Before the summer heat becomes insufferable spring is the best time to dig out your hiking boots and get into an explorer’s mode. And one of Central Vietnam’s most captivating World Heritage Area’s – Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park – remains the ideal location. Peacefully detached from the mainstream tourist trail, its impressionable limestone karsts and cavernous caves have earned it a fast-developing reputation as one of Asia’s most spectacular tourism destinations. Not to mention it harbours the world’s biggest cave, Son Doong.
Welcome to Quang Binh Province – an easy stopover from Hue or Hoi An to Hanoi. With its wealth of natural wonders, it is an adventurer’s dream and a photographer’s delight. Trekking, caving, kayaking, swimming and a rich cultural history come together at this unique destination in Central Vietnam. And you can step back in time whilst exploring at the Phong Nha Farmstay – beautiful colonial-style accommodation set in a local village among the rice fields. The farmstay is perfectly located on the edge of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park.
Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is situated on the narrowest part of Vietnam’s map. It is one of the four major UNESCO World Heritage Areas in Vietnam along with Hoi An, My Son and Ha Long Bay. The best time of year to see the Phong Nha area is in the spring which in Central Vietnam is March, April and May. The jungle comes to life in vivid colour. It is also butterfly season. You’ll witness clouds of them in a myriad of colours around every bend in the road. You can actually hide from the camera in a big flock of butterflies at this time of year.
The Phong Nha area was declared a national park in 1996 and in 2001 UNESCO gave it World Heritage Status because of the karst topography. It opened to tourism in 2009. It is 86,000 hectares in size and bordered by a wildlife reserve in Laos and traditional farming districts in Vietnam. The park’s location in the centre of the country means it has some species endemic to only this region as well as species from both the warm south and temperate north. Its special climate has allowed nature to thrive – it boasts the highest biodiversity of primate species in Southeast Asia in a single location. And is home to 9 of 21 primate species found in Vietnam.
Populations, however, are small. The Cologne Zoo and Frankfurt Zoological Society have funded a Langur rehabilitation Project at Camel Back Mountain, close to the entrance of the park on Highway 20, in order to prevent extinction.
Phong Nha Cave is a river cave and can be visited via boat on the Xuan Son River. It was opened to tourism in 2000 but has mainly been promoted to the domestic market. A new and exciting way to see this wonder is at night by kayak. You can absorb the splendour of the cave without having to share it with the daytime crowds. Keep your eye out for the Cham writing and alters in the far end of the cave.
The Paradise Cave (Thien Duong) opened to tourism before Christmas in 2010 and was only first discovered in 2005. It has to be one of the most awe-inspiring sites in Asia. Son Doong, the world’s largest cave was discovered by a local bushman named Mr Khanh in 2009. The British Caving Association and the National Geographic channel and magazine reviewed it in late 2010. The documentary they made has created a wave of interest in the area but the government at this stage is reluctant to open the cave to tourism. Special permission to enter is granted to scientific groups who are studying the cave but the general public will have to wait.
The Phong Nha national park rivals anywhere in Vietnam as far as spectacular scenery goes and the roads through the park are an engineering feat. This is because they were built during the American War to supply troops and equipment to the south of Vietnam via the DMZ and Laos. The Ho Chi Minh Trail and Highway 20 (Victory Road) run through the park dissecting each other north-south to Khe Sanh and east-west to Laos. A good local guide with Oxalis Adventure Tours can combine a day in the park with adventure, physical beauty and interesting history.
The beaches to the north of Dong Hoi City, the provincial capital, are backed by large sand dunes and are virtually deserted. Crossing the dunes brings you onto the coastal plain that is primarily used for farming rice. As the land tapers up to the foothills of the Anamite Mountain Range, you will see the locals farming pine trees, corn and tapioca. From this you can enter the primitive jungle and cast mountains of the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. The country is at its narrowest point in this province at only 41.4km between the Laos Border and the East Sea.
The best place to stay in this area is Phong Nha Farmstay. The Farmstay has been open just over a year and is designed in a colonial style with big verandas, high ceilings, a swimming pool and full bar and restaurant facilities. It’s operated by Miss Bich, a local women, her Australian husband Ben, and their extended family mixed with locals from the village farming community. They are located in the Village of “Cu Nam,” a modest bicycle ride from the Phong Nha Cave. With a breathtaking and timeless view across the rice paddies to the Cast Mountains of the Anamite Range, the sunset photos are unbelievable! They have 10 rooms with reverse cycle air-conditioning and ensuites. There is also homestay next door with 10 beds in a dormitory style, also with great views of the local farmland across to the mountain backdrop.
The area, although new to foreign tourism, has a range of tours and activities for all budgets and levels of fitness. Bich and Ben can help you organize kayaking on the Son Chay River, American army jeep tours, 1 day national park/cave tours (including Paradise Cave and Victory Road), motorcycle tours, bicycle rides to Phong Nha Cave or you can simply hire a bicycle and explore the local villages and farmland along the Xuan Son River. Some of the most exciting adventure tours that you can do in Vietnam this spring are a 2 or 3 day Jungle Trek to the Tu Lan Cave System in Tu Van Valley or to the incredible Swallow Cave through the Ban Doong Minority Village in the Heart of Phong Nha Ke Bang. These tours are operated by Oxalis Adventure Tours, with locally recruited and trained guides.
Phong Nha Farmstay
Updated from Sublime Scenery off the Beaten Path, Ben Mitchell, originally published in Live Ho AnBack to previous page