Why you should visit Phong Nha in Vietnam
If you were to ask me where my favourite place was in Vietnam, it would have to be Phong Nha.
Not mystical Halong Bay or pretty Hoi An, but this beautiful area in the Central Highlands, characterised by sleepy villages, huge caves and sprawling green countryside.
Despite it raining for most of my time there, and not having the funds to hike some of the more adventurous caves, I still fell in love with it. Here are a few reasons why...
Phong Nha Farmstay
After a bumpy overnight train ride from Hanoi to Dong Hoi, and a rumbling bus ride towards Son Trach, we jumped off the bus around 7.00am bleary-eyed and confused.
Where were we? There were a few small houses abutting the bitumen road and the distant sound of roosters crowing, but no hint of any tourist presence. I led my mother down the muddy maroon path out towards the fields, looking down uneasily at my phone which had 1% battery left and a dodgy GPS signal directing us north.
Low and behold, after five minutes we made it. We were greeted by a warm lounge with high beams, soft music playing, the smell of pancakes cooking and curious faces of fellow travellers relaxing on cosy sofas. This was the start of our three-night stay in one of my favourite accommodations in the country.
The rooms were comfortable, showers pleasant, and damn the food was good, but what really set the Farmstay apart from many other places I've stayed was it's communal atmosphere and fantastically helpful staff. Film nights were a regular occurrence and daily tours were easily organised through the reception desk, but just as enjoyable was curling up on the sofa with a book looking out onto the rice fields.
We hit it off with one member of staff, Quỳnh, who lives nearby at the Duck Stop. Do yourselves a favour and pay this lovely chap a visit!
Rooms start from VND910000 or around £30 per night. Find out more or book your room here.
Bong Loi Valley
The winding dirt tracks and sleepy villages of the Valley are easy to explore by bicycle or on foot. Given that my mother hasn't ridden a bike since 100BC, we decided to take a walk, using our hand-drawn map from the Farmstay. Trails were muddy and rainclouds looming but that didn't stop us from visiting Quỳnh (and his ducks) at the Duck Stop. After chucking a duck (don't ask) and learning about his family's pepper tree business, we spent an hour exchanging stories about living in the UK and Vietnam.
We continued on to The Pub with the Cold Beer which, along with offering you chilled alcohol, gives you the chance to choose and slaughter your chicken before eating it with homemade peanut sauce - a true farm to table experience. As mum is a vegetarian, we ordered some vegetable spring rolls...
The sun barely poked its head out from behind the clouds and Phong Nha still managed to be look dead gorgeous.
Most people come to Phong Nha Ke Bang for one thing, and for good reason - some of the world's largest caves can be found here, namely the famous Hang Son Doong. Premium adventure outfit Oxalis run highly-rated and professional tours to many of these caves, but at VND 7,500,000 or £240 for a 2D/1N tour, most travellers opt to take a Discovery day trip with their accommodation to more accessible caves (including the mud-filled Hang Toi or 'Dark Cave') which generally costs around VND 1,350,000 or £40.
The Local community
Perhaps because of the relative lack of tourists here compared to other areas of the country, the local people are quietly friendly. Unlike most other places we'd visited, we weren't approached by anyone selling souvenirs, or asking for money. One group of local men invited us to sit and drink with them on the side of the road, but that's a different story...
Curious children ran to wave hello as we passed through their village, offering us berries from trees in their gardens. Those that were happy for us to take their photograph scrambled to see the final shot and giggled when they saw their faces staring back at them.
peace and quiet
Vietnam is fast becoming as popular as neighbouring Thailand and many tourist areas are loud, busy places with street sellers and souvenir shops by the dozen. Phong Nha offers a welcome retreat from these hectic cities and overrun sites (we're looking at you, Hoi An).
It's easy to get there and around
We chose to take the overnight train from Hanoi to Dong Hoi and then change to a local public bus heading towards Son Trach (the main town and tour base for the area). We could have got there solely by coach or private transfer, too; when we left Phong Nha, we took a cheap bus that stopped off at the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) on the way to Hué, offering a welcome break from the four hour journey. It's safe to say, you'll have no problem getting here and away.
If you're staying in Son Trach, you needn't leave the town aside from tours, which can be easily arranged at your accommodation or with a local agent. If you're staying at the Farmstay, they can organise mototaxis or cars for you, or let you know when the public buses are due to arrive on the main road for you to hitch a ride into town.