I could tell by the way he slid the business card over to me, by the utter seriousness in his eyes, that he wasn’t fucking around. “Hands down, without a doubt,” he stabbed the card with his index finger, “the best thing I did in Vietnam.”
I put the Phong Nha Farmstay card in my wallet. It stayed there for nearly 3 months. I knew I’d be headed back through Vietnam for my flight home and, now, I knew where I’d be stopping along the way.
Central Vietnam’s caves have been making a lot of buzz lately. A few months ago, National Geographic ran a feature on the newly discovered Song Doong/World’s Biggest Cave. And Thien Duong/Paradise Cave, which had previously been thought to be the world’s biggest cave, officially opened for tourism. Not that I’m the biggest cave person in the world—just that I’ve traveled enough to know that the best recommendations often come, not from guidebooks and tourists offices, but from other travelers.
And so it went with Phong Nha Farmstay. Sure, I could have ventured out to the area independently. Or I could have done a day trip to Paradise Cave and been sufficiently blown away by the other-worldly spectacle of it: stalactites dripping and stalagmites rising, looking like sea kelp, so that I didn’t know where in the earth I was, so that I looked up at the cathedral of limestone and exclaimed, “Holy shit, I didn’t know the earth could do this.”
I could have stared out of a bus window at the Ke Bang National Park that contains the cave, as well as some 300 others, and I could have seen American bomb craters or perhaps even spotted the rare langur monkeys that we saw rattling around in the trees.
But I wouldn’t have ridden down Victory Highway. I wouldn’t have gotten to learn the local history so well. I wouldn’t have watched a former VN medic squat down beside a girl’s motorbike-accident wound and apply crushed penicillin to dry it out and keep the insects away. And I wouldn’t have had a pool to swim in or killer food to eat either.
Phong Nha Farmstay opened in December 2010, in the same month as Paradise Cave. While the nearby Phong Nha Cave was the second largest internal tourism site in Vietnam last year, the area is still largely unknown to Westerners—children still wave when you pass by, women touch your curly hair curiously and giggle, and you don’t see a single “Good Morning Vietnam” shirt for sale. But with the biodiversity and political history of Ke Bang National Park, and the never-ending quest of travelers to find the “real” fill-in-the-country’s-name, the region unlikely to stay that way.
Which is what Phong Nha Farmstay is banking on. Its 7 private rooms and 1 dorm room were never full during my 3 night stay, though this too is unlikely to stay that way. The place is run by Australian expat Ben and his Vietnamese wife Bich, who grew up in the Cu Nam village where the farmstay is located; milling around are also their infant son; Ben’s daughter; Bich’s mother (the medic), father and brother; and a slew of easy-going staff. They set the tone for a professional yet homey environment—solidifying my view that, more than uniforms and fawning, the best thing you can do in the service industry is really, truly give a shit about your product and your customers.
I took their 1-day tour of Ke Bang National Park and Paradise Cave. We rode on the back of motorbikes, down Victory Highway, which is officially closed to foreigners (Ben’s wrangled some kind of deal, I didn’t ask what), which was built to transport goods during the war. Riding down the near deserted highway, I couldn’t see any of the rare mammals or the thousands of species of plants or birds that the park contains—all I could see was dense green, the cliffs and peaks of mountains, the white flutter of butterflies along the roadside.
We made several stops along the way at sites important to the Vietnam/American War. North of the DMZ line, the Ho Chi Minh Trail runs through the park, which was heavily bombed during the war. A museum is currently being built. We stopped at the memorial 8 Ladies Cave, as well as a somewhat-obscured vista of a downed helicopter.
The tour was led by Ben and his buddy Dave, a white dude with deep smile wrinkles, a camouflage vest and a permanent cigarette dangling from his lips—the kind of semi-grizzled expat guys that off-road motorbikes and cold beer were made for. They were knowledgeable and funny and didn’t take themselves too seriously. Along for the ride was also their underling Tom, a recent transplant from Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, who had Iron Maiden board shorts and the greenest goddamn eyes I’ve ever seen.
Paradise Cave itself was a trip. It was designed by a private developer, and felt like a tasteful, eco-Disneyland. There was an automated turnstile and go-carts to transport the half-dozen tourists we saw. Unlike the nearby Phong Nha Cave, decked out in red, green and purple disco lights, Paradise Cave is lit with energy-efficient lighting. We wandered through the kilometer of deck open to the public, our voices the only ones echoing in the cavernous dark.
We then stopped by a mountain-stream river, where we stripped off our clothes and leaped from rocks and sunbathed and poked around the lagoons and sandy shores. We were lucky enough to spot some langur monkeys hopping around the trees on our way back to the farmstay, where we chilled and drank smoothies/beer.
And I have to agree with the random dude, whose name I forget, who handed me that business card all those months ago—Phong Nha Farmstay was the coolest thing I did in Vietnam. It gave me a fuller, more complete experience of the country—what it’s like outside of the cities and the tourist towns and even the beaches. I don’t think I’d be walking away, as I will in a few short days, with the same picture of Vietnam if I hadn’t gone there.
Travel Tips: Phong Nha Farmstay
Contact the farmstay, and they’ll make it easy to reach them—they’ll arrange a taxi from Dong Hoi, which costs about 370,000 dong. It’s best to come by plane or train; as there’s no official bus station that I could discern in Dong Hoi, it’ll be hard for the taxi to locate you otherwise. Dong Hoi is along the Reunification train line, and well-connected to other cities by bus.
The farmstay is a mid-range experience. Private rooms are $25-35 night, with air-con and hot water, and there’s a somewhat cramped 6-bed dorm room with beds for $8. Additional rooms are being built next door, at Bich’s brother’s house. Food is not cheap but delicious. It’s all at restaurant, not street food, prices, so you’ll be paying $2-6 per meal. It is, however, some of the best food I’ve eaten in Vietnam.The 1-day tour of Ke Bang is $45, $50 with a driver, which is recommended. This is steep for a lot of backpackers, but like the food, definitely worth it. Besides, are you really gonna come all the way out there and not see the park/cave?
One of the goals of the farmstay is to train local folks in Western tourism. There’s a sweet note on the front page of the menu explaining that some staff have more experience than others, and that if mistakes are made, please communicate them. So when one guy was brought Coco Pops instead of Muesli, the situation was handled gracefully. You can tell a lot about a business by how they handle their mistakes, and in this regard, Phong Nha Farmstay proves itself as quality.