Dispatch: Exhilarating Outdoor Adventures in Tranquil Quang Binh
Photos by Michelle Rae Uy
Seven different rivers, sort of creamy emerald in color, run past breathtaking green karst peaks through lush farmlands as far as the eye can see. A few motorcyclists and the occasional water buffalo, kept domestic in these parts to help till the rice fields, employ the otherwise quiet rural roads. Warm villagers and their smiling children take the time to look up from their daily tasks to welcome and wave you past in pronounced sincerity.
In this province in Central Vietnam, there’s that calming hush, old-world charm and good natured-ness one might expect from the countryside. And yet, being in the midst of it all still feels wonderfully foreign and pleasantly surprising, especially to city folks like me.
This is Quang Binh province. Less than two hours south of Hanoi by plane, it sits in the foothills of the Annamite Range and is undeniably serene. But it is also ruggedly beautiful and has become the terminus of choice for dauntless travelers seeking adventure. Backpackers, outdoorsy types and thrill seekers descend upon this region to immerse themselves in its many thrilling pursuits.
It’s all thanks to Phong Nha-Ke Bang, the spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site situated in this province. It’s home to the largest, Son Doong, and one of the longest, Phong Nha, cave systems in the world along with 200 plus smaller ones. They’re the real crowd drawers in this region.
The centerpiece of the park is Son Doong; but the multi-day guided trek through mountainous jungle terrain to get there requires a certain level of physical strength and agility, and is not for everyone. There are, of course, easier yet equally amazing alternatives, two of which I had the pleasure of visiting during my short time there. One of them is Thien Duong, named Paradise Cave owing to the heavenly cool microclimate refuge it provides from the usually sweltering Vietnam weather—at least according to our local guide.
Its magnificent and towering cave formations are staggering: hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites bedeck this colossal cave from floor to ceiling, as do a few pillars and high arches. It’s a truly enchanting scene, the stuff of fairy tales; and visitors can witness it—with or without a tour guide—along a continuous, well-kept wooden bridge running through the first 19 miles to which the public has access.
My personal favorite, however, has to be Hang Toi (Dark Cave). While considerably smaller and less grandiose, this grotto offers a more exciting undertaking. Visitors have a choice of either zip lining or kayaking to its entrance (I chose the zip line) before delving down its muddy, at times narrow and mostly sloshy trail. Not to worry, all tours are guided for obvious safety reasons.
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The terminus ad quem is a sizable mud bath, which our own guide insists has skin-cleansing properties. The mud here is so thick that even the heaviest person in the group can float on it effortlessly. The trek to it is a messy business for sure, one that involves a lot of ungraceful slippage and splashing about. But it’s a fun experience and a unique one at that. How often do you get to take a nice, albeit ever so slightly uncomfortable, dip in a thick pool of mud inside a cave in the dark? It’s definitely one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences you cannot and must not pass up.
The ragbag of such outdoor exploits in Quang Binh has led to the incarnation of a number of idyllic homestays that essentially function as comfortable bases for travelers. One such accommodation is the lovely Chay Lap Homestay where my group stayed for the night.
Nestled in the shadows of a few limestone outcroppings just off of Ho Chi Min Tay not far from a small local community, Chay Lap flourishes as a peaceful, sustainable retreat. But to its guests, it’s more importantly a welcome respite after a busy day outdoors, promising modern, if minimalist, luxuries such as air conditioning, an outdoor pool, a poolside bar and prix fixe dining.
I especially enjoyed all the special small flairs—the lemongrass scent in the guest rooms, the black out curtains in my deluxe room (there are four room categories available: standard, superior, deluxe cottage and deluxe), the addictive rice crackers that you can request more of at dinner, and the complimentary mountain bikes that guests can use to explore the nearby village and surrounding Jurassic Park-esque area. They make the above and beyond service the friendly staff provides just seem like a nice little bonus.
Those who prefer a more urban setting to retire to at the end of the day can head straight to Dong Hoi, Quang Binh capital and closest city to Phong Nha-Ke Bang. While it lacks the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, the city is slowly galvanizing into a tourist destination in its own right. Here, three- to five-star hotels are on offer to travelers for cheap. Four-star Muong Thanh Quang Binh Hotel, for example, starts at $31 a night. Some of these hotels are even perfectly set along the coastal road for lovely views of the water and easy access to the city’s humble promenade.
Make no mistake, however. While Dong Hoi is more popularly a great base for explorers of the national park, there are many things to do in the city itself. After all, it does boast a number of modern bars, cute cafes and small restaurants that provide that not-to-be-missed traditional Vietnamese dining experience, as well as a park to sit in and watch fishing boats sail past.
And then there’s its promenade. Several food vendors set up shop here at sundown to offer seaside dining or a place for people to have beer with friends. It’s a great nighttime spot if you’re looking for something low-key for a change. But in my opinion, it’s even better at dawn.
Before heading back out, stop here for an awe-inspiring view of the sunrise. There’s something about watching the morning sun, which in this part of the world is often always unapologetically bright orange, perfectly round and enormous, paint the sky pink and purple while silhouetting everything else that is just so quintessentially Quang Binh. And frankly, I can’t think of a better way to start yet another adventurous day.
As foreigners need to obtain a Vietnamese driver’s license to drive in Vietnam and public transportation in the rural areas is few and far between, it is recommended for travelers to make transportation and tour arrangements with a tour company prior to arrival. Oxalis Adventure Tours offer several packages that include round-trip airport transports, accommodations at Chay Lap Farmstay and guided tours. For shorter visits, Phongnha Discovery offers a two-day package that includes transportation, one-night stay at Chay Lap, some meals, and visits to both Paradise and Dark Caves as well as Phong Nha Cave.
More by Michelle Rae Uy
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