Our local bus from Hue had been on the road for a couple of hours and by now the main road was behind us and we’d just turned onto a narrow dirt track. This was certainly the most rural part of Vietnam we’d seen to date and we began to wonder what exactly we’d gotten ourselves into.
Our destination was the Phong Nha Farmstay, a guesthouse run by an Australian Ben and his Vietnamese wife Bich. We’d gotten word of this place through word of mouth (friends of ours met them at a wedding on Australia’s central coast) so thought we may as well check it out.
The advice we’d been given, suggested the bus would take us right to the front door, and true enough it did, and all of sudden we found ourselves in this most beautiful rural setting.
We bundled ourselves out of the bus alongside another Australian couple, Meagan and Steve who hail from Melbourne, but live and work in Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain. I can only assume this was quite a climate change for them!
We’d made the call when booking to get a room on the 2nd floor, and without a doubt the few extra dollars it cost was money very well spent. The views over beautiful green rice paddies proved the perfect way to get ourselves acquainted with these new surrounds.
The biggest tourist drawcard to this still fairly remote area are the local caves. The caves within the Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park are believed to be the largest dry cave system in world, possibly stretching all the way into Laos (and the park itself is yet another of this countries UNESCO world heritage sites we’d visited).
The roads heading into the mountains (these are the same Karst mountains that run all the way from Thailand up to Vietnam’s Halong Bay and into China) cross what was the route of the original Ho Chi Minh trail. Due to the military strategic importance of the road, public traffic can not actually head south at all (this would lead straight to Khe Sanh).
To think that people ran supplies through this area on bicycle during the war is incredible. We actually visited a cave where a Viet Cong anti-aircraft crew as well as some local women had taken shelter. A bomb strike had buried all 13 alive and before any rescue crews could reach them, all had died in this remote area.
Our first cave was the Paradise Cave, apparently large enough that the Empire State Building could lay on its side within. Around 1km of boardwalk has been built within to prevent tourist damage to the cave, although caving tours as deep as 7km are apparently now available (the caves depth is known to be at least 31km) which is a full day slog with head lamps.
Ben from the farmstay then took us on another caving expedition, this one required the use of kayaks to reach (it gave us the chance to have a refreshing dip first) and also head lamps. This one our group to ourselves and to reach its full depth required us to swim through water that was in total darkness (hence the headlamps). For an average swimmer such as myself, not aided by the fact that my head lamp kept slipping off, this was a pretty hairy experience. At one time we all switched our lamps off and it was pretty damn dark indeed!
As daunting as this place was, it was certainly a real adrenaline rush, and for those a bit more safety minded, there were also life jackets (with the benefit of hindsight, I should probably have used one).
It made for a great first day in Phong Nha and with Ben pulling out an esky of beers and soft drinks and the end of our paddle and swim, it was great to be able to chill by the river bank before heading back to the farmstay.
A few games of pool, some epic Jenga, a nice food and some great beers (as well as a dip in the pool), that’s essentially how we whiled away the evening hours at the farmstay. Ben & Bich were friendly hosts, and their business helps employ locals giving them the promise of a steady income. We were able to chill with them and a few Australian expats well into the night (it was also the first and only time I’ve ever had macadamia vodka).
They received a write up in the Lonely Planets most recent Vietnam edition and since then business has gone through the roof. To allow them to cope, bookings were changed to a 2 night minimum and the consideration whilst we were there was change it to 3 nights.
Our final day was to take in in the Phong Nha Cave itself. This trip again involved a journey up river, however this one was a real tourist operation, with boats running from Son Trach village up the Son River and into the cave itself.
Throughout the trip there were boats running back and forth making this popular tourist trip, however it was the showcase of life on the riverbank that really made the trip.
Again with a backdrop of high Karst mountains, various groups of children swam near the shore (or in the middle of the river), small herd of buffalo would wade, or fisherman could be seen casting their nets.
As we approached the cave mouth, the boat engines were fittingly cut and our helmsman took to paddling so we could experience the cave in quiet (and I’d assume to save all a grizzly death choking on engine fumes).
These caves would also have been spectacular but for one thing, the cheap,tacky choice of coloured lights. Where the stalactites, stalagmites and rock formations had been tastefully lit in the Paradise Cave, here they were in gaudy coloured glory.
The cave itself had been set up like a circuit, so we’d take the boat in, be delivered to a sandy beach and walk our way back towards the entrance where we’d meet up with the boat once more. Some of the areas that weren’t lit up so badly were quite stunning, but if you had to choose, I’d take the Paradise Cave for its taste and awe inspiring grandeur hands down.
So after lunch in Son Trach, it was back to the farmstay to kill some time before we had to leave and meet the overnight bus to Hanoi. But what to do? Our host Ben came up with the answer, and before long, Sarah, myself along with Meagan and Steve (that Australian couple we’d arrived with and would also be leaving with) were piling into his jeep for a dip in the river, before a few chilled beers at a local watering hole.
Considering how random this last afternoon had been, it was a real highlight and just topped off what had been a great few days at the Phong Nha Farmstay.
Bich had arranged for us to be taken to the main highway to meet the bus, and once on board (after a couple of aborted attempts with ATM’s that wouldn’t accept our cards before finally getting some more cash for the tickets) we all tried to get ourselves as comfortable as we could before another night on the road to the capital of Hanoi.