Phong Nha has become one of Vietnam’s premier adventure tourism destinations. Can it continue to succeed by staying small?
When Le Thi Bich brought her soon-to-be husband, Ben Mitchell, to visit her parents’ village of Phong Nha in 2007, tourism essentially consisted of day-tripping Vietnamese exploring a government-run cave by boat.
In the narrowest part of Vietnam between Laos and the sea, the region is a captivating, almost prehistoric landscape of sweeping valleys and snaking rivers surrounded by jungle-draped limestone peaks. Within the immense karst formation are some of the world’s largest caves.
“It was one of the most amazing places I had been in the world,” the Australian-born Mr. Mitchell said recently. “‘Why is there no one doing anything here?’” he wondered.
He and Ms. Le opened her parents’ home to backpackers who slept in hammocks in the garden, before expanding to a guesthouse with bungalows and a pool. Around 2010, Mr. Mitchell and some mates started organizing a farm-to-table route in nearby Bong Lai Valley. He encouraged a family to refit its wooden house and named it The Pub With Cold Beer. Mr. Mitchell delivered the beer and the family sold it for double, and soon had neighboring farms supplying chickens, rice and peanuts.
Now, the half-dozen countryside stops are part of a multifaceted sustainable tourism model in Phong Nha. The couple and a small band of like-minded visionaries over the decade turned the impoverished farming and fishing community into one of Vietnam’s premier adventure and ecotourism destinations, with most of the spending going directly to locals instead of tourism conglomerates or foreign package-tour operators.
The superstars on the scene are two dozen spectacular caves, nearly all of them opened for adventure tours since 2012.
For visitors like me, Phong Nha is a welcome contrast to the waves of mass tourism and unbridled construction overwhelming Vietnamese destinations from the mountains of Sapa to the bays of Halong to the beaches of Nha Trang. I traveled to Phong Nha a few times this past year or so, escaping the congestion of my current home of Ho Chi Minh City, for a swimming tour in the Tu Lan cave system and to talk with the architects of its tourism industry.
The handful of local companies that run trekking and cave tours mostly have kept the groups small, and the prices and wages above average, with an emphasis on leaving no trace behind. Locals have converted farms to tourist playgrounds and started jungle hiking and boating excursions. And they have opened scores of homestays, or small guesthouses, and other businesses that support the tourism industry.
But in the past two years, the number of homestays opening accelerated and owners started charging unsustainably low room prices to beat out the competition. Properties got bigger, with dozens of rooms instead of the typical six to 10. Local business owners say that developers from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are eyeing even bigger accommodations; local government officials did not respond to questions about what development might be planned. But with the government of the province, Quang Binh, inviting investors to back tourism and other projects across the region, locals are bracing for a dramatic twist in their eco-friendly story.
The fear said Ms. Le, is that new companies will come in “to build big resorts and they will have hundreds of big busses with guests from China and Korea and they will ruin this area.”
A tourist scene built on caves
In 1990, just as Vietnam was opening to the West, the government gave permission to Howard Limbert, his wife, Deb, and fellow members of the British Cave Research Association to start surveying the limestone landscape. The cavers had been exploring Mexico and Europe and were keen on visiting Southeast Asia, suspecting it held vast networks of caves. There was no electricity and countless craters from heavy bombing during what the Vietnamese call the American war dotted the landscape.
“I’ve caved all over the world,” Mr. Limbert said. “I’ve been here for 28 years. These are easily the best caves in the world. Just incredible.”
As the Limberts discovered a profusion of caves on regular expeditions, they supplied geological data to the Vietnamese who in 2001 established hundreds of square miles of limestone plateau and tropical forest as Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park; in 2003 it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The town of Phong Nha sits just outside of the park, has a population of a couple thousand and a brief but expanding downtown of small hotels and restaurants in the shadows of hulking cliffs. The Son River, which flows through the town, often inundates it during the rainy season, and after a devastating flood in 2010, the Ho Chi Minh City businessman Nguyen Chau A returned to his homeland. He wanted to help, and have reason to keep coming back. He founded a company called Oxalis Adventureto create jobs and open up the landscape to tourists in a way that would protect the caves and benefit the community.
He hired the Limberts as technical advisers to equip and train guides and porters, many of whom came from families who depended on illegal logging and poaching in the forests. “Their spirit is in the jungle, so I have to build a business based on their spirit,” Mr. Chau A explained in an interview in Phong Nha in May.
When Oxalis sought government permission to run cave tours, protections were built in. A permit for each cave would go to a sole company instead of multiple operators, so that competition wouldn’t drive down prices and fill caves with hordes of tourists.
Oxalis now runs a dozen cave tours and expanded this year into river cruises and village tours. It employs 500 people, nearly all from the province.
“You don’t get any hunters or loggers now,” Mr. Limbert said. “This is one of few places in the world where tourism has actively helped conservation.”
Just enough off the beaten track
The town’s location has also helped: Phong Nha is in the park’s buffer zone, which is supposed to restrict major development. There are few paved roads suitable for trucks and buses, and the nearest train station and small airport are about an hour’s drive away. Developers of large-scale resorts and shopping centers so far have stayed along the coast.
Oftentimes, tourists planning to stop for a day on their way from Hanoi to Hue and Hoi An find Phong Nha so captivating they stick around. You need do nothing more than ride a bike to savor its charm: Past the fish farmers in row boats on the emerald-green river pulling up water grass to feed to carp in the shallows; the steeples of riverbank churches framed by the backdrop of hump-like hills, the water buffaloes lolling in watery rice paddies where women in conical hats bend down to plant; the white storks taking flight as an orange sun sets over oceans of open farmland and unfurling mountain ranges.
Most visitors to the region tour the caves. Hundreds of tourists in only a couple of hours pass through so-called show caves like Paradise Cave, with its half-mile boardwalk and stadium-sizechamber. Others — a much smaller crowd — trek through thick jungles for a few days and roam caverns draped in surreal billowing and dripping limestone formations.
I met with the tourism director for Quang Binh province, Ho An Phong, in his office in Dong Hoi in May. Speaking in Vietnamese through an interpreter, Mr. Phong said he wasn’t interested in rapidly driving up tourism, but wants “step-by-step” growth that doesn’t spoil the natural beauty of the area. Park visitors doubled to about 866,000 in 2018 from 2011, a fraction of the 7 million-plus people who descended on Halong Bay, where resorts, cable cars, theme parks and cruise ships cluster amid karst islets in north Vietnam. Large projects like theme parks and hotels with hundreds of rooms are planned for more suitable areas like Dong Hoi, Mr. Phong said.
The death of a proposal for a cable car into Vietnam’s most famous cave, Son Doong, may be an indication of the government’s intentions for Phong Nha. First explored by the British cavers in 2009 and opened by Oxalis for tours in 2013, Son Doong is more than three miles long and 40 stories high with a jungle and a river — and it put Phong Nha on the map for international tourists. The cable car idea fizzled under widespread opposition, including an online petition and concerns from UNESCO, but rumors of its revival persisted. The government would not permit a cable car in the cave, Mr. Phong said.
“Son Doong is the symbol of Quang Binh tourism,” he said, adding that he wants to preserve the caves and jungles for “100 or 1,000 years to come.” The province hired the consulting firm McKinsey & Company to work on a development plan.
For the most part, Phong Nha remains home to low-key tourism like the Duck Stop farm tour, where mostly Western backpackers come to feed and take selfies with Quynh Tran’s flock of 150 white ducks. He now employs 11 of his relatives who offer farm tours and serve meals. His young cousins work the tables under the palm leaf-topped pavilion, offering travelers 150,000 dong (about $6.50) combos of Vietnamese pancakes and beer, an “awesome duck adventure” and a water buffalo ride. “They come and do my job and pay me money,” Mr. Tran said.
Besides worries about outside developers, locals are also anxious over how the growing ranks of homestays will manage to stay afloat. It’s not unusual to find a decent room in Phong Nha for $10 or $15 online. But at the beginning of 2019, homestay owners say, some were charging far less than that as a way of gaining traction in the market.
Hoteliers were soon waging a price war. In May, Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Le dropped the price of a bed at their Easy Tiger hostel, which they opened in town in 2013, to 30,000 dong, or about $1.30, “to shock the system” and call attention to the unsustainably low prices, Mr. Mitchell said. That prompted a community meeting, which I attended.
About 75 owners of tourism businesses convened in a pale-green auditorium with a golden bust of Ho Chi Minh. Owners upset with the price war made ardent speeches in Vietnamese. Mr. Mitchell and others in the newly formed Phong Nha Community Tourism Club, like Dzung Le, owner of Jungle Boss cave tours, and Hai Nguyen, owner of Hai’s Eco Tours jungle treks, proposed that owners charge at least 120,000 dong for hostel beds and 300,000 dong for homestay rooms.
Mr. Nguyen, who has a stake in Easy Tiger, spoke to applause from the crowd. After the meeting he told me he’d said, “that we should not drop the prices down because if we do it’s not cool for the area. It just makes the whole Phong Nha region becoming very cheap.”
The group agreed to the floor on prices and to explore working on other issues like marketing the area and expanding a “no plastic” movement started by several restaurants.
After the meeting, I wedged into the sidecar of Mr. Mitchell’s Ural motorcycle for a ride back to Phong Nha Farmstay, the French Colonial guesthouse he and Ms. Le opened in 2010 as the first to cater to foreign tourists. We rode by new homestays being built near the town center and ornate Buddhist cemetery plots out in the fields.
Things had changed in Phong Nha and he was uncertain about the future, “My biggest concern is that our vision of an epic unique tourism destination turns into a big mess,” he said. “There’s a fair few of us here who would not like to see that happen.”
If you go
Phong Nha is about a 50-minute drive from the seaside city of Dong Hoi, where the airport has multiple daily flights from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. From closer cities like Hue and Hoi An, you can take a bus directly to Phong Nha, and from Danang there’s a scenic 6-hour train ride along the coast to Dong Hoi. (Negotiate a taxi ride from Dong Hoi; 400,000 to 500,000 Vietnamese dong, about $17.20 to $21.50, is fair. Note that minivans charge more.)
Just about any time of the year is good for exploring Phong Nha, outside of certain days during the mid-September to mid-November rainy season when there can be flooding, but the ideal months are March through August.
For cave tours, go on your own for a few hours to Phong Nha Caveby boat (about $8) or Paradise Cave by foot (about $11), or zip line and swim at Dark Cave. Book full-day or multiple-day trekking and camping excursions at caves operated by Oxalis Adventure andJungle Boss. Hai’s Eco Tours offers hikes through the Phong Nha — Ke Bang National Park. DiDiThoi in 2019 started offering riverboat, cycling and kayaking tours to remote villages. Roam theBong Lai Valley’s half-dozen food, beer and play stops by bicycle or motorbike. Tours and treks generally run from $70 to $160 per day, but can go as high as $3,000 for a four-day Son Doong expedition.
On the outskirts of the town, Chay Lap Farmstay has cottages and swimming and kayaking, and Phong Nha Farmstay offers bungalows and a top spot for sunsets over the countryside. In town, Lucky Homes is a bargain (doubles about $20) with spacious rooms and tasty food on the riverbank.
For local dishes, try Phong Nha Vegan and Bamboo Cafe in town and Moi Moi in Bong Lai Valley for roasted chicken with a special pepper sauce; among the best international foods is Namaste Omar’s Indian Restaurant.
Patrick Scott is a former business editor for The New York Times. Follow him on Instagram: @patrickrobertscott.