THIS amazing place in Vietnam is rarely mentioned in guidebooks and this Aussie had only heard rumours of it from fellow travellers.
“Recently, I heard that up until 12 years ago, some people here used to pay for things with rice,” Michael Rowbottom told the twenty of us seated in front of him.
“That meant, in 2006, you could still buy things using rice.”
Mike, a British expat, was describing Phong Nha, a rural town in Vietnam I’d arrived at the day before. I was in the daily information session he gave at Easy Tiger, the hostel he managed in the area. It was a gathering point for tourists.
Both the hostel, which wasn’t listed on any booking sites, and the town were word-of-mouth destinations. Their visitors were a select group of travellers: ones eager to see another side of Vietnam.
“Hoi An gets six million visitors per year,” Mike continued. “We get 100,000.”
A friend I was travelling with had stumbled on Phong Nha through an Instagram photo. Beginning at Hanoi, we’d slowly made our way down on night buses, and finally, an eight-hour sleeper train from Ninh Binh to Dong Hoi, an hour’s drive from Phong Nha.
From Mike’s talk, we’d learnt that the region boasted an impressive collection of superlatives. It was in the world’s top 10 for biodiversity. (“Three years ago, a Siberian tiger was seen here,” he’d told us.) It had the world’s largest and third largest cave. And, thanks to its role in the Vietnam War, it was the third most bombed place in the world. (“There are still 20kgs of unexploded ordnance for every square metre here.”)
Despite this, and the fact that its national park Phong Nha-Ke Bang had been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003, Phong Nha had surprisingly few mentions of it online.
After a bleary-eyed start from the 5am wake-up on the train, we’d taken it easy on our first day with lunch at Bamboo Café on the sleepy main drag, and a visit to Phong Nha Cave, walking distance from town.
Used by the Vietnamese to hide equipment from the Americans during the war, the cave was steeped in history. The scarring on its towering mouth was the result of rockets and missiles. Only three people had ventured all the way through it. They’d said they’d almost died, and that they’d never do it again.
I could see why. The nearly six kilometres of echoing dark space that lay beyond the kilometre and a half visitors could access looked ominous.
Today, we would see Phong Nha’s other highlights: Paradise Cave and Dark Cave, and, in nearby Bong Lai Valley, The Duck Stop and Pub With Cold Beer. The largest cave, Hang Son Doong, and third largest cave, Hang En, which both involved multiple-day trips, I would unfortunately miss.
To get to the other caves, you had three options: join an organised tour, hire a scooter, or ride on the back of one with a local. The Uber-like service was called Thang’s Phong Nha Riders. We opted for it.
Ten minutes later, we were zipping through the jungle, wispy clouds in the distance, and the smell of post-rain freshness in the air. Our first stop was Paradise Cave. Like Phong Nha Cave, it boasted limestone formations so intricate they would have fit in inside a cathedral.
Next was Dark Cave. At the entrance, were given lockers to store our bags and the clothes we’d worn over bathers. Then, loaded up with a torch-yielding helmet and life vest, we flung ourselves over a river on a zip line; swam into the cave; and clambered into a pitch-black room of knee-high mud. It was adventurous to say the least.
By the time I’d showered, it was getting late and we still had more to see. We rushed to The Duck Stop.
TripAdvisor had told me what to expect: guests were taken to a paddock filled with ducks that would peck at your hands and feet. Then, you’d ride a water buffalo through a field.
A laminated paper I was handed when I arrived explained: “Nowadays, you and other visitors come to Phong Nha and have changed this area a lot. But we want you to see how local boys and girls play on their farm,” it read.
The final stop was the Pub With Cold Beer. Years ago, an Australian living in Phong Nha had stumbled on it. After being served one of the only cold beers he’d had in Vietnam, he’d taken it upon himself to name the pub and send countless more visitors its way.
After the pub, back at Easy Tiger, where it seemed every visitor not in their room had gathered for $1 beers, I asked Mike why he thought Phong Nha, with everything it had to offer, had never gotten big.
It hadn’t been in any major guidebooks, he explained.
“Then, young people started coming here. And you see, young travellers — they talk,” he said. “They started telling each other about it.”
“So, when do you think everyone else will follow?” I asked.
“We’ll have to wait and see.”