Five Days in Phong Nha
All photos by Josh Meister Photo.
Dried out from the aftermath of the monsoon, we boarded a van to transport us four hours north to Phong Nha, a little town in the countryside that has gained some traction in the last few years through the discoveries of the many giant caves there, including the world's largest (which takes six days to trek, costs $3,000/person, and needs to be booked a year in advance – so, no, we didn't get to visit that one).
On the way, we stopped to explore the Vinh Moc Tunnels from the Vietnam War. We watched a 30-minute documentary about the area during the war, the building of the tunnels, and life in them, which was horribly produced but still incredibly informative and moving, and then a guide took us through two of the three levels of the underground network. It was pretty amazing to see how small the space was for about 300 people taking shelter in them for years and to learn that the Vietnamese dug them during the day and discarded the dirt into the sea at night so the attacking forces wouldn't know what was going on below ground.
We made it to our destination, the Phong Nha Farmstay in the afternoon, and let the countryside ease and slow pace slide over us. Josh discovered the Farmstay mentioned in a blog post found way down a rabbit hole during a marathon research session, and we're so glad he did. Most visitors to Phong Nha wind up staying on the one street in town, which is basically a mashup of cruddy hostels and the restaurants and shops that have sprung up to serve their guests. The farmstay is a pricier option, starting at about $45/night (including breakfast), but oh so worth it. It's about a 20-minute drive from town, in the middle of a little village of farmers, with the friendliest staff we've encountered and a community-building mindset. Each night, most of the guests gathered in the loungey dining area and the outside courtyard for sunset, happy hour, and a fire, and then there'd be live music or a rotating selection of Vietnam War themed movies (we saw both Good Morning, Vietnam and Forrest Gump) or a game of pool. It was a little bit like a not-twenty-somethings version of a hostel.
While in Phong Nha, we visited several caves with fellow Farmstay guests including Phong Nha cave, which involved a boat ride through the river valley where Kong Island was filmed, and Paradise Cave, my favorite for its impressively shaped stalagmites and stalactites. We did a jungle hike tour to swim in another cave, and Josh did a 12km hike tour to check out E Cave and Dark Cave.
We also took advantage of the free bikes from the Farmstay and rode around the countryside to the Duck Stop, a business venture of our favorite Farmstay staff member, to play with the ducks, ride the water buffalo, and snooze in the hammocks. Then we biked to the Pub With Cold Beer, named by the Australian owner of the Farmstay when he stumbled on it years ago and was served a beer at a temperature he deemed appropriate, something unheard of in that area in those days.
There's a few other attractions in the area, the botanical garden (which is apparently more of a jungle trekking and waterfall experience than what we'd typically picture for something with that title) and the wild boar eco reserve, both of which we heard were great to visit, but which we sadly ran out of time to see.
Phong Nha was a great discovery for us – tons of activities and attractions and just enough travelers to form a bit of a community while veering a bit off the well-worn tourist circuit.