It is so hard in this day and age to visit places unbeknown to the masses, to walk on paths not yet discovered and to experience a destination without feeling like you already know all there is to know thanks to blog posts (the irony!), social media and TV. Yet, although Phong Nha is by no means unknown (we did after all find out we needed to come here!), it did give us a sense of properly stepping off the well-trodden path into a world of beauty and peace, of traditions yet unmarred by tourists, in to the real Vietnam.
Having arrived in the dark of night I wasn’t able to appreciate the fact I’d landed in paradise until I opened the balcony door in the morning to the most stunning view; expansive rice paddies bathing in bright sunshine with a backdrop of towering karst mountains topped by fog. The morning was alive with the chatter of birds, cockerels and the clip clop of water buffalos as they made their way to the fields for a days harvest. Despite only being 6:30 am, life was in full swing; locals working away in the fields wearing their traditional bamboo hats, mopeds racing up and down the lane, heavily loaded bicycles carrying the days cargo. I was definitely in heaven (Doug’s hell!!).
Phong Nha Farmstay
We opted to stay outside the main Phong Nha village in a large colonial French house that has since been converted into a hotel. However, it is much more than a hotel both in feel and ethos. A home away from home (only nicer than home!), a community that supports all the local farms and which brings extra income to the locals who have opened their doors to offer a more authentic experience to tourists. An oasis of happiness created by their want to do good in the world, not just for the locals, but for their guests, for their friends, for their workers and for the environment. I truly felt at home here. Do consider Phong Nha Farmstay if you visit the area.
Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
The reason for our trip here was to visit the UNESCO World Heritage National Park, awarded this status because it represents one of the finest and most distinctive examples of complex karst land forms in Southeast Asia. Riddled with hundreds of cave systems of extraordinary scale and length, whilst boasting over 1,000 square kilometres of pristine untouched jungle over ground, it is an adventurer’s playground.
Because of the US-Vietnam War and the large scale bombing, the caves in this area have only recently been discovered with many still to be found. This area is believed to have one of the largest amounts of unexploded ordnance in Vietnam and as such heading off piste is strictly forbidden. This does however mean that more wonders await to be discovered under the jungle canopy of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. In fact, Hang Soon Doong, now recognised as the biggest cave in the world, was only discovered in 2014 and only recently opened to tourists with deep enough pockets to afford $3,000 for the privilege. Other caves include Hang En, the entrance to Neverland in Peter Pan, and Paradise Cave which is the one I’ll be telling you all about.
Aside from wanting to get off the beaten track and see a different side of Vietnam, the main reason for coming to Phong Nha Ke Bang was was to go caving. This is something I was particularly excited about and something Doug really did not want to do. Marriage is about compromise though, right? We went caving!
We chose Paradise cave as it did not involve any tight spaces and was suitable for most fitness levels. The longest cave in South East Asia, Paradise Cave expands all the way over the Laos boarder and is over 31 km long. The first kilometre is open to the public, with its beautiful formations lit up and board walks to ease you over the uneven terrain. Once the boardwalk ended however, it was time for the intrepid travellers amongst us to step on the cave floor, don our helmets, turn on our headlights and commence the adventure into darkness.
The 7 km trek through the cave was easy going, predominantly flat with just a couple of rock formations that we needed to navigate over with some light scrambling. As someone used to hiking, I found it a walk in the park, however, one of the ladies in the group did find the scrambling particularly hard, more so because of fear than technicality, but worth bearing in mind if you chose to do this tour. There was also a 20 metre long stretch of thigh high deep water that we had to traverse. The mud underground slippery, the water shockingly cold! There was the option of getting in a kayak, however, where would the fun in that be? As a matter of fact, it was so shallow that those that did opt to stay dry seemed to have more problems navigating the kayak than we did walking the stretch! Normally this stretch would be deep enough that one would have to swim it and also significantly longer than 20 metres so the kayak makes a bit more sense then!
In fact, Vietnam is yet another country to be suffering the consequence of climate change. The cave was devoid of water where normally a river would flow. In fact, the section we did is normally closed off for half the year, but the draught in 2018 meant that they were able to continue running the tour year-round. We should have been jumping over streams and walking alongside running water for most of the trip, however, aside from the 20 metre walk we didn’t see any.
We walked in the path of our head torch for a couple of hours marvelling at the shadows of the humongous formations until we finally reached an opening at kilometre 7 (although I think they have exaggerated the distance, it didn’t seem that far!). A shaft of light beamed down from an opening in the ceiling lighting up the cave like some form of divine beam pointing out a treasure. In fact, it was a treasure. A treasure of beauty and calm, of nature at its best.
At this point the porter made us a delicious lunch (having carried everything in with him) as we set about trying to capture the perfect picture. Needless to say Doug was always going to win the competition of best picture so whilst he faffed about with time lapses and different shutter speeds, I scrambled down to the cave floor for some further exploration before packing up our belongings and retracing our steps back out the cave.
The cave was another reminder of the USA/Vietnam War. The heavy bombing meant that large sections of the cave’s ceiling was completely devoid of stalactites, instead, they lay strewn on the floor, shattered, forming some form of mineral cemetery. Just one more casualty to a war of dubious necessity.
That evening, showered and rested, we left the rest of the hotel guests to their happy hour cocktails and instead opted to walk to the surrounding rice paddies to watch the locals as they went about the harvest. Cameras ready, we decided to try our newly acquired photography skills and joined the locals in their fields. We were a little apprehensive, and ready to run should their tones appear angry, but instead, we were welcomed with smiles, many of them even requesting photos of their wife or kids! As well as taking photos, we also got involved, helped them load some heavy bags of newly harvested rice on to the trailers, and stood with them watching the red sky darken. We may not have been able to communicate in words, yet we still managed to share a special experience. I wonder if over dinner they spoke about the random westerners who joined them during the harvest or whether we are simply a forgotten memory? Of course, some communication was certainly lost in translation, I’m still not sure why an old lady grabbed my boobs?!
Life in Phong Nha reminds me very much of my own childhood. Joaquin would cut large fields of grass with a scythe whilst my Mum and I would load it on to the back of a horse drawn carriage before I’d clamber on top for the ride home. A basic life, but a happy one. One farmer lead their cows from their scooters in the same way we would lead the horses whilst sitting on the back of the open boot of the car; another farmer herded his ducks through the newly harvested crops in the same way Joaquin would herd his sheep up the mountain; a water buffalo attacked Doug in the same way…. actually, I have no comparison for that one!
Exploring on two wheels
We wanted to see a bit more of the National Park so we decided to borrow a couple of scooters. I have to admit I was a little nervous having only ridden a moped once in my life (when we did our CBT) but what could go wrong? We had helmets that didn’t fit, no mirrors, no horn and questionable brakes! In Vietnam you drive with your horn so it’s quite a crucial bit of kit to not have. Whenever you approach anyone; pedestrian, car, bus, bike or bend you beep to let them know you are there. Most bikes don’t have mirrors, and nobody looks before turning because in theory everyone gives way to you. As an example, if you want to join a major road you just turn, don’t bother looking, just beep and whoever is on that road just needs to swerve to avoid you. No horn was a serious problem!
Our aim for the day was to get lost, live in the now and go where the bike took us. We set off along the narrow quieter lanes that weaved through the rice paddies and small little settlements, the perfect opportunity to gain our confidence. We learnt that the countryside is no different to the city. If you need more space, make it, just like those that lived on the train tracks. Because it was harvest season the roads were covered in either grass or rice, both laid out to dry. Definitely gave us some swerving practice!
Gaining in confidence we decided to do the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park loop, a 50 km circular route through the jungle. Windy roads, some steep uphills and downhills and the most stunning scenery: towering karst mountains topped with rainforest, vast valleys and rich greens. The area is absolutely breathtaking and the ride exhilarating. Unfortunately, no photo we took was able to capture the sheer vastness or beauty of the area. Aside from that we were too busy enjoying the ride to take that any photos, instead, the images will need to remain ingrained in our memory! If only we’d had time to ride round once more just to make sure it was etched there for life!
Realising we were getting rather sunburnt we tried to take refuge by visiting Phong Nha Cave, however, to get there we needed to take a boat, and to take a boat you needed to find 10 other passengers to share the boat with (or pay an exorbitant fee). We did find some other tourists however they didn’t want to share a boat with us (maybe my bum sweat patches gave them the wrong impression!!) so we went in search of shade and adventure elsewhere.
The Pub with Cold Beer
When we had arrived at our hotel two days before the receptionist had told us the story about the “Pub with Cold Beer” (Yes, that is the name of the pub! Can you guess what it is known for?) so we decided to jump back on our bikes and go in search of it.
The story goes that the owner of our hotel went out exploring the area to find what there was. Fridges weren’t a thing so cold beer just did not exist in the area. However, he made a point of always asking. When he stopped off to see what this pub was like he cheekily asked for a cold beer and to his surprise that is what they served him! An icy cold beer! So the name stuck and the pub with no name named itself the very original “Pub with cold beer”. In addition to being famous for it’s cold beer and freshly prepared chicken, it also happens to be by a river which in light of the heat sounded like the perfect antidote to the extremely hot day; so we set off with the hand drawn map in search for this pub.
We found what we thought was the right lane and started winding our way up the hill. The road, slowly changing from tarmac to cement, to dirt, to eventually off road rocky terrain. Sign posts for the bar started to appear and eventually we saw it: The Pub with Cold Beer!
Somehow, I was expecting a little more, this seemed to be someone’s back yard, a couple of hammocks, two tables and a makeshift bar. Oh well, we wanted rural we had rural! And they didn’t lie about cold beer!! It certainly was icy! However, something didn’t sit quite right. I couldn’t quite work out where the tubing was as I couldn’t see the river, and the menu didn’t make any reference to peanut sauce (which they are famous for!). Somehow, we didn’t fancy trying our luck with food here, my dodgy tummy from street food in Hanoi not yet 100% recovered. The owner did join us with some home-grown bananas though (which by the way are much sweeter and softer than UK bananas despite being eaten whilst still green). She even insisted we left with the entire bunch (10 bananas!). 10/10 for hospitality!
We’d been recommended another place, an Eco Farm, known for its amazing wild boar, so we decided to try that instead. At this point I started to realise something wasn’t right. To get to the farm we only needed to go straight, however, according to the signposts we had to cross the river (which was now in sight and on the wrong side of where it should have been according to our hand drawn map). I was confused…
We continued regardless, over the rickety bridge, up increasingly steeper rocky dusty lanes until we reached the Eco Farm with the swing. A quick jump on the swing and a walk over some planks saw us sitting in a tree house looking at the menu and trying to figure out why there was no wild boar on there (it was after all famous for its wild boar!). Again, I was confused… it didn’t quite seem to match the description we had been provided! We put it down to the language barrier and settled down to another cold drink overlooking the river and enjoying the sight of a farmer herding his ducks along the riverbank whilst the water buffalos cooled themselves in the mud.
As we were about to leave I decided to check our location on the phone, and it was at this point I realised we were not at the eco farm at all and we had not been at the Pub with Cold Beer, instead we had been at two establishments impersonating these real establishments!!
Hard to be annoyed we set off in search of the “real” eco farm which was a couple of
miles further up the rocky lane. When we finally arrived, we were rewarded with some fantastic views and “the” true swing. Huge and perched over the precipice it was absolutely terrifying! Getting on it was enough of an ordeal! You stand on the edge of a platform which gives way to a sheer cliff. The swing is pulled back behind you whilst they attach a seat belt to you. The problem however is that whilst you are stood there looking down at the humongous drop, still unattached, you can feel the swing tight against your back pushing you forward as your feet slowly slide closer and closer to the edge! I won’t lie, I was scared! However, once on and in the air it was AMAZING!! What a feeling to soar above the canopy of trees, all troubles a distant memory.
We took a different route back to the hotel, slowly navigating the rutted, stony slippery “roads”. On route we passed the “real” Cold Beer Pub which looked like I imagined it! Bigger, with a view of the river, hammocks lining the sides and an inviting feeling. What I hadn’t realised is that in order to enjoy their amazing chicken you do need to catch it and kill it first! The true rural KFC experience! I’m not sure I would have enjoyed that!
I truly fell in love with Phong Nha, the slow pace of life, big friendly smiles and the sense of inner peace you get from such uncomplicated surroundings. I would have happily stayed there for the rest of our trip. In fact, I would happily have uprooted and settled there. If you are going to Vietnam make sure you don’t miss this gem, it truly is an amazing place that will steal your heart forever.