Off the Beaten Track in Rural Vietnam

When I was planning my trip to Vietnam, I stumbled across a post about Phong Nha National Park, right in the heart of rural Vietnam, between Hanoi and Hue. It wasn’t somewhere I’d even heard of before, but looking through the pictures and blog posts, I knew I had to add it to my itinerary. The only problem was, it was pretty out of the way, and my travel planning skills weren’t really that great yet. But, that’s when i found the Buffalo Run tour lead by Vietnam Backpacker Hostels (look out for more posts on those two things coming soon!), that would take me to all the spots I so desperately wanted to visit, without the need for intense planning.

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We came into the national park on day three of our trip, so I’d already experienced the Vietnamese jungle, Cuc Phong National Park, and Trang An, before taking the 6 hour night bus into the park. We stayed in the Gecko Hostel in town, which was cosy, clean and had an amazing breakfast! We were only spending one day here, but it was jam packed, and we would be hitting all the highlights!

First stop was Paradise Cave. This is probably the most famous cave within the national park, and is also one of the worlds largest. To reach the cave entrance, we first had a fun ride on a park buggy, before commencing a 15 minute walk up some rather steep steps to the mouth of the cave. Inside, there were even more steps to contend with, but luckily they were going down this time. The cave really is huge, and the beautiful lighting really gives the whole place an eerie glow.

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The cave is filled with stalagmites and stalactites of all shapes and sizes, and you are able to explore the cave easily via a raised wooden platform that runs the length of the vast grotto. In total, it took us around 30-40 minutes to fully explore the cave, take some epic snaps, and head back up them epic stairs! Then, as we set of back to our bus, the heavens opened in a rather dramatic fashion, meaning we were left huddling under a shelter waiting for our buggy to appear!

Our next stop was a natural water park for lunch and swimming. Our food was served on a traditional, bamboo woven basket, and we tucked in with our hands to enjoy some freshly cooked chicken, prawns, sticky rice, and vegetables. It was traditional Vietnamese food at its best, and I loved it. After the food had settled, it was time for a dip in the water. The pool is situated between two natural waterfalls, which makes for a rather strong current. This means everyone must wear a lifejacket, which would’ve been no problem if any of the jackets had fit me! I tried on a bunch, and even with multiple adjustments, they were all either too big or too small, which meant that floating was a little more uncomfortable than it should have been!

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The water and scenery made up for it though. After leaping off the jetty, the cool, crispness of the water was a little shocking – every other body of water I’d been in in Vietnam had been fairly warm. But, soon it was nothing but refreshing to relax and float around in the spring water. You can hire kayaks here too, even thought the pool is quite small, everyone seemed to be having a great time trying to paddle against the current. For those of us who prefer a more sedate water experience, you can cling onto one of the many floating rings to steady yourself against the pull of the water, and enjoy your surroundings.

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After a quick dry off, it was time to board the bus once again, as we headed to The Pub With Cold Beer – the parks most famous watering hole for tourists. Before this pub popped up, there was nowhere in the park to relax with a cold beer, so it soon grew in popularity. Our bus dropped us off a short walk from the pub, to allow us to enjoy the beautiful rural landscpae that surrounded us, with views of mountains that were actually in the neighbouring country of Laos. As we were walking down, the sun was just beginning to set, so the lighting gave the whole area a kind of glow- this was a walk I really enjoyed!

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The pub itself is rather isolated, so you’ll need some help to get there on your own – either a guide or a taxi (or maybe just a map if you’re feeling extra confident), but when you do arrive, it is definitely worth it. The pub is all outside, made up of long, wooden tables, and sheltered beneath a large wooden roof. The back of the bar is lined with hammocks of every shape and size and, no surprise, is where I spent most of my time. The beer here is so cold, its frozen! Mine was actually rather difficult to drink, as the block of ice was constantly rising to the surface and pushing beer out of my bottle, but once it calmed down, it was nice and refreshing.

The biggest draw to this pub though, is the children who live here. They are definitely not afraid of foreigners! As we approached the bar, the kids came hurtling down the road to greet us and lead us by the hand into the pub. Once there, they proceeded to ‘steal’ everyone’s phones and cameras to take as many pictures as they could, play with snapchat filters, and entertain themselves with phone games. They were adorable, and I ended up with some rather interesting pics of the experience thanks to them!

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After a couple of very cold beers, the bus picked us up to take us to our final stop of the day – Phong Nha Farmstay. This was where we would stop for dinner before heading back to our hostel for the night. The farmstay has some great reviews on trip advisor as a place to stay inside the national park, and they offer a number of trips. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the best experience there.

The bar/ restaurant area is really beautiful. The roof is covered in numerous dangling lanterns, giving the whole place a nice chilled vibe, and through the darkness I could see that we were right on the edge of some body of water. The food here was very good. I tucked into a nice, juicy cheeseburger, topped with bacon – it was amazing. We relaxed here for a couple of hours, sitting and talking with a couple of beers, and enjoying a game of pool. At one point, the manager came over, and out of nowhere, asked us to move inside as we were being too loud. Not really a problem, we were laughing quite a bit, so I get that part. The problem came after when another staff member told us how angry the manager was, as he had told us before to be quiet – only he hadn’t. I ended up feeling like I was basically being kicked out for talking. It was a bit of a sour way to end the night. Apparently, the manager there has had problems with other tour groups that had visited too, maybe he’s not a fan of people visiting who aren’t staying the night. Either way, it ruined a perfectly good evening for us.

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Despite the problems we encountered at the Farmstay, our day in Phong Nha National Park was nothing short of epic. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to explore so much of this area in just one day, and would have loved some more time to explore Dark cave (where you can zip-line through the cave, and float in muddy water pools), and ride around the beautiful landscapes some more. But, the ease of having the whole day planned for me, and being taken to each place on the same bus, made the experience really memorable. This was a great way to get off the beaten track and enjoy a different side to Vietnam.

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Off the Beaten Track

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