January 18 – 21
We made it back to Hanoi from Ha Long Bay in time to clean up, grab dinner, sleep, and get up and head to the airport for our 7:30am flight to Dong Hoi. (We had booked a flight with a more reasonable departure time, but got a notification the evening before that the airline had cancelled our flight and that we were now on the earliest option. Fun times!) The upside of the early flight was that we were at our accommodations near Phong Nha (“fung nYAh”) before 10am and had the rest of the afternoon to explore and recover.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is about 300km due-south as the crow flies from Hanoi, in the highlands right on the border with Laos. The park has the oldest karst mountains in Asia, and is riddled with incredible cave systems including the largest cave in the world, Hang Son Doong (which we didn’t visit because access is extremely restricted and the mandatory tour costs around US $3,000…).
There isn’t much in the area other than a small town that caters to tourists with an ATM and some cafes and hostels, and a number of even smaller villages in the surrounding valley. We had booked a room at the Phong Nha Farmstay a short motorbike ride from the national park (thanks to Adam for the recommendation!). We got our first taste of warmer (and more humid) weather, but the days were still quite overcast. Even though it wasn’t a bustling city, we were right in the middle of lush rice paddies and it was nice to get a bit more of a rural experience.
Our first afternoon we borrowed bikes from the Farmstay and tried to go for a ride along the river, but unfortunately since we were late in the afternoon all the good bikes were gone and the ones that we ended up with had terrible seats; we didn’t make it very far… That evening we had beers on the patio, watching the reflection of the sunset in the flooded rice paddies, listening to the chirping of crickets and frogs, the bats swooping around us and gobbling up pesky mosquitoes.
The main draw of the area is definitely the national park, so for our first full day we got a ride into town and rented a motorbike for less than $10 for the day, including helmets and petrol. (We rode together on one, as Martin has much more experience driving two-wheeled motorized vehicles than I do!) We spent the day completing a big loop around and through the national park, stopping at a few points of interest along the way. It was hard to get good photos off the back of the motorbike, so you’ll just have to believe me when I say that the scenery on our ride was amazing! It was so lush and green and jungle-y, with some turns opening up onto wide vistas where you can see the blanket of green vines that drapes over the karst peaks.
We stopped at the Botanical Garden and did a quick walking loop through it that involved some jungle hiking and climbing up a waterfall. After the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and the crowded tours on Ha Long Bay, it was really nice to do the slightly longer walk through the garden and have the trail almost completely to ourselves. The garden is less of a botanical garden in the sense that we would normally think of one, and is really just a large area of jungle forest that has been cordoned off from the rest of the national park, and where employees are propagating indigenous plants as well as protecting and rehabilitating indigenous animals. We saw some monkeys in the rehab area, and a cage containing a huge python with it’s meal (a live duck who seemed oblivious to it’s roommate). While we were walking around we heard rustling in the tree above us and looked up to see a black giant squirrel (actual name of the animal, looks kind of like a lemur) above us! So that was pretty cool, and we walked the rest of the way with our heads looking skyward, hoping to spot some other wildlife.
The other major attraction we visited on our self-guided motorbike tour was Paradise Cave. To get from the parking lot to the entrance of the cave, you have to walk (or take the tiny electric train thing) about a kilometer on flat ground and then you walk up a paved but steep set of switchbacks through the jungle for about 30 minutes. And then you get to the top of the hill where the cave entrance is and you walk back down a bunch of stairs into the cave.
The cave system is about 21km long, with the first kilometer or so easily accessible with a boardwalk and lighting. The cave is huge and completely spectacular! I have never before seen so many incredible stalactites and stalagmites and you never once have to duck your head or squeeze to get into the next cavern as the ceiling is so tall and everything is massive and wide open.
We saw some amazing little tufa dams that had created still pools of water in which the taller formations were perfectly reflected so that they seemed to go on forever. We even had a cavern or two all to ourselves, however briefly, since the other tourists thinned out as we got further into the cave. It was heartening to see that more care is taken at Paradise Cave to keep people from touching or trampling the formations; the cave was in almost pristine shape but there were still spots that were darkened from many visitors’ hands.
The region around Phong Nha is one of the poorest in the country, as well as one of the most heavily shelled during the war. (Side note: In Vietnam, rightfully so, the Vietnam War is referred to as the “American War”; it makes sense but it takes a second to register sometimes!) Most of the national park is littered with unexploded ordinances so you have to stick to the trails and roads (I’m not big on bushwhacking through the jungle, so there wasn’t much appeal to going off of the trails anyway). Apparently the cave systems where used during the war as shelter for the inhabitants of the area, although we also heard that the caves were only recently “discovered” within the last few decades. Either way, the caves we saw are in remarkable condition and we enjoyed wandering through them.
Our next day we borrowed bikes (ones with good seats, this time!) and rode into the nearby Bong Lai valley to see the countryside and the agricultural fields. Our low-key day of bike riding quickly turned into pseudo-mountain biking with the cruisers as the dirt roads were quite rutted; I absolutely resorted to walking my bike a couple times. But the scenery was stunning! We rode through little villages: the houses set back from the road, banana plants serving as hedgerows, colorful laundry waving in the wind, children calling “Hello!!” to us from their porch or running after us. Cows wandered the streets, sometimes on their own, commuting alongside everyone else. We rode past a wedding in the morning, bright green and neon pink curtains draped from the tent and waving in the wind; the best part was watching people heading to the wedding on their motorbikes in their dresses and heels. It was already over and being cleaned up when we passed by again in the afternoon, the ground covered with beer cans under every table.
The rice paddies were in various stages of growth when we were there: some just flooded with water, some with little shoots starting to come up, and some quite long and lush already. We saw people working in the fields alongside water buffalo, the people with non la (traditional conical hats) on their heads and the buffalo with egrets on their backs. We passed other people on the roads carrying farm equipment on their motorbikes or bicycles; we even saw a motorbike loaded up with two whole pigs on the back, probably bringing it to barbecue for the wedding.
We stopped at the Wild Board Eco Farm for some lunch and a view. We had been told to follow the signs to “The Pub with Cold Beer” (another option for lunch, where we could have killed our own chicken to be barbecued for us…) but it turns out there are at least four other places with that exact same moniker and signage, so we maybe didn’t take the most direct route. The Wild Boar Eco Farm is perched right on the edge (literally!) of a ravine above a river and the views out over the valley were amazing. We enjoyed a lunch of noodles and some delicious lemongrass grilled pork, as well as a little chat with some guys from Cork, Ireland, while we watched some locals floating supplies down the river.
The next stop on our bike tour of Bong Lai Valley was the Duck Stop. In order to bring in a little more money, a local agricultural family turned part of their farm into this little tourist farm “experience” and a small restaurant. Visitors can pay a flat rate (I think it was about 130,000 Vietnamese dong, less than $6) for the experience which includes a simple lunch of homemade local fare, a ride on the water buffalo (whose name is Donald Trump because he weighs 400kg; he was retired from farm work to a life of leisure, giving tourists rides and swimming in the river), feeding the large flock of ducks (they hilariously follow you around when you have food, like a magnet guiding iron flecks through water), and inner-tubing or swimming with Donald when the weather is warm. It seems quaint and silly, but everyone in the area knows the Duck Stop and it is totally a thing.
We weren’t quite up for the whole shebang, but we sat for a while under the awning, had a soda and watched the ducks. On the farm they grow rice, black pepper, peanuts, bananas and other kinds of fruits, onions and garlic, and a bunch of other stuff I don’t remember right now! When we got to the Duck Stop, a little boy came up to our table and plopped down some freshly-roasted, still-warm peanuts and condiments in front of us and showed us how to eat them: crack open the shell (he showed us the correct way to do this, too) and put the peanuts in your palm, sprinkle a pinch of homemade chili-onion-lime salt over the peanuts, add one whole dried black peppercorn, and throw the whole thing in your mouth! It was so good!! Honestly, the peanuts we’ve had in Vietnam are hands down the best peanuts I’ve ever had; you would think that all peanuts taste the same, but these ones are somehow better! And the peppercorns were very mild and easy to eat, possibly because they were relatively fresh; I’m not sure it would taste as good if we were to recreate this simple snack at home.
Our last day in Phong Nha we decided to check out one more cave before we had to hop on the bus to Hue in the afternoon. To get to Phong Nha Cave, you have to go by boat on the Son river from town to the mouth of the cave. Once you get to the cave, they cut the engine on the boat and you glide into the cave on the river, someone (usually a tiny older Vietnamese woman, surprisingly strong for her diminutive stature!) rowing the boat along like a Venetian gondolier.
It was pretty incredible to be on the water in this huge cave; they even rolled back the roof of the boat so that we could stare up at the ceiling as we meandered through. You float about 1500m into the cave system before turning around and then disembarking to explore a bit on foot. The formations in the cave were not any more impressive than those in Paradise Cave, except for their sheer size and the breadth of the cavern. The trip was also enjoyable because we were sharing the boat with two women from Australia who were both living and working with volunteer programs in Vietnam; it was fun chatting with other English speakers, swapping experiences and tips from being visitors in Vietnam.
Phong Nha was definitely one of our biggest highlights from Vietnam, so much so that we’ve been recommending it to everyone we’ve met on our trip. The hospitality at the Farmstay was awesome (as was the two-for-one happy hour special on gin and tonics), the scenery and natural history of the area were incredible, and it was nice to see a little bit of rural Vietnamese life. Maybe when we are grownups and have jobs again we will return to do the Hang Son Doong trek! (Maybe….)
Check out more photos from Phong Nha here. And next up: Hue! (Looks like “Hugh” but sounds like “hway.”)