Unfortunately we weren’t too keen on Phong Nha town itself. Until five years ago the town was a basic rural jungle community. Apparently all the buildings were wooden, roads were dirt tracks, women would live in pyjamas and children were probably naked. But then the caves were opened to tourists and there was this boom, and it has morphed from a sleepy backwater into a travel destination, where westerners wander round in hot pants and expect cold beer to be available. Hotels and hostels have shot up everywhere and the locals are starting to learn the tricks of the trade, how to make a little bit extra money from each tourist, although some of them still look at you pretty bewildered, especially the old men.
Part of the problem, in our opinion, is that the tourism industry here was founded by westerners. In all fairness, if they hadn’t discovered the caves, pointed out how fantastic they are and how people would be fascinated to visit them, the local people would still be incredibly poor and living hard lives. The caves themselves have also been cared for amazingly well because said westerners appreciate that they’re a natural phenomenon and have helped develop an infrastructure that makes them accessible and safe.
The problem is that the first place to stay that opened in Phong Nha was a large hostel, not a homestay or basic hotel that might help visitors appreciate and understand the lives of local people. It’s called Easy Tiger (a lovely Vietnamese name right?!), it can hold over 200 people at a time, has a pool and will serve Western food, beer or gin and tonic at almost any time of day or night. It has created a definite ‘us and them’ vibe with westerners moving as packs round the town (often wearing very little), not needing to interact with any local because the westerners at the hostel can arrange everything for them. To give credit where credit is due, they do work with local people to arrange and run the tours and they employ over 40 Vietnamese people to help with running such a large hostel.
Another problem is that Easy Tiger has been super successful. And what do the Vietnamese do when something is successful? They copy it. Hence why you get markets full of the same products! So all over town smaller, more basic versions are popping up, offering cheaper dorm beds to rival Easy Tiger. All these places would feel more at home somewhere like Hanoi, or perhaps even Magaluf. What we’d prefer, and other people who travel like us, is something that feels a bit more ‘real’ and would provide an opportunity to actually interact with a family.
Needless to say, we didn’t stay at Easy Tiger. We stayed at a brand new hotel across the road for two nights, which was very comfortable but pretty sterile. Then we moved out into the countryside to a place called The Farmstay, which is surrounded by rice fields. It’s pretty luxury, is much more expensive, also has a pool and is run by Westerners and Vietnamese but it’s much more tranquil and doesn’t really promote the party vibe. Still not quite our style, but a very welcome respite from the town.
This was the early morning view from the farmstay.