural village and a decent, local beach. This extension is good if you’re in need of some surf, but not an essential part of the loop.
I’ve annotated the King Kong route map with scenic areas, swimming spots, good riding sections, and some other sights and activities. Highlights of the loop are: the lovely river valley just northeast of Phong Nha, including Thanh Thuy Catholic Church, where the old bell (in the gardens on the north side of the church) is fashioned from a salvaged bomb shell; the excellent scenery along both DT559B and QL12A, including some good swimming spots; and the last 50km on the Ho Chi Minh Road (QL15) back to Phong Nha, which is a glorious ride through terrific scenery, including the steep and spectacular Da Deo Pass. But, best of all, is the ‘mini loop within a loop‘, close to the Tu Lan cave system and the Oxalis Tours drop-off site. Reached via paved roads from the west or dirt roads from the east, this mini-loop winds through an otherworldly landscapes of limestone karsts rising from the floodplains of a river valley. This is where a couple of scenes from 2017 movie, Kong: Skull Island, were shot on-location. In particular, an interrogation scene between the characters played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman, sitting on a wall that is located opposite the Oxalis building. There are a couple of decent cơm-phở (rice and noodle) refreshment shacks nearby this spot. However, bear in mind that, during the wettest months of the year (usually September to November), the entire area can be inaccessible due to flooding. Indeed, households in this valley have two homes: one structure with foundations rooted to the ground; the other lashed to barrels in order to float during the floods. You’ll see the latter waiting patiently in the gardens for the rains to come; at which time the family will move from their home on land to their home on water. *[Check out my guide to Where to Stay in Phong Nha]
IMAGES: King Kong Loop
Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I like these routes and I want my readers to know about them. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here