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Joe and Sarah's Adventures

Phong Nha Farmstay, Vietnam

VIETNAM | Saturday, 20 October 2012 | Views [5855] | Comments [3]

Immediately after one of the lowest points of our trip, we had one of the highest. While Sarah was sick, we'd discussed where to move on from Hue and we came across a small mention in our Lonely Planet Vietnam guidebook. It highlighted a place called the Phong Nha Farmstay and said if you can get there, it's well worth the trip. It was about 200 km or 3 hours north of Hue and located just outside a remote village called Cu Nam. This part of Vietnam is still wild... jungle-covered limestone mountains, or karsts, jut out of valleys where rural villagers farm rice. It's also where Vietnam is the skinniest- the distance between the South China Sea in the East and Laos in the West is only about 50km. The problem was, we had no idea how to get there. Trains only ran up the main North-South line along the coast and the next-closest city we'd be able to stop at, Dong Hoi, was still a 30 minute drive away from the Farmstay. Plus we doubted they would have any available rooms/beds at such short notice. Deciding we should at least give it a try, Joe got an internet connection and Skyped them. A quick-talking Vietnamese woman picked up the phone. Joe mentioned our interest in visiting and asked if they'd be able to help us out. She thought for a moment, and then asked if we could be ready within 45 minutes. It just so happened that she had one room left for that night, plus a driver with a van already in Hue picking up 2 other people to drive them out. For a small fee we could get in on it! We frantically packed our bags, checked out of our hotel, and within an hour of our reading about the Farmstay we were on our way to it!

Vietnamese Countryside with the mountains in view as we drive to Phong Nha
View from our drive as we head north to Phong Nha Farmstay from Hue- those mountains form Vietnam's western border with Laos

Phong Nha Farmstay was unequivocally one of the best experiences of Vietnam, and of our entire trip. It is owned by Ben, an Australian expat who moved up to Vietnam after working construction down under, and Bich (pronounced "Bick"), his Vietnamese wife who grew up in the Cu Nam village. She was the spunky little lady we'd talked to on the phone. They have a 2 year old son, Michael, who is about as cute as they come, and a lot of the daily chores, babysitting, cooking, etc. is done by Bich's extended family, who are all around and helping run the business. Bich's mother was especially interesting (more on her later). The Farmstay itself consists of a "great room" with big wooden beams, very "mountain lodge" in style, but with open, airy doors. This is the social gathering spot and it has it all: bar, pool table, television, big comfy couches, tables with internet connections, books to borrow, etc. This is also where you order your food- since we're so remote there's nowhere else to eat! Luckily the food was delicious! There is a porch that wraps almost all the way around the building, with comfortable chairs and hammocks for lounging in. Ten private rooms lined the porch and were air-conditioned and very comfortable. There's also a separate house next door, where they've set up a 10-bed dorm room for those travelers who just need a bed with a fan. There was even a pool behind the house with a little volleyball net set up for cooling down after a day's adventures, and a punching bag hanging up-- we guess for those guests who like to punch things. Best of all, however, was the location. This place is built on a small hill raised up from a little road that leads to the village. From the porch we had views of the surrounding valley full of rice paddies in which farmers worked daily. Each night they'd herd their cattle back up the little road, going right by us. Beyond the rice paddies were the beautiful mountain peaks of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, the reason Central Vietnam is even on the map. Watching the sunset while swinging in hammocks on the porch, sipping delicious fresh fruit shakes and listening to cowbells clunking as the farmers made their way home for the evening... well you get the picture.

Farmers leading their cows home at sunset
Farmers leading their cows home at sunset

Sunset from Phong Nha Farmstay
Sunset from the porch of Phong Nha Farmstay

Equally amazing was the story of how this Farmstay came about- Ben and Bich have both travelled and worked in the tourism industry before, and they got this idea to build their ideal backpacker's destination. What better spot than on the edge of one of Vietnam's most beautiful parks (soon to be one of it's most touristed as well- it's only a matter of time). Since it was near Bich's hometown, they had a lot of local connections so they could skip many of the regular headaches that come with trying to set up an expat business in Vietnam. They had almost completed construction and were ready to open their doors to their first visitors when one of the worst flooding seasons in Vietnam's history hit the region. Their brand new building, which was on the highest point for miles around, was flooded up to its second floor. The local villages were devastated, crops wiped out, and Ben & Bich's savings, which they had completely invested in this venture, were gone. Not to mention that Michael, their son, was born the same week as the flood! Ordinary people would have given up. Ben and Bich tried again. They borrowed enough money to rebuild and in December, 2010 were able to open to the public. Now they see their Farmstay as a way to boost the local economy, teach outsiders about the local history, culture, and people of Central Vietnam, and to set an example for others in the area who are trying to build up their own tourism businesses. As Ben explained to us, the way they see it, if they help their "competition" get a leg up now, thereby establishing a strong and responsible tourism base in this region, in the long-term it will benefit everybody. They are incredibly invested in the local people and in introducing the wonders of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park to the outside world.

Phong Nha Farmstay
Phong Nha Farmstay (stolen from their website)

Speaking of those wonders... why do we keep saying this place is so great? Well, National Geographic already did a special on it in 2011, so something must be up. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is one of the pristine wilderness sites left in Vietnam, and lies on one of the 2 largest limestone regions in the world. Thanks to all that limestone, the region is full of caves- over 300 have been discovered so far- and it gets even better: in 2009 the world's largest cave was discovered here! It's called Hang Son Doong Cave and is only just beginning to be explored. The British team mentioned in the NatGeo article in 2011 was the first! According to NatGeo, you could fit an entire New York City block of 40-story buildings in the main cavern of this cave. So, it's big. It's also not open to the public yet. Darn. Luckily that's not the only awesome cave in the park. Hang Ke Ry Cave is the world's longest river cave. Paradise Cave, which opened to the public in December 2011, is the world's longest dry cave. Phong Nha Cave, the second-most popular domestic tourist attraction in Vietnam, is "lit up like a psychadelic rock concert" and was the site of some intense military action during the War (more on that later too). And those are just the tip of the iceberg! With so much amazing stuff happening undergound, one might forget about everything up above. Not likely! The park is sprawling with awesome jungle scenery over these rock formations. Rivers with rapids and crystal clear streams full of limestone boulders run through the trees. It's full of plants and animals that are unique to this region and we learned it has the highest diversity of primates in South East Asia! This includes a rare Black Langur monkey that can only be found on a certain mountain within the park, and, as our guide told us, someone had even recently spotted a tiger here! Seeing a tiger in the wild is pretty much unheard of these days, so this was a big deal.

Jungle covered karst mountains of Phong Nha-Ke Bang
Jungle covered karst mountains of Phong Nha-Ke Bang

As if natural beauty, awesome exploring, and experiencing local culture first-hand wasn't enough, the Farmstay also prides itself on providing visitors with extensive local history lessons. Ben and his Australian buddy, Dave, lead their tour groups through the park in their fully restored American-issued military jeep, left behind from the War. Both of them have extensive knowledge of how the War impacted the region. Not to mention Bich, who grew up here and whose family and friends all experienced it first-hand. Her mother, who we mentioned earlier, was a nurse and a soldier for the Viet Cong. She received many medals for her bravery and was injured during one guerilla mission-- she still has shrapnel in her leg today. Her stern little face lights up with a smile when she talks to you and these days she welcomes Americans to the Farmstay with open arms. Ben has worked out some sort of deal with the Vietnamese military (best to not ask too many questions about this) where they actually let him take groups into the park. Otherwise we've heard it's very hard for foreigners to get in- often they will be turned away at the guarded checkpoints at the Park's entrances. We're not sure why the secrecy but we heard it has something to do with the fact that the Park is controlled by too many different entities- the military, local government, and Vietnam's version of the National Park Service are all kind of splitting responsibility but it's unclear who is in charge of what or whose policies stand. Luckily this has had the side effect of keeping it pristine and closed off (so far) to too much development.

Riding in the back of a Vietnam military jeep!
Riding along the Ho Chi Minh Trail Highway in the back of a Vietnam military jeep!

Lonely stretch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail- Victory Highway
Lonely stretch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail- today called Victory Highway

Regardless, we got in and got to drive along a remote stretch of the Victory Highway (Ho Chi Minh Trail) that runs straight through the park and is normally closed to the public. Since we are just north of the DMZ line, and at Vietnam's skinniest point, this region saw intense bombing. This is where the Vietnamese Army started spilling over into Laos to try to avoid detection by running their supply trails through the mountains across the border. As we drove along the Trail, stopping at numerous points for history lessons, we spotted caves that had been used for hospitals, bomb shelters, and supply/ammunition depots. One cave has been converted into a memorial, called the 8 Ladies Cave, because during an American bombing raid 8 local women and 5 Viet Cong soldiers took shelter there- the cave took a direct hit and the mouth caved in. By the time local villagers could uncover the rubble, 9 days later, they had all died. We also saw lots of perfectly round ponds in the middle of rice paddies or other fields. Dave pointed one out and explained that these were bomb craters left over from the war-- they would fill up with water and then the local farmers had a free pond on their land! We heard stories of downed helicopters nearby, of one local grandmother who has made it her life's work to go out in the fields with a metal detector and clear the land of mines and other unexploded ordinance (Dave said she's very cranky... understandably), of another local villager who shot an American pilot after his jet crashed on her farm. Seeing as how we are American, this whole experience was an intense conflict of emotions- more so than anywhere else we visited in Vietnam. Meeting and talking to people who experienced the war first-hand, who fought against and killed Americans, and who were very proud they had done so, was a bit of a wake up call. Mixed emotions of guilt, shame, indignance, and patriotism were hard to shake, even while we were out exploring caves and jungle. At the end of the day though, it was pretty clear that the past is the past, people just want to live their lives and raise their children (or grandchildren) in peace, and this family and others we met were happy to call their former enemies their friends. Perhaps it helped that they won.

Our awesome guide, Dave, giving us a history lesson
Our awesome guide, Dave, giving us a history lesson

When we weren't learning about the fascinating war history, we were exploring! Our first group trip took us in the jeep up through the mountains along the HCM trail as we've already described where we learned all of these fun facts! This included a stop at the Highway 20 War Martyrs Temple- one of the most sacred and important war memorial sites in Vietnam. Then we hiked up to the secret little mouth of Paradise Cave- the 2nd biggest cave in the park now that the Hang Son Doong cave has been discovered. Even Paradise cave was only found in 2005 and as we mentioned, only opened in 2011. It has been developed for tourism by a private development company, and we have to say-- they've done a great job. Little golf carts take you up a path to the hiking trail. There are the usual annoying tourist gift shop/snack bars nearby, but the cave itself is thankfully free of anything commercial. Just a very eco-friendly wooden staircase and walking path to keep tourists from scrambling all over everything, and soft lighting that complements the cave itself. Descending into the main cavern was breath-taking! Pictures don't do it justice, but give a slight sense of the scale of this place. Again, it is the longest dry cave in Asia, and maybe even the world! Without proper guides, tourists are only allowed to venture about 1km into it.

Headed down into Paradise CaveParadise Cave 
Just one tiny section of Paradise Cave- this place was massive

After about an hour of exploring we headed back down the mountain, grabbed a yummy group lunch, and then Ben and Dave took us to the Nouc Mooc Eco Trail where we crossed bamboo bridges over rushing rapids until we reached a waterfall tumbling down into the fast-flowing water. Climbing out on boulders we jumped into the frigid water and swam around, fighting the current. It was a glorious way to cool off.

Our eco-trail hike
Our eco-trail hike to our swimming hole

After our swim and a short hike back to the cars, they took us over to the Son Chay River where we donned headlamps and life jackets, grabbed kayaks, and set off! After a short trip down river, mostly letting the current carry us, we reached the mouth of another newly opened cave (August 2011): Dark Cave. Yes it is just how it sounds. Our guides (who hadn't told us any of this beforehand-- we were just going with the flow) said, "leave your kayaks and anything you don't want to get wet here." This inclded shoes, clothes, cameras... everything. We switched on our headlamps and gingerly (b/c we were barefoot) started walking into the pitch black cave. Once we'd gone maybe 50 meters the floor stopped- nothing but darkness and water greeted us. Confused, we stopped and looked around with our headlamps. Then our guide said, "Well go on then! I told you you're going to get wet!" With that he walked forward into the water. Reluctantly our group stood there, wondering if he was crazy. Then one by one we started to get into the water. Freezing is not a strong enough word to describe it. When it was too deep to stand we started swimming- doggie paddling our way through complete blackness not knowing what was above or below us. Except for the bats we could hear squeaking and fluttering around high above our heads. Our life jackets kept us afloat and our headlamps, which we were strictly instructed not to get wet, gave off little beams of light here and there that hardly dented the darkness. At one point, we swam under an overhanging wall that left us barely enough room for our heads to stay above water! After about 20-30 minutes of swimming (felt like much longer) we finally came to a little rocky shore. We groped our way up in the darkness and got a little lecture about the diversity of species in the park, and within these caves themselves. Apparently in this cave alone, cut off as it is from the outside world, seperate species of white scorpions, snails, and other white cave creatures have been discovered by scientists. Very cool, but knowing there were scorpions in here didn't make us too keen to get back in the water and swim out again. We had no choice, however, and before long we were back outside letting our eyes adjust to the light before hopping back in our kayaks and paddling back to the cars. We headed home for dinner, stopping to watch the sunset over a particularly beautiful valley. What a day!

Sunset over Vietnam
Sunset over Central Vietnam

On our second excursion we took a bike ride (guided by a few of Bich's little relatives- 2 boys around ages 10 and 12) along a dirt path leading through rice paddies and villages of wooden huts, and around sleepy cows and muddy buffalo. We even witnessed some local neighborhood drama as our two little leaders got into a scuffle with some of the village boys after one of them attempted to hit us with rocks as we biked by! (Why the village boys were throwing rocks at the tourists on bicycles we never really found out, but we guessed it is probably a fun game for little pre-teen boys). The bike ride took us to the village of Son Trach with little dragon boats to take us along the Son River and into the Phong Nha Cave.

Entrance to Phong Nha Cave
Entrance to Phong Nha Cave

We heard that this cave used to be called "Dragon's Teeth" cave because of the massive stalctites that hung down from it's opening. During the war, Americans discovered this cave was being used as a crucial supply depot and hideout for Vietnamese troops. After months of attempts at striking against them (and getting shot down), one jet finally landed a direct hit with a missle in the center of the cave's mouth-- effectively blowing up all of those stalactites, but doing nothing to phase all of the inhabitants hiding deep inside. Stalactites or not, boating down the river through the mountains and then into the dark mouth of this cave looming ahead of us was wonderful! The boat cut its engines and our driver grabbed a long pole with which to push and steer the boat through the darkness of the cave. After about 20 minutes inside we reached a sandy bank leading up into a huge cavern. This cave was all lit up with crazy colored lights and FULL of Asian tourists. They were smoking, littering, talking loudly and all the girls were in heels!? Oh well. The best part of this cave was the ancient Cham hieroglyphics painted on a rock at the very back of the passage- tourists are only allowed to venture in about 1km of the cave but the ancient writings were just visible beyond. Very cool. We climbed back down and walked along an unmarked but well-trodden passage through crazy rock formations, all lit up with these crazy lights until we reached the mouth of the cave. There was a temple just outside the entrance, a little climb up the hill and a boat dock further down the river where we could catch our little boat back to the town. After a fun family-style group lunch at a restaurant Ben & Bich recommended, our group biked back to the Farmstay to have some cold beers, swim in the pool, and relax.


Phong Nha Cave with its psychadelic lighting Psychadelic lighting in the Phong Nha Cave

If any of you have read this far, you'll know why we had such a great time here. We HIGHLY recommend the Farmstay for anyone ever traveling to Vietnam. It should be right up there on your list with the other big tourist attractions. Its repuatation is already spreading quickly and it will not remain this quiet haven for long. Soon this area will be bursting with Western tourists and accomodations (and all of the other effects of development that come with them) so we count ourselves among the lucky ones that we got to experience this wonderful place now. To Ben and Bich, their family, and Dave- thank you!

Very Muddy Buffalo

Very Muddy Buffalo

Tags: caves, central vietnam, paradise cave, phong nha cave, phong nha farmstay, phong nha-ke bang national park, trekking

Comments

1

Sarah, this is so fascinating! Such an interesting and historical place and you've gotten to experience it in such depth! Good on you!
Where are you now?

  Aunt Carol Oct 24, 2012 4:45 PM

2

Thank you Aunt Carol! This was definitely one of our favorite places from the whole trip! We are actually already back in DC now... I was so behind on this blog but I didn't want to give up on it, so in between my job-hunting sessions I'm posting pics and writing these stories based on a travel journal I kept during the trip. I'm glad you are still reading them! Much more to come!

  Sarah Oct 25, 2012 3:28 AM

3

Dear Joe n' Sarah:
For a documentary film I'm doing about a squadron of U.S. pilots in Vietnam during the mid-60s, I've been searching for a usable/affordable photo of Vietnam terrain...and your photograph (karst mountains of Phong Nha-Ke Bang) would be very helpful! How might I go about securing permission from you to incorporate that image into my film? Please be kind enough to fire back an email to me so we can discuss any pros n' cons. Gratefully - Danny

  Danny McGuire Mar 26, 2015 4:18 AM

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