My first stop after leaving Hanoi to head south was Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in north-central Vietnam. My guidebook informed me that some of the most extensive caves in the world were in Phong Nha-Ke Bang. Other than caves, I didn’t know what to expect. I enjoyed the not knowing part. Sometimes being too informed kills the mystery and surprise of a place.
To get to Phong Nha, I chose to fly from Hanoi to Dong Hoi. I flew Vietnamese Airlines, a state-owned operation. The young Vietnamese flight attendants were welcoming and helpful. The female staff were decked out in teal-colored Ao Dais. The Ao Dai is a traditional Vietnamese silk dress that is form-fitting above the waist and has an upright, round collar. Below the waist, the Ao Dai has a slit on each side which starts at the waistline and runs all the way down to the hem near the ankles. The slits allow the material below the waist flow freely, giving a woman the appearance of drifting with the wind when walking. Ao Dais come in all different colors, and are worn over silk pants with loose fitting legs, allowing the pant material to also flow freely. The pants can be of a matching color but often are not. It is said that the Ao Dai covers everything but hides nothing. This is true. To behold a beautiful Vietnamese woman wearing an Ao Dai is to experience the height of sartorial elegance met with astounding physical beauty.
The flight to Dong Hoi was short, lasting only around an hour. I had arranged airport pick-up through the guest house where I’d be staying, a place called the Phong Nha Farmstay. I was happy to find my driver waiting for me outside the small airport’s modest terminal building. Joining me on the ride to the Farmstay was another traveller, a Dutchman named Stephen.
Soon after leaving the airport in Dong Hoi, the pavement ran out, and our white mini-van bumped along a dirt road heading deeper and deeper into rural Vietnam. Stephen and I chatted as we passed golden fields of rice, farmers grazing their water buffalo, dogs meandering along the roadside, and children playing in front of cinder block homes. I took in the scenery as Stephen told me how he’d been working for the Dutch Embassy in Hanoi for the past few years. The Dutch Government recently told him that his assignment would be ending, and he and his family were being relocated back to the Netherlands. His trip to the Farmstay would be his last adventure before returning home.
After about 45 minutes on the road, we reached the Phong Nha Farmstay. The Farmstay wasn’t a working farm but was a wonderful inn nestled in a farming village called Cu Nam. The Farmstay’s neighbors were Vietnamese farmers who lived in modest homes. The village was located in a gorgeous valley. The setting was nothing short of idyllic. Directly across from the Farmstay was a vast rice field that filled the valley, stretching out towards rolling green hills in the distance.
The inn reminded me of a plantation owner’s home. It was far bigger than any other home in the little village and had a commanding view of the rice field. Its two stories were painted a cheery yellow. On the first floor there was a large common area to take meals, get a drink from the small bar, and chat with fellow travellers. A number of wide doors on the first floor were kept open to allow breezes to enter. Out back there was a small pool for cooling off. On the second floor was a balcony that ran past the rooms. From outside my second floor room I had an amazing view of the valley. Inside my room there was AC, a bed with mosquito netting, and a private bath.
The owners of the Farmstay were a young married couple named Ben and Bich. Ben was an Aussie; Bich was Vietnamese. Ben was a solid, handsome man with blonde hair and an attractive, boyish grin. Ben would have made a splendid model for an LL Bean catalog. His wife Bich was petite but shapely with a beautiful face and gorgeous, shiny raven hair.
Ben and Bich had a tenth month old baby boy. He was a strapping, willful little tike with silky blonde hair and Vietnamese facial features. A rarity in Vietnam, for sure. During the day Ben usually disappeared, leaving Bich to take care of their child and run the inn along with a staff of several Vietnamese from the village. At the hottest part of the day, Bich and the staff would take a siesta and eat lunch and play cards. The staff consisted of several young women and a middle-aged Vietnamese man. While the women played cards, the man chose to nap in a green hammock. Ben and Bic’s son had a habit of disturbing the sleeping man. For instance, one afternoon I watched the little boy walk over to the hammock, take a swig of water from his baby bottle, and then spit the water all over the sleeping man’s face. I found this very amusing, while the little boy’s behavior made Bic very cross. Kids do the darndest things.
Perhaps the best part about staying at the Farmstay was witnessing the daily herding of the animals. Each morning the farmers led their water buffalo, cows, and ducks out into the field to graze on the remnants of the last rice crop. Every evening I would stand outside the Farmstay to watch the parade of animals being herded back in for the night. Many of the herdsmen were children, prodding their large water buffalo along with thin sticks. My favorite was the parade of ducks. Simply priceless. You can see this scene in the video.
While at the Farmstay, I visited a number of caves. I even had the experience of swimming in a cave using a headlamp to light the way. It was an intense experience. Information about the caves can be found in some of my other posts from Vietnam.
Staying in Cu Nam Village was a treat for the senses and the spirit. It was difficult to leave there. I hope to return some day, although with the rate of development in Vietnam, I doubt it will be the same.