Katie O’Donnell explores the tiny village of Phong Nha in the rolling hills of Vietnam and gives us the inside scoop on an up-and-coming tourist destination.
Just a few miles off Vietnam’s major highway, about 500km south of Hanoi, there is the tiny village of Phong Nha. Despite our meticulous travel planning, we had not heard of it, and, needless to say, we certainly weren’t planning on going there.
However, one rainy night in Hanoi, we heard a group of travellers raving about this tiny speck on the map, about how it was so “undiscovered” and “off the beaten track” that we had to look into it. A quick Google search showed us to a website for Phong Nha Farmstay, a Vietnamese-Australian-run guesthouse in the area. They had no vacancies, but recommended us to the only other guesthouse in the village: a hostel named Easy Tiger.
Thankfully, Phong Nha was not a cultish travellers’ utopia surrounded by cannabis fields (that just wouldn’t have been our kind of thing). In fact, at first glance it was nothing special. Little more than one street, with lots of boarded up buildings and cows wandering down the middle of the road, it just looked like every other town we had passed on the way. So what was Easy Tiger, a typical hippy-inspired travellers’ hostel, doing here?
We soon discovered that, just five years ago, in 2009, a British caving expedition stumbled upon Hang Son Doong, believed to be the world’s largest cave, just outside Phong Nha. And although it’s been a bit slow to start, this amazing discovery is beginning to make Phong Nha no longer just a tiny speck on the map.
Only a very limited number of explorers are allowed access to Hang Son Doong each year. When we went it was booked for the next 6 months, but there are several other beautiful, dramatic caves to be visited around the area, either on foot or by dragon boat. We visited Phong Nha Cave, which despite being the smallest in the area, was absolutely breathtaking.
Aside from the caves, the miles of rolling hills, traditional villages, and rice paddies that surround Phong Nha are perfect for cycling round. With the help of a hand-drawn map, we found “the world’s best coffee” in a makeshift café next to the home of Mr. Ho Khanh, the local man who first discovered Hang Son Doong. I love Vietnamese coffee. It is made using a metal filter that allows the coffee to drip slowly into the sweet condensed milk waiting at the bottom of the glass. However, this coffee was on another level; they had added a little chocolate to it, so it was almost like a melted Toblerone.
Phong Nha allowed us to experience rural Vietnam, to see parts that were relatively untouched by tourism. As we cycled past local houses, children ran out to greet us with an enthusiastic “hello” (the braver ones even jumped onto the backs of our bicycles), and women washed their clothes in the river alongside bathing buffaloes. However, it won’t be like this for much longer. We travelled to Phong Nha on the new Boomerang Bus which now stops there every day, making the village far more accessible to tourists. So, go now; experience its charm and innocence while you still can!
Photo credit: Katie O’Donnell