Surprisingly, I’m not a great lover of the outdoors. Being something of a nerd who loves reading and drinking beer in swimming pools, I do however admit that Phong Nha Park was a helluva lot of fun to roam around in.
The park is steadily becoming more and more well known, mostly because it’s home to the world’s biggest cave system and offers so much more than glitzy coastal attractions.
Efforts by foreign companies in the area to provide more sustainable tourism has led to a deeper involvement of the local people who have opened homestays, tours and small pubs and cafés in the more picturesque parts of the park.
The benefits for locals are obvious, but the flow-on effect is a reduction in the need to illegally log trees or damage the park through hunting, as people have been able to find better a living as drivers, shopkeepers, homestay operators and so on. As more locals participate in the tourism sector, it’s envisaged that they will become more aware of the need to preserve the park’s beauty.
Phong Nha Park - Bomb Crater Bar is one of a number of very cool pit-stops as you roam around the park on a scooter.
My guide from Phong Nha Farmstay and I took a ride up into the karst mountains on the western edge of the valley. These sheer mountains are covered in dense tropical rainforests so thick that it’s hard to imagine that anyone could actually live there. You could say they are a living museum, a part of Vietnam’s war history as well as home to ethnic tribes only just beginning to meet the modern world.
The park stretches out toward the Laos border via a single road called the TL 20, which winds and twists its way skyward before plunging into hidden valleys.
You can take a motorbike up there, however there are no petrol stations and phone coverage is not so reliable so it’s better to go in a group and plan carefully because it can take a few hours to do. The road is also very narrow so be ready for cars and trucks coming around the corner!
The border guards don’t allow visitors beyond the limits of the park, especially given its proximity to the border, however you can stop at a super cute coffee shop near the border house, another project that’s gotten locals involved in tourism and created income for the residents of the park.
More of the town. From here you can go south to the national park or north by the river to Phong Nha Cave.
Access to smaller, hidden settlements are not allowed as these tribes are still trying to adapt to Vietnamese and modern culture. The local government is still working out how to incorporate tourism into the mostly unspoiled park, so it’s a wise move not to move too fast.
Along the road you can stop at the tragic monument of Hang Tam Co (Eight Lady Cave) where eight women died trapped in a cave after an extensive bombing campaign by American airplanes during the war years. They were attempting to cut the Ho Chi Minh supply lines that led through the mountains to the North Vietnamese army further south. Unsurprisingly it’s a very popular site, especially amongst war veterans who come to commemorate the past.
Another reason not to open the park too quickly is the presence of unexploded war remnants that have been identified in the area. A huge effort has been made over the years by the government and MAG, the Mines Advisory Group, to clear the park and the surrounding area of dangerous ordinance, but it will take years more to clear the whole province, which was one of the most heavily bombed areas of Vietnam. Fortunately, the most popular tourist sites are just fine!
One interesting comment overheard during my trip was the idea of ‘getting close to nature’, made by some of the younger travellers, who had never seen people farm the old fashioned way or the true beauty of a genuinely unspoiled park.
These are the mountains as you get near to Phong Nha Village/Town if you're coming from Dong Hoi in the east.
I had the chance to talk with tour operators, cave guides, café owners and even a hotel director from Dong Hoi. One thing everyone had in common was the desire to keep the park manageable, both in the scale of the tourism to come and the sustainable pattern of economic development that will enable the locals to have a great future, unspoiled by the insane, excessive coastal tourism construction that will eventually threaten the very attractiveness of Vietnam’s best natural features.
Among the issues they pointed out were tourism skill training, English language education and helping the locals manage their new-found prosperity. As Dong Hoi City also wishes to create a gateway to its beaches and the park to the west, my impression was an urgent need for a training center in both the park and Dong Hoi to lift service standards, language ability and management skills.
On a more practical level, the government will need to educate the locals on keeping pollution out of rivers (it’s not bad now, just a future issue) and supply better infrastructure for drainage, sewerage, electricity and the Internet for the anticipated increase in visitors.
Phong Nha Park is an adventure beyond the caves and as much of a “must do” as Ha Long Bay or the Mekong. It’s definitely the next big thing…