We stayed at Phong Nha Farmstay the first three nights, about $44/night including breakfast. They were fully booked on what would have been our fourth night so we needed to move somewhere else after three days. The place was very nice, great food, and located in a very rural area about 9 km outside of the nearest town (Son Trach). It’s owned by an Aussie expat (Ben) and his Vietnamese wife (Bich), and was one of the first tourist destinations to open in the area in 2009. They pretty much jump-started the tourist industry in the area, and things have changed a lot since then. Many roads are paved, houses are built of concrete instead of wood and thatch, and the area now has electricity. According to Ben this area used to be one of the poorest in the Province before the tourist trade started going.
We did a national park tour and visited the largest dry cave in the world (Paradise Cave, open only since 2011), Hang Tam Co/8 Lady Cave, Highway 20 War Martyrs Memorial, and Dark Cave. Phong Nha is famous for and is full of caves due to the limestone geology and abundant rain in the area. Paradise Cave is the largest and most beautiful cave we have seen.
Dark Cave was an interesting experience. It began with a zip line across the river to the cave entrance, a swim into the cave, then a walk though narrow passages filled with anywhere from ankle- to waist-deep mud. Pretty sketchy really, as there were multiple opportunities for twisted or broken ankles, falls onto sharp limestone, and other assorted injuries, not to mention mudslides. Fortunately we all made it through with intact appendages, though later we heard that there have been some serious injuries to tourists in this cave. We had a close call with Denise on a zip line suspended above the river. This is one where you grab onto a crossbar hanging off of a pulley, and the idea is to ride the zip line for a short distance and then let go to drop into the river. No one bothered to tell her that she needed to let go of the crossbar before coming to the turnbuckle located about halfway across the river. She didn’t, and when the pulley came to an abrupt halt when it hit the turnbuckle she was jerked off of the crossbar. Plenty of potential for injury on that one, but fortunately all that happened was an awkward water landing.
After our first three days at the Homestay we had not yet had enough of this beautiful area, so we moved to the Oxalis Hotel ($45/night including breakfast), located just outside Son Trach and right on the shore of the Son River. The hotel is situated well above the river (about 50 ft), but amazingly enough we heard that the river occasionally rises to cover the lower level of the hotel, and the village of Son Trach, during the rainy season. It turns out that the rainy season in Central Vietnam is September-December, although we had no rain until our last day in Son Trach.
We took a tour from Son Trach a few kilometers upriver to Phong Nha Cave. Besides being an interesting cave it has a connection to the American War. The Ho Chi Minh Trail crossed the Son River at Son Trach, but during the war a permanent bridge across the river could not be built since it would have been easily seen and destroyed by American bombers. To get around this problem the North Vietnamese used a pontoon bridge. During the day they hid the pontoons and other bridge components in Phong Nha Cave to keep them hidden from US surveillance planes. At night they floated the bridge components down the river, assembled the bridge, and moved personnel and material across the river. Before daybreak they dismantled the bridge and moved everything upriver back inside the cave. Eventually the Americans got wise to this and attempted to destroy Phong Nha Cave. Scars from the bombing sorties are still visible around the cave entrance. From what we heard the Americans succeeded in getting only one bomb into the cave entrance, but it did little damage and the North Vietnamese were able to keep the river crossing open throughout the war.
To better explore the countryside we rented a motorbike for several days and explored the Botanical Gardens in the park as well as the back roads in the area. One memorable stop was a local landmark, the Pub With Cold Beer. They serve cold beer of course, as well as fresh roast chicken. Fresh as in you tell the owner about how much you want to eat, he walks back to the chicken yard/coop, nabs an appropriately sized chicken, kills it with a slice to the jugular, de-feathers it, cleans out the innards, and tosses it onto a wood fire. The entire process from chasing down the bird to tucking into a fabulous roast chicken with peanut sauce takes about an hour and a half. Patrons are given the chance to slice the neck of their future lunch. I declined, but did watch the whole process.
We had a great couple of days tooling around the countryside on our motorbike, but on October 31 we got caught in a heavy late afternoon rainstorm while exploring the area on the other side of the Son River on our motorbike. The next day we woke up to complete overcast and almost constant heavy rain. So much for our perfect record of perfect weather. On the assumption that the rainy season was finally starting we decided to head further south to Hue. We booked seats on a van out of town using Tan Nhat Travel (TNT), and after a four hour ride arrived in Hue. Six days later (November 7) the rain stopped and we saw the sun again.
So far the Phong Nha area has been our favorite place in Vietnam. Had the good weather held we would have likely spent several more days there.
During the American War the area around Phong Nha National Park was heavily bombed by the US, mostly from the air but also from artillery fired from Navy ships located offshore. Figures we saw indicated that the equivalent of about 30 kg (66 pounds) of ordnance per square meter was dropped on the area during the war. The reason for this was because the area that is now the national park was an important branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It took a lot of man- and woman-power to keep the trail open under the constant bombardment. Many North Vietnamese Army (NVA) army soldiers and civilians were killed in the attempt to keep the trail open, and there were tremendous losses of soldiers, ammunition, equipment, and other material on the Trail. According to one source only about 10 percent of the men, women (many of the NVA soldiers were women) and material that started down the Trail survived the complete trip from what was then North Vietnam to the southern battlefields. Highway 20 War Martyrs Memorial (mentioned above) was built to commemorate the NVA soldiers and civilians who were killed keeping the trail open along what is now Highway 20, so named for the young age of those working on the Trail.
One legacy of the American bombardment is unexploded ordnance (UXO), or bombs/shells that failed to detonate. Accordig to one estimate we saw, about 30% of the bombs dropped failed to detonate. UXO is a huge issue in the two provinces nearest to what used to be known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which include Quang Binh (north of the DMZ, were Phong Nha National Park is located), and Quang Tri (south of the DMZ) Provinces. Even today, 40 years after the war, people are injured or killed by UXO every year, mostly those living in rural areas. The good news is that due to the work of local organizations and NGOs there is more awareness among the local people that they should not mess with metal objects they find, there are outreach programs to help educate the local people to identify UXO and not trigger an explosion, better methods to report the location of UXO when they are discovered, and trained de-mining teams to either safely disarm or explode UXO. More on this in a later post.
We also heard that by the end of the American War the area in and around the national park was virtually denuded of vegetation due to both the bombardment and the use of Agent Orange, an herbicide known to be contaminated with dioxin. Unfortunately, health effects due to exposure to Agent Orange are another legacy of the war that continues to affect both the Vietnamese people as well as US Vietnam War veterans.