Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park lies in the Quang Binh province of north-central Vietnam and is rich with natural wonders, most of which have only recently been discovered. So recently, in fact, that it wasn’t until 2003 that the Park was listed as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.
And for what, you may ask? For the caves… And when we say ‘caves’, we mean ‘CAVES’.
The Biggest Cave in the World
Phong Nha Ke Bang is home to the most majestic cave systems in the world – some over four million years old – that have been formed due to the purity of the limestone here, and the multitude of rivers flowing throughout its karst mountains. Over 170 new caves have been discovered by British born Debs and Howard Limbert since 1990 alone – and with a whopping 70% of this region still yet to be explored, there are no signs to indicate that this rate is slowing down.
In 2010, Debs and Howard fully completed the exploration of what is now officially the largest cave passage on the planet, easily surpassing the former record holder: Deer Cave in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. The six-day trek through Hang Son Doong is by all accounts majestic.
During one stretch of the cave, I’m told, sunbeams stream through the huge gaping daylight window at a height of almost 250 metres. This is the reason for all the vegetation; for the jungle in the cave that takes almost an hour to walk through. It’s almost spellbinding to think that Son Doong only opened up for tourism in 2013!
But, since the 2011 edition of the Lonely Planet plonked Phong Nha Ke Bang World Heritage National Park out of nowhere as the third “most essential experience” to be had throughout the whole of Vietnam (with number four being ‘food’!), travellers have now begun arriving here in droves.
So much so, in fact, that to say that Phong Nha is on the cusp of a tourist boom seems almost like more of a joke than an understatement. Hang Son Doong may well be Vietnam’s Everest – but just like Nepal’s own prize, this sits at the top of a multitude of other attractions in Phong Nha that we’re only just beginning to hear about.
Karen Farini tells her story…
Phong Nha Farmstay
The twinkling lights outside the solid-looking Phong Nha Farmstay beckoned me inside to a warm and welcoming hangout area with a log fire in the corner, a bar just opposite; tables and chairs, and a comfy-looking sofa bed. What’s more, the entire room was occupied by travellers of all ages.
There were families. Young backpackers. Couples. The place was buzzing. A far cry, the Aussie-born owner Ben told me, to how it had been just three years previously when he and his Vietnamese wife, Bich decided to build ten rooms, a bar and a restaurant on Bich’s family’s land.
“It was October 2010”, Ben remembers, laughing. “Flooding season! The water was almost up to (what is now) the roof; Bich had just had our baby – and all of this was just mud! But I was determined to build a place for people to come to. I desperately wanted people to discover Phong Nha.”
“I’d first arrived here in 2007 to meet Bich’s parents. We had no plan at the time. My work was in construction – which regularly took us both all over the world – and I had just finished a job.
We ended up staying six months. Back then there was no internet. No Westerners.
The Ho Chi Minh Highway (which has really opened up these northern central provinces, running all the way from Hanoi to Quang Tri) had only been built the year before; life was really underdeveloped here.
Men wore army clothes; the women wore pyjamas. The only cave that was open was Phong Na Cave – but the rest of the area was incredible.
I remember riding through what is now known as the Phong Nha National Park and thinking, Where is everyone? Why is no-one else here?
The opening date for Phong Nha Farmstay was set for 1st December 2010, but because of the flooding and the lack of general infrastructure, this wasn’t turning out too easy. Neither was the fact that no-one else seemed particularly concerned.
Now cosily ensconced in this hearty environment, I’m finding it hard to believe that at this stage of the game, Ben was virtually the only one with real faith in the project.
At one point, Bich’s cousin, who was one of the co-constructors of the Farmstay, said, Well, what does it matter whether we open this December or next? Who’s going to come? Why would anyone want to visit Phong Nha?”
The Pearls of Phong Nha…
They say that some things in life have a ripple effect. There are now a number of homestays and guesthouses here in Phong Nha province – and this is undoubtedly set to rise (and quickly) over the coming years.
But if Ben and Bich had started something with the Farmstay, then quite by chance, and around the same time, something else was being kicked off by Debs and Howard from Yorkshire. Keen members of the British Caving Association, the couple – who, despite their clear expertise, still describe caving as a ‘hobby’ – had been doing exploration work abroad since the 1970s. In 1982, they were involved in a big caving expedition to Mexico that included 20 people (and was filmed by Channel 4), which had preceded
Keen members of the British Caving Association, the couple – who, despite their clear expertise, still describe caving as a ‘hobby’ – had been doing exploration work abroad since the 1970s. In 1982, they were involved in a big caving expedition to Mexico that included 20 people (and was filmed by Channel 4), which had preceded their leading some expeditions of their own – firstly back to Mexico, then all around the world: South America, New Zealand and Borneo.
Then in 1989, Howard wrote to the Universities of Laos, Burma and Vietnam to ask if they could bring a British team to explore. The only one to respond, they tell me, was the Department of Science at the University of Hanoi, Vietnam.
Upon arriving in Hanoi the following year, the Department took them exploring. All in all, they covered over 320km of completely virgin unexplored passage from the northern provinces down here to the north-central province of Quang Binh.
Quang Binh seemed hugely promising. “The people working in the Science Department of Hanoi University had actually been born in a small village in Botrach (in this province) and they knew of Phong Nha Cave. The University had all the maps: Phong Nha Cave was the only one on there, as well as the Dark Cave; there were also many dry caves but they wouldn’t tell us about the others. It wasn’t that long after the war – a time when the Vietnamese had lived in many caves to survive – and the entrances had been bombed.”
“But as soon as we saw those maps, we knew that Phong Nha would be the major area,” Debs continues. “Now, we all know that the whole of the Son River actually comes out from all the caves, but when we first looked at the maps, the information that was written on them just said ‘disappearing river’. And that, for a caver, is really exciting!”
Also exciting, I think, must have been the fact that this intrepid duo were the very first cavers to come exploring here at all.
To give you an insight into just how much of a backwater province Phong Nha (and indeed, the whole of Quang Binh) was back in 1990, it took them a whole four whole days to travel down here from Hanoi in an old yellow bus.
They stayed in an old concrete building for eight days which they used as a base to do their first investigations. What’s more, Ben mentions to me when I’m talking to him later, they even had to bring all their own food.
Why? Because just over twenty years ago, Phong Nha village was suffering a famine. Bich was a little girl then and remembers the time well. They would have had to have brought their own food, she tells me simply, because we wouldn’t have had enough to even sell them.
It may have taken Debs and Howard up till 2009 to locate the big one – Hang Son Doong – but when Ben and Bich opened up the Farmstay in 2010, this hadn’t really gone public. Nonetheless, there were now a plethora of other incredible cave systems, with their clear turquoise rivers (and some even abundant with cave pearls) to explore in and around Phong Nha – not to mention the amazing jungles surrounding this almost unheard-of province.
All that had been enough to warrant building a Farmstay in the first place, Ben tells me – and once they did get those initial ten rooms, bar and restaurant open in December 2010, he decided that this, too, was enough to warrant ‘conning a guy from the Lonely Planet down to see us’. Apparently, an acquaintance of his who ran a bar in Hanoi called him up one day and said ‘we’ve got a guy from Lonely Planet sitting in here!’ Ben’s reply was instant: Well, put him on the phone!
All that had been enough to warrant building a Farmstay in the first place, Ben tells me – and once they did get those initial ten rooms, bar and restaurant open in December 2010, he decided that this, too, was enough to warrant ‘conning a guy from the Lonely Planet down to see us’.
Apparently, an acquaintance of his who ran a bar in Hanoi called him up one day and said ‘we’ve got a guy from Lonely Planet sitting in here!’ Ben’s reply was instant: Well, put him on the phone!
“At first, he (Iain Stewart) was pretty blunt about it”, Ben laughs. “Kept saying, ‘no, not coming, I’ve been to Phong Nha – there’s nothing there! Just that one cave…’”
But finally, he talked him into it. And by Ben’s own admission, the Farmstay back then was still a real shack. He remembers pointing out towards the back of the house, where there was nothing but mud.
“And here,” he told Iain, “is where we’re gonna put a swimming pool.” Iain’s face had apparently been priceless. Just three months later, Ben emailed him a picture of himself dive-bombing into their swimming pool. He’d proven himself as a man of his word. And now, the Farmstay is famous.
The Farmstay National Park Tour
The first tour I was booked on was called, quite simply, The Farmstay National Park Tour, which did sound simple enough until I discovered that – along with some very interesting stopovers that included ‘8 Lady Cave’, the loop though Highway 20 and the Ho Chi Minh Trail West (roads dissecting the park that were built during the ‘American War’ to get troops and material to the south), the stunning (and tourist-friendly) Paradise Cave – there would also be (after lunch amidst gorgeous scenery) a trip to Hang Toi, otherwise known as The Dark Cave.
I found myself stripping down to my bikini along with all my fellow backpackers on the mini-bus and voluntarily jumping into a kayak with my new-found travel buddies.
From the entrance of Hang Toi we swam in our life-jackets right into the dark caves’ recesses and the only thing that lit the way were the torches on our helmets.
This is a trip that is absolutely, totally, and utterly worth it – and that’s without even mentioning the hot soup and rum that awaits you once you’re out of the Dark Cave and have kayaked safely back onto the land. Highly recommended!
The Tu Lan Cave System
I met up with Deb on a one-day trip with her to the Tu Lan Cave system, which had only been explored (by her and Howard) just two years previously.
According to Debs, the total length of the system is about 11 km of new cave and there’s still more to be found – hence the six-week expedition they’ve got planned for March and April this year. The trip involved a jungle trek to the entrance of the cave, and a lot of swimming inside the systems. Each swim only lasted around 10-15 minutes, and despite the water being cold, I was neither fearful nor… well, all that cold, really.
As we made our way over waterfalls and headed towards the gleaming light from the mouths of the exits (promising forests and jungles, and – at one stage, lunch!), I kept gazing in wonderment around me; transfixed by my surroundings, and the bats that flew close to us, attracted by our head torches.
I can only imagine how amazing this trip would be during the summer… apparently, it really is one of the best things you can do in the whole of the country – and considering that it’s one of my favourite memories from my own winter trip to Vietnam, I’m pretty sure this has to be true.
The Best Time to Visit Phong Nha?
The best time to visit? March and April! This trip can also be extended up to four days, with nights spent camping in the jungle!
Easy Tiger Phong Nha Hostel
That night was the first of two I would spend at the Easy Tiger Hostel in the centre of Phong Nha village. After such solid activity the day before at the Park, the sheer bliss of the Farmstay had been just what I’d needed. Likewise, after battling my way through the Tu Lan Caves with my (fair-to-middling) doggy-paddle skills, I was up for a rest, and not overly enthused by the notion of a hostel.
That is to say… until I actually got there. Because let me tell you – this place is ridiculous. (In a good way.) All I’d been told before arriving was that, off the success of their Farmstay (and in order to enable more backpackers to visit), Ben and Bich had recently opened a new hostel in the village with the same, homely common area (and all-important bar and restaurant), a swimming pool, and 52 dorm beds.
Easy Tiger was renovated from an old hotel, which is why there are so many ‘dorms’ (and a bathroom in each). Best of all, though, is the view from the communal balcony on every storey. Just turn your head right and take a deep breath inward. Yep, that’s one great big giant limestone cliff, alright!
So, How to Conclude?
Phong Nha Ke Bang is quite possibly one of the last remaining places in the world that has yet to be discovered by ‘off-the-track’ backpacker, let alone mainstream tourism.(Editor’s note: Please remember, this guide was written back in 2013!)
To all of us explorers, this is new, unchartered territory; a place of arguably unrivalled beauty, set amidst a community that’s suddenly thriving, and finally working together in harmony. Bich tells me that this is pretty rare for the Vietnamese in villages; before things started to take off here, the norm was to just take care of your family.
Not anymore. At The Pub With Cold Beer (a great day trip where you can tube down the river, enjoy a freshly-grown, home-cooked feast, and of course, drink cold beer!), the owner buys her chickens from virtually every family in the village.
Tourism, then – instead of being a potential threat to the area – is currently Phong Nha’s lifeline. There are many strict policies in place to both protect and expand the National Park.
One of Debs and Howard’s main goals is to get the locals doing their tour guide jobs. They currently hold English lessons at their new home at the top end of the village – next door to Ben’s mum’s, incidentally (and quite possibly next to my own one day), and tell me that this is very important – not least because they want to spend more of their own time continuing exploring that 80% of the province that still remains a mystery.
“The locals who helped us find those many cave entrances have now lost their livelihood. Not so long ago, they used to go into the forest collecting wood and hunting animals, which is now, of course, illegal since it’s now a National Park World Heritage Site.
It’s great news for the ecology of the area, but not so great for those who relied on it for sustenance. So we have to take responsibility for that.”
This solidarity extends to the expats, too. Close to the end of my stay, I take a bicycle ride along the river with Malty, the Kiwi-born owner of the Pepper Farm Homestay (whom I’d met him on the off-chance having lunch at Easy Tiger).
To say he’s eccentric is an understatement tantamount to one saying Phong Nha’s quite pretty – and this is another one of the reasons that gives the place such charm: The characters you meet that wound up here in the first place; the very first arrivals… and way before the ‘boom’.
So then… need I say? I think I’m in love! If you want a truly authentic, exciting, and really rather marvellous series of outdoor Odysseys in the middle of bloody nowhere yet surrounded by the warmth and comfort created by the Easy Tiger and original Phong Nha Farmstay ‘massive’… then a trip to this province is an absolute must.
Convinced you want to go? Great! Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of caves on offer? Let us help you…
The park derives its name from Phong Nha Cave, containing many fascinating rock formations, and Kẻ Bàng forest. The plateau on which the park is situated is probably one of the finest and most distinctive examples of a complex karst landform in South East Asia – although as of yet, it isn’t very ‘open’.
The area is close to the Laos Border, the military has a presence within the park, and the park has one of the highest concentrations of unexploded ordinance (bombs) in the world. Currently, you are not allowed to hike or trek through the park without a licensed tour operator, and most of the hiking is found as part of caving expeditions, such as to Hang En.
There are two roads that travel through the park, the Ho Chi Minh West Highway, and Highway 20 (otherwise known as ‘Victory Road’), and these create a loop which can be travelled by scooter or on a tour.
Hang Son Doong (The Biggest Cave in the World)
The world’s biggest cave discovered as recently as 2009 and made a UNESCO World Heritage site.
A cave so big that a whole Manhattan city block (skyscrapers and all!) could fit inside of it. The six-day trek of Son Doong opened up in 2013, is reported to be the best place on the planet [an unconfirmed quote from a journalist from National Geographic Magazine], and numbers are restricted to just 84 tourists annually, and for the price of $3,000/person! (There’s currently a two-year waiting list!)
To get a taste watch this great online documentary…