After the odyssey out to the Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park area, I was excited to explore the park. I stayed at the Phong Nha Farmstay, the accommodation that put the park on the map. The Farmstay is a huge mansion in the rural rice paddies about 7 miles from the park which has been turned into a BnB, with en-suite rooms, large dining area, pool, and outstanding service. What a cool place to stay! And this sunset view didn’t hurt either:
As cool as the Farmstay was, the park was even more amazing. It is full of war history and has some of the most beautiful scenery you’ll find. Mountains, canyons and valleys as far as the eye can see within the oldest karst mountain formation in Asia, which has been evolving since the Paleozoic era, some 400 million years ago. And within these mountains are more than 300 caves and grottoes comprising almost 130 km, with the vast majority of the area still unexplored.
I did the hallmark National Park Tour. The tour included two cave tours, a 1 mile trek through the jungle, an outdoor BBQ lunch, and then a 600m swim (300 in and back) in a dark cave with nothing but headlamps. Given the park’s remote location, proximity (just north of the DMZ) and terrain, a lot of the jungle guerrilla warfare took place right there. So when we were trekking through, the guides were not joking when they said “stay right on the path, as it’s the only area we can guarantee is completely cleared of explosives.”
As recently as 2013, new caves have been discovered, occasionally with dire consequences for some in the discovering party. The also took us to a small, but very important cave called “8 Ladies Cave”. This cave was used as a makeshift hospital for the North Vietnamese, and named as such due to who perished when the South finally found, and bombed, the cave.
Additionally, out in the jungle, the bugs and animals are no joke. I saw a butterfly the size of my entire hand, and a roach so big it was probably half of the size of my palm.
Monument celebrating the North’s victory:
Welcome to the Jungle:
BBQ lunch under a canopy in the jungle:
8 Ladies Cave:
Seeing this park was an amazing lesson in war history. It also gave me a whole new respect for the soldiers who served in this war. It was truly hard to believe how much warfare occurred there, and really puts into perspective how hard that war was. The unforgiving jungle terrain, deadly bugs, land mines, and heat indices well over 120 degrees with the humidity. All the while, soldiers were wearing long pants and sleeves and carrying dozen of pounds of materials. But this is why we travel – to see the world, and understand more about history and culture.
If you go to Vietnam, Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park will not be easy to get to or from, but it is well worth the trip. I put it right up there with Hoi An and Ha Long Bay on the “must see” list for Vietnam.
Michael Prodanovich is a contributor to Point Me to the Plane, and author of The Ultimate Guide to Free Travel