When we arrived in Vietnam, we had no idea how long we were going to be there. I knew I wanted to see a few things while we were there, including Halong Bay and caves. Vietnam has famous caves. Well, when it became apparent we were not going to be in Vietnam for long, and Halong Bay was not worth the LONG bus rides/drives with kids, I started looking for other options that could give us a similar experience.Then we discovered Ben En National Park online. Sometimes referred to as the Halong Bay of Thanh Hoa province, it had caves, jungle, boat tours of islands, and hiking- many of the things we were looking forward to seeing in Vietnam!
This national park is typically approached from Hanoi, and is approximately five hours south, or 45 km from Thanh Hoa, the nearest bigger city. We hired a driver for the day from Nghi Son for around $60, and it took us about 1.5 hours to reach the main entry point of the park. Our driver was from the area and drove along back roads to reach the park, roads that wound through jagged mountains and one-lane dirt tracks with cows, water buffalo, goats and chickens along the sides. We even drove by a puppy just camped out in the middle of the road! There were several multi-colored canopies set up along the road on the way for local weddings going on that day! One thing that impressed Austin and I was the dense jungle that completely covered the mountains that we drove by. We wondered how on earth the United States thought they could be successful in the Vietnam war fighting in these dense jungles and in terrain so unfamiliar.
The national park has several different tour options for tourists. There is a guesthouse nearby for those wanting to stay overnight. Restrooms, a ticket booth, and small natural history museum are located on the shore of the lake. There are many different tours to take, including a one-hour boat tour, two-hour boat tour with hiking time on Botanic Island, and tours with a boat ride, hike, cave experience, cultural experience, etc. I think some of these are offered through tour groups that depart from Hanoi. Since we arrived as our own little group with tiny kids, we decided on the two-hour boat tour with Botanic Island hike. We had to wait just a few minutes until another tour got back, but it was just enough time to explore the little natural history museum and for the lady at the ticket counter to play with Owen.
The boat had about 10 seats, but we had a private tour in a covered motor boat. There were plenty of life jackets in adult and child sizes. I was actually really surprised that there were life jackets! Unfortunately for us, it was a cloudy, foggy, misty day and so visibility was not the best and everything was a little gray.
Our driver that we arranged from Nghi Son did not speak English, but the boat tour director/ national park caretaker was proficient in English and told us a little about the park. It definitely wasn’t a narrated tour, but he was able to point out some of the islands, birds, and animals along the way. Ben En National Park is home to many rare plant and animal species. The first stop on our tour was the Botanic Island. Our boat driver instructed us to take 30 minutes to explore the island. We learned that it was a 5k loop the circled the island- too long to do the whole thing in 30 minutes, but we tried anyway!
Our driver not only went on the tour with us, but hiked with us as well, carrying our backpack and, at one point, Landon! Needless to say, he earned his extra tip at the end of the day! He is from this area of Vietnam, and it was so nice to have a local with us as we wandered through the jungle on the island. Landon had a bag of cut apples that he was snacking on as we were walking. Our driver harvested a piece of skinny brown vine from a nearby tree, tied it in a basket shape, and Landon had an apple holder! Every so often, our driver would stop and forage in the plants on the side of the trail. He found berries, star fruit, and a spiny plant where he peeled off the spines and chewed on the inside. He gave some to Landon, who said it tasted like celery. Owen hung out in the backpack baby carrier, and the driver held Landon’s hand and led the way. I asked Landon if he wanted to take his life jacket off, but he really enjoyed wearing it so he kept it on for the whole hike. We were not sure how long Landon would last walking, but after 1.5 hours of driving, and a boat ride, he made it at least 3-4 km around the island!
Considering how covered in jungle the trail was, I was expecting to see more animals- some monkeys or small mammals or something! We did see these huge ant hills, tons of beautiful, colorful butterflies, and other bugs. There were so many unique trees and plants growing along the sides of the trail- it was our first time in an untouched jungle area!
Once we got 2/3 around the island, things got a little more difficult. We were too far to turn back, but trees had fallen over the trail in several spots. We had to climb through the fallen branches a few times, and even go around the trail in some areas. Landon was feeling tired, so he wanted me to carry him. When the driver looked back and saw me with my camera, bamboo stick, and Landon on my back, he ran back and picked Landon up. This guy was not much taller than Landon, and it was impressive to see how fast he was able to go while carrying him! We picked up the pace, and it seemed like the trail went on forever! We knew the trail went in a circle, but we just felt like we were never going to make it back to the boat launch area. It started to heat up, and by the end of the hike, we were all sweating buckets.
When we arrived back at the boat launch, our boat was missing! We had a short picnic lunch at the pavilion there and waited for the boat. Landon was a little nervous that the boat would not come back, but eventually, we heard that boat motor! He took us further in the lake by boat, pointing out several different species of birds along the way. From the water, all of the islands look completely covered in jungle- it makes me wonder what else lives on other islands! Owen loved feeling the wind in his face on the boat ride, but soon became restless with sitting in our laps. He walked back and forth in the middle of the boat, visiting the tour guide, our driver, and then going back up to the front.
This was the perfect adventure for Landon! He loved the boat ride, feeling the wind in his hair and guessing what animals were living on the islands. He was super excited when we spied these animals on an island. As we approached, we could see they were water buffalo grazing near the water’s edge. The boat driver steered us in for a closer look. We saw baby buffalo and managed to snap a few good pictures.
As we cruised along the lake, the mountain backdrop changed. The fog lifted a little and we could see the mountains in the background. The lake is almost completely surrounded by mountains, making it fairly isolated and untouched by the outside world. We loved our boat tour, and it was the perfect amount of time with our young children. By the last few minutes, our baby was a little fussy to still be stuck on a boat, but when we landed, he was happy again.
Once we were back on dry land, Landon wanted to go through the natural history room again. It is basically a room full of taxidermied and preserved specimens from the national park. None of it was well-done, but it was entertaining for us! The tiger was especially frightening with the fake mouth, teeth and eyes. It was interesting to see all of the animals we could have seen during our time in the park. I’m sure they hide from the noise of the boat, and the racket we made while hiking through the forest. Outside the room, posters showed all of the unique species of plants and animals that live in the park. During this time, Austin was watching Owen out front. There were a few Vietnamese ladies that thought Owen was really cute. Like, cute enough that they wanted Austin to go with them for the night so they could all have cute white babies like Owen! The boat tour director was translating for him and kind of chuckled when he translated what the ladies were saying. There’s a first time for everything! Austin just politely said that he was very happily married and not interested.
Ben En National Park is a really cool place to explore the wild, jungle side of Vietnam. The boat tour was worth the ticket price, but was not a neatly packaged tourist experience. I’m not sure if things are different if booked through a company that departs from Hanoi, but our tour was customized to our needs, but without a lot of extra facts or information given during the tour. We seemed to be the only ones on the lake, and so it was very peaceful and quiet. There are other tour options, including options with caves, but we could not do it because the water level in the cave was too high for kids. This area is not stroller friendly, so be sure to bring a baby carrier/backpack and dress in long sleeves or bring mosquito repellent! This was one of the neatest experiences we’ve had traveling, but it’s so far out of the way for the typical traveler that would probably recommend this place only for those that can hire a driver or have their own way to get here. Getting here with public transportation would prove almost impossible! Opt for an easier and even more scenic locale, like Halong Bay, where there are tons of tours that leave from Hanoi daily.