Vietnam Diaries part 3: Phong Nha

My second stop during 3 weeks in Vietnam was a little town called Phong Nha, about 1/3 of the way down the country. As soon as I heard that it was a pretty town inside a national park, I decided I had to go there.

I took the sleeper bus from Hanoi (see the separate post about this), and I had booked a hostel called Nguyen Shack a few days before. In Vietnam, there are so many hostels available that you don’t really need to book them far in advance at all.

Nguyen Shack actually has a few branches, but I stayed at the one in the actual town, not to be confused with the other one further out in the national park. I chose this hostel because it seemed to basically all be made of wood and it looked really peaceful. Some of the reviews were bad, but I ignored them because the rooms just looked to cute to resist.

It turned out I definitely made the right choice, as this hostel was even more amazing in real life than in the pictures. You can choose between a dorm and a ‘glamping room’, so I went for the glamping room seeing as it was only 115k dong per night (less than £4). The rooms have a curtain instead of a front wall, and the other walls between the rooms are made of a kind of thick straw material and they don’t reach the ceiling. The great thing about this was that the sunlight appears through the top of the curtains/walls in the mornings, and you can always feel the refreshing breeze as well.

The hostel is built on wooden stilts and the floor is made of wooden planks, and you walk along a sheltered walkway to get to the shared bathrooms. Personally I really enjoyed practically walking outside during the night when I had to use the bathroom. If you’re scared of bugs, it might not be for you, but if you love looking at the stars and if nature makes you happy, you might love it as much as I did.

I don’t think my pictures do it justice, but here they are anyway. Honestly, how could you not be immediately happy when you open your curtain to those banana leaves in the morning?! (4th picture down). You can also see in the last photo that it has hammocks on the rooftop (who doesn’t love relaxing on a hammock?!)

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hammock

Anyway, regardless of if Nguyen Shack is your dream hostel or not, I would recommend staying in the actual town if you want to have access to facilities like restaurants etc. If you want to stay further out, you’ll find some really beautiful rural accommodation, but you’ll probably need a motorbike to get around.

Aside from my amazing hostel, the reasons I loved Phong Nha were mainly the cuteness of the little town itself, the views you’re surrounded by wherever you are in Phong Nha, and the amount of things to do in the surrounding area.

Starting with the little town itself, I think it unfortunately might not stay cute for much longer, as I think tourism will increase even more as time goes on, but right now, it’s got a great selection of places to eat and chill, but it doesn’t feel overcrowded and it feels really safe. The two places in the town that stood out to me were:

  1. Veggie Box (Vietnamese vegan restaurant with nice smoothies too)

Veggie Box has got a pretty outside seating area (or you can sit inside if you like), and an extensive menu of vegan versions of typical Vietnamese food (noodle soups, hotpots, spring rolls etc.) The smoothie and juice selection is also decent and they’re super tasty. It’s owned by a local lady and all the staff are really sweet. Most of the meals cost around 40k – 60k dong (between £1.30 – £2.00) and the smoothies are about 50k (£1.70). Of course they get bonus points for using bamboo straws, as you can see in the picture below. (The food in the photo is Vietnamese style eggplant and rice).

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2. Phong Nha Coffee Station (kind of hipster café with smoothie bowls)

Normally I don’t gravitate towards hipster cafés, but there were a few rainy days in Phong Nha when I couldn’t really do any outdoor adventures, so I needed somewhere to relax with a book etc., and this seemed like the best place… then I ended up becoming addicted to their smoothie bowls. Their prices are a little high for Vietnam, but the service is good, they play chilled music in the background, the staff speak good English, there’s wifi, the seating area is big and breezy and the smoothie bowls are addictive, so it’s completely fair enough. This would be a good place to go if you have to get some work done on your laptop. The smoothie bowls are 65k dong (£2.17), so obviously still very cheap in certain currencies.

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Moving on to the second thing I loved about being in Phong Nha – the views. You can walk in any direction and you can see greenery, mountains or water. This is especially nice if you’ve spent the previous part of your trip in a busy city like Hanoi. The first photo is from when I was wandering along the road at the end of the main part of town, and the second one is from my hostel roof terrace:

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So, onto the main reason why most people probably come to Phong Nha: the actual attractions in the surrounding area. These include waterfalls, caving, ziplining, kayaking, cycling through valleys, river tubing and more.

I didn’t do all the activities, as I wanted to do the ones that I could get to myself without renting a motorbike (because I’m too bad at driving so they didn’t let me rent one when I tried. Very embarrassing). In addition, I only had a limited number of days to go on adventures as some days were kind of ruined by the rain, but the activities I did were AMAZING (well one day was good, one day was really good and one day was incredible).

Starting with the one that was good… This was on the day I arrived, so I hadn’t had much sleep so didn’t want to go anywhere far. I quite like walking, so I decided to walk to the nearest attraction I’d found on Google, which was The Bomb Crater Bar. As the name suggests, it’s literally a bar built around a bomb crater that was made in the 70s by a bomb dropped by America, but it isn’t as deep now because it’s been flooded etc. due to its location by a river.

The walk to the Bomb Crater Bar is pretty challenging because it’s a long way to go in the sun, but it’s easy to find if you’re using Google Maps. If I was going again, I’d rent a bike instead (you can rent them from a lot of places in the main town for 40k dong aka £2.20 for a full day). It’s an interesting walk, as you walk through rural communities so you pass local schools and houses etc, and the walk is mostly near the river which is nice.

The bar is owned by a local couple, and they serve food (proper meals) as well as drinks, and you can sit looking at the river while you eat/drink. I’d already eaten so I just had a smoothie for 40k dong (£2.20). There’s wifi there, and the menu has the whole story on the back of it about the bomb crater itself and about when the couple decided to open a bar there etc. It’s obviously quite interesting/surreal/weird to have a drink next to an old bomb crater. (The first photo is the crater itself)

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On the way back from the Bomb Crater Bar, I passed a hostel called Hahaland which I knew had waterslides into the river, as I’d seen it online when I was originally choosing a hostel for Phong Nha, so I decided to go in and check it out on my way back.

Hahaland is a really cool hostel with a tiny bar selling food and drinks, and normally I think you’re meant to pay a small fee to hang out there if you aren’t staying there, but I bought water and they didn’t ask me to pay anything else. The water slides are actually huge and I was too scared to go on them (I think I would need some encouragement from a friend), but they also have hammocks down by the river, so I stayed there for a while and read my book and watched the sunset – I definitely recommend this! This is the view from the hammocks.

hahaland

On my way home from Hahaland, I came across a tiny restaurant that I unfortunately didn’t get the name of (I’m not sure if it has a name). If you want to try and find it, follow Google Maps to Tien’s Cozy Homestay, as it’s somewhere near there but on the other side of the road. Anyway, the reason I was drawn to this restaurant was because it’s literally just one table in the front porch of someone’s house.

The owner is a lady who lives in the house (unsurprisingly), but the nice thing is that there are kids around, and her niece came and sat at the table with me because she wanted to practice her English. I was super impressed by her language skills (she was only 10), and I was able to ask her questions about her school and family, which was interesting. Anyway, the food here was tasty and cheap, and it was definitely a more memorable experience than eating in a regular restaurant. The beer was 10k dong (£0.33) and the rice/tofu meal was 29k dong (less than £1).

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I’m leaving the amazing day until last, so before that, the very good day was when I went to a place called the Phong Nha Botanic Garden, which is really not a botanic garden. I’d more call it a hiking trail and waterfall.

To get there, you could rent a motorbike (or a pedal bike if you’re adventurous and fit), as it’s about 10km from the town, so about half an hour by motorbike. Renting a motorbike costs about 100k dong for a day (£3.30), and there are endless places along the street in the town where you can rent them from.

After practising on the motorbike I wanted to rent in the guy’s back yard, he decided I was too bad at driving it, so I wasn’t allowed to rent one. If this happens to you, or if you already know motorbikes aren’t for you, there’s an option called EasyRider. This basically means you pay someone to take you there on the back of a motorbike. The rental guy called someone and spoke Vietnamese on the phone and arranged the EasyRider for me, so I’m assuming most rental guys could probably arrange it for you.

The EasyRider to the Botanic Garden and back (the guy waited for me while I was there) was 200k dong (£6.70), so obviously it’s cheaper to rent your own motorbike, but I think I probably would have crashed if I rented one, so it was worth it.

The Botanic Garden entrance fee was 40k dong (£1.33) and they gave me a useful map of the trails. I find it absolutely hilarious that it’s called the Botanic Garden, as the name definitely suggests (to me anyway) that there wouldn’t be any sort of adventurous hiking…

There are a few different paths you can take, but the main one that goes to the waterfall actually contains some quite difficult parts, and there are places where you have to use a rope to pull yourself up a slope, or keep your balance on a wobbly bridge etc. Anyway, this actually makes it pretty challenging and therefore really fun. Just remember to bring enough water and maybe wear trainers rather than flip-flops.

If you take the short path, it’s an hour to the waterfall, or you can take the longer one which is 3 hours, as shown on the map they give you. I was there in low season so I didn’t pass many people on the trail, which was nice, and I had the waterfall mostly to myself. As well as the waterfall, there are some amazing viewpoints, lots of benches and a few bench-swings to relax on.

I think tourists in Phong Nha mostly go for the organised day trips to the zipline and caves rather than the Botanic Garden. Anyway, I would totally recommend the Botanic Garden, and hopefully these pictures help to explain what I’m talking about.

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Now onto the best day I had in Phong Nha…

On the sunniest day I had there, I decided to rent a bicycle (as mentioned earlier in the article, this is easily done in town for 40k dong aka £1.33 for a day). My plan was to cycle to Bong Lai Valley, as I’d heard it had some cool little places to visit, including a farm where you can play with ducks.

The route to Bong Lai Valley is super easy – you really can’t go wrong. You basically just follow the road out from the town, take the right at the T junction at the end of town, and then just keep following that road for about 6km until you reach this sign…

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As you can see, the unofficial name for the Bong Lai Valley is Love Valley. So you turn onto the track and keep cycling. This is where the magic really starts (even though cycling to the entrance of the valley is also pretty cool, zooming along on the highway with cars passing you on one side and rice fields on the other).

For the rest of the day, you can just cycle along through the valley with incredible views, local houses, dogs, farmland, farm animals and children around you, and you can stop at whichever local businesses take your fancy. Most of them have only been built in the past few years, as tourism in the valley is a recent thing. This is the first place I saw but I didn’t stop there because I was too impatient to reach the duck place:

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Soon after this, I reached The Duck Stop. You definitely can’t miss it because the sound of quacking ducks catches your attention before you can even see it.

The Duck Stop has become super popular with backpackers, and the staff speak English and they’ve made an official list of what’s included for the money you choose to pay etc. I paid 150k dong (£5) for the duck experience, the water buffalo riding experience and food.

What this meant was basically… I was given a traditional Vietnamese hat to borrow (I think they want to help people avoid sunburn) and I had to take off my trainers and put on some very unsexy jelly-shoe things (I think they didn’t want muddy trainers going into the seating/restaurant area).

I was then taken, with a few other backpackers, to see Donald Trump the water buffalo in his field at his pond. Apparently they rescued him from being sold for meat and he’s enjoying retirement at his watering hole. Normally I’m not into animal exploitation, but I felt like Donald didn’t really mind giving rides to people, and you can only ride him for literally 1 minute, so hopefully it’s ok.

Anyway, the man helps you climb onto Donald (this is a difficult task in itself). He then gets Donald to walk through the pond, so your legs go through the water. Donald is surprisingly difficult to balance on, and you actually have to properly focus on not falling into the pond. Once he’s back on the grass, you can take some pictures and then you get off him (this is kind of scary because the man doesn’t help that much) and then say goodbye to your new water buffalo friend.

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You’re then led over to the duck area where a very enthusiastic man makes each person from the group run around the area waving a bucket of food shouting “quackkkkk” so all the ducks follow you etc. This apparently makes you a “duck leader” (it also makes you look silly, which is the main point I think).

The highlight for me was definitely the foot massage. He makes you all sit down along a bench with your feet together, and then he puts food on your feet so the ducks peck your feet until all the little pieces of food are gone. They actually peck quite hard and it’s SO TICKLISH! I honestly could not stop laughing.

You also get to hold a duck and let it go to fly into the pond while you make a wish. You only get to spend about 10 minutes in total with the ducks, but they’re really cute and it’s a unique experience so I definitely think it’s worth it!

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The food that’s included at the end is fresh Vietnamese spring rolls, so basically there’s rice paper and you put the filling inside it yourself and roll it up and eat it. This normally comes with meat, but I told them at the beginning that I don’t eat meat or eggs, so they gave me vegan filling for mine. It was pretty tasty.

After relaxing at the Duck Stop for a while, I carried on through the valley and just stopped at any place that looked interesting. It was just such a liberating feeling to be cycling through a new and beautiful place with no cars and not many people.

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One place I stopped at was a wooden platform thingy built above the river, opposite the owner’s house. It also had some swings and hammocks, and the owner sat with me and we had a chat (thanks to Google Translate) and he gave me some water from his house which he wouldn’t even let me pay for.

He also explained that he offers river tubing as one of the activities at his place, and it looked insanely cool from the videos he showed me on his phone, but I didn’t have my bikini with me that day so I couldn’t do it. Anyway, I still felt really lucky to be sitting in such a pretty place with such a friendly person and being able to ask questions about the local area etc.

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I stopped quickly a few more times, but the other main place was right at the end of the valley, so by this point I was exhausted from cycling in the hot sun over the bumpy paths, but I had no regrets! I reached the Bong Lai Swing Nature Farm, which is basically a family farm with an area they’ve converted into a bar/restaurant/hangout area with hammocks over the river, and the owner himself has built two giant swings… well one big swing and one ENORMOUS swing.

I opted for the big swing (to be honest I was too terrified of the enormous one), and it was definitely the coolest swing I’ve been on in my life. The views were incredible from up there – I can’t really think of a better location to lie on a hammock in Vietnam than up there. The owner is quite funny and he wouldn’t stop trying to convince me to go on the enormous swing, but he was really sweet and kept pushing me on the big one, seeing as I had no friends with me.

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After this, I cycled home in a race against sunset (just because I didn’t have a light on my bike), and I was sooooo tired when I got back to my hostel, but I was so happy I’d spent my day in “Love Valley”. Unfortunately, I’d be very surprised if the valley just as unspoilt in a few years’ time, but for me, it’s the most idyllic place I saw in Vietnam, and I’m so happy that all the businesses are run by local people so they’re getting all the money that comes in from people visiting.

I hope this post successfully showed you why Phong Nha is a special place. Hopefully you can make it there if you’re in Vietnam any time soon 🙂

Feel free to follow me on Instagram – @zoe_93

2 thoughts on “Vietnam Diaries part 3: Phong Nha

  1. Great to see you writing again Zoe. I enjoyed this post. 🙂

  2. You make it sound absolutely lovely. It’s the most persuasive post I’ve read about anywhere. I would definitely go if I was a bit younger

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