In 2005 a German couple arrived in Quang Binh. Working as part of a conservation project between Cologne Zoo and Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, they rented a small house 3km out of Phong Nha Town. Nguyen Thanh Hai, now one of the most successful businessmen in Phong Nha, was brought in to work on the project. He remembers it well.
“Locals stood in front of their house every day and stared at them to see what [they] looked like,” he recalls. “They wanted to see how they move, how they eat. The couple got really annoyed and they had to build a brick fence to cover themselves.”
Fast forward three years and I made my first trip to what was then an untouched, undeveloped limestone karst national park with only one cave open to the public. I was on a one-day tour from Hue.
Like most other non-Vietnamese tourists of the time, I went by bus, rocked up, took the boat into the cave, got hassled by hawkers and then got on the bus and left. Not the destination we know today.
Yet I have a strong visual memory of Phong Nha in 2008. I remember gazing at the mountains and jungle looming in the distance, at the grandiose rock formations towering up into the sky, and saying to myself: “I wonder what’s inside there?” There was something mystical about this eerily beautiful land. Yet at the time, heading into the national park was forbidden.
A year later, Howard and Deb Limbert, together with local guide, Ho Khanh, and a group of scientists from the British Cave Research Association undertook the first survey of Son Doong. What they discovered was the largest cave in the world.
The Growth in Tourism
“In the past there were maybe 15 to 20 foreign tourists a day,” says Ngoc, one half of the husband-wife partnership behind Tuan Ngoc Restaurant. “Now there are around 200 to 400. Tourism in Phong Nha is getting bigger and bigger.”
According to Ben Mitchell who has been in the area since 2006 and started Phong Nha Farmstay and Easy Tiger Hostel, this exponential growth in foreign tourism has changed the reasons for visiting the area.
“[Before the discovery of Son Doong] Vietnamese tourists used to stay in Dong Hoi and do a day trip to Phong Nha,” he recalls. “No money stayed in the community except for jungle meat, which was what the Vietnamese wanted to eat when they came here because it was thought exotic. So what little money that did get through to the community was from decimating the wildlife in the jungle.”
He adds: “Now, because there are so many foreigners running around and so much emphasis on Phong Nha, we’re seeing less and less of that type of tourism. I haven’t seen it openly for years.”
Ben’s wife and business partner, Le Thi Bich, remembers that period well. Having left the area for many years she is proud she has been able to return and play a role in the development of Phong Nha. One of her personal successes was with transportation.
“When I started Farmstay [with Ben], it was so hard for tourists to even get here, let alone get information on what to do and get around the area,” she recalls. “Three years ago, not long after we opened Easy Tiger Hostel, we managed to detour one of the intercity bus companies off Highway 1 out to Phong Nha. Other bus companies quickly followed. Now we no longer have everybody tearing past Phong Nha and missing this awesome area between Ha Noi and Hoi An.”
This plus the growing number of accommodation options has led to the influx of a different type of tourist, something that has been of huge benefit to Ngoc’s business. When they first opened in March 2014, their concept was simply a Vietnamese restaurant for Vietnamese people.
“But a lot of Western people were coming here and asking to try local Vietnamese food,” she says. “So at the moment we do a lot of food for Western people, but it’s different for Vietnamese. Vietnamese like seasoning put in the food, but Westerners don’t like it. So I do Vietnamese food with flavours for Westerners.”
Howard Limbert has also witnessed the transformation. Together with his wife Deb, after 25 years of coming to the area the British-born cavers are the equivalent of Phong Nha royalty.
“It’s changed so dramatically,” he says, citing the way some of the local men on his original caving expeditions have started to become successful. One such person is Ho Khanh, the man who originally discovered Son Doong. Khanh now has a six-room homestay and is the porter manager for Oxalis, the company that runs the tours to Son Doong. The chef from all the original expeditions recently opened up a restaurant in the village, while another of the original porters, An, now owns a three-villa homestay.
“These are the people who found the caves,” he says. “These are people who’ve helped us for the past 25 years exploring caves. So it’s great to get a bit of reward for these boys, as these are the ones who’ve done all the work.”
Yet, working closely with the Quang Binh Tourist Association and the various local people’s committees, one of the problems that Howard has encountered is the lack of both understanding and experience of how you can develop tourism for the benefit of all. One issue is the local food market. Go to Hoi An and the market is one of the key attractions. In Phong Nha, it’s still all about the caves.
“I’m really trying to improve the market,” he says. “I really think they should do something as it’s the first place that floods. It’s absolutely awful. What they don’t appreciate is that so many tourists are coming to this area now that they need a market that’s good enough not only for them, but for tourists. But they have no idea. They are just so far behind in tourism compared to Hue, Hoi An and places like that.”
The problem, he adds is that “when they see something that is a success like a cave, they just think ‘cave’. ‘Oh that’s great, we’ll have more of them,’ instead of thinking of diversity.”
Indeed, it is for this reason that the much-maligned idea of building a cable car to Son Doong has so often been talked about.
“So we’re trying to help them out with diversity,” he continues. “Because as good as [the caves] are — in fact they’re the best — not everyone in the world wants to go down a cave. I find it hard to believe, but not everybody does.”
Howard’s answer is to create other attractions like cycling trails, canopy walks, jungle treks and climbing expeditions.
“It’s got outrageous potential,” he says.
One For All and All For One
One such person who’s tapped into the need for diversity is Nguyen Thanh Hai. Responsible for opening the first bar in Phong Nha, Bamboo Bar, three years ago he partnered up with Ben and Bich Mitchell and Mike Rowbottom to build Easy Tiger, the first backpacker hostel in the area. He has since started up his own eco tours. The idea for the tours came from frequent visits to the local animal rescue centre.
“I created the eco tours after I came to the rescue centre and saw really shit things happening,” he explains. “The government doesn’t have enough money to support it. Vietnam is a developing country, so money is needed to invest on things like hospitals, roads and schools. Animals aren’t important.”
The tours have two benefactors. The first is the rescue centre itself. He puts money into a fund which he passes over to the centre manager every two or three months. “They use that money to buy food for the animals, to buy medication, to make repairs, to buy tools, for everything.”
The second set of benefactors are the locals. So, rather than hiring a van — which employs two or three people who are almost always not local to Phong Nha — Hai will hire motorbike drivers who “follow the tourists, are porters, carry the water, the food and everything.”
This way he can give money to nine people from Phong Nha rather than the two or three people who own the van. And, says Hai, they’re earning more money than they would get if they worked in construction or other manual labour jobs.
“I try to educate them,” he adds. “Look, we don’t destroy any trees or animals, but at the end of the day you’ll still get money. If you destroy the forest you can get money now, but in the future you won’t have any and your children won’t have any. But if you keep the forest intact, you will have money now and money for the rest of your life and for your children and their grandchildren.”
The key, says Hai, is that everyone works together, “that we think about the future, about the big picture.”
A Helping Hand
Dzung from Jungle Boss Homestay also believes in the idea of working together and positive competition. His own addition to the pot has been the creation of The Phong Nha Homestay Community together with a website for a number of guesthouses — phongnhahomestay.com. This way he can help other business owners who have one huge disadvantage; they don’t speak much English.
“We work together,” he explains. “I send people to the other homestays. If they’re full, they can send to me. So we try to help them… and I’m helping them with emails and so on.”
For him it’s important that everyone gets benefit from the influx of tourist dollars to Phong Nha.
At my homestay I’ve got three rooms and I’ve got some locals working for me,” he says. “I try to persuade my guests to take Easy Rider, so they can support local people who will drive you to the caves on motorbikes. I myself run a hiking tour to the abandoned valley where you can do one-day hiking, explore a cave and the jungle and swim into the cave.
“That way you can involve people working as porters to carry food and equipment. It benefits the community. That’s what we’re all doing at the moment — Phong Nha Farmstay, us, Oxalis. We try to involve more local people. A lot of people have a job now.
He adds: “Five or six years ago those people who work in tourism now used to be hunters, and cut down trees. These jobs stop them [doing that] and now we’re in the same boat. Now they look after the environment. They know they have to keep the environment clean so people will come back, and they collect rubbish.”
This ethos of working together is reflected by Ben Mitchell.
“To develop a good town for tourism, we’re trying to get everyone to work together… to make sure that everyone’s making some money out of it, and that the [experience] is good for the customers so that they’re going away from Phong Nha and not having gripes.”
In Search of Diversity
To ensure that the money truly gets spread around, it’s important that it’s not focused on one place — the centre of Phong Nha Village. This is something that concerns Ngoc from Tuan Ngoc restaurant who feels that the centre of the village is now looking like a city, while head out just 2km, and people are still very poor.
“There is a big gap between rich and poor,” she says. “I would like to see things change, like they’ve changed with the Pub With Cold Beer. Before, the couple who owned the place were very poor. Now they have a new house, a lot of people come there to eat their food. I want other people to be like them. I want the tourism to spread out and help local people.”
Ben Mitchell has a number of answers to this conundrum. While as Howard says, inevitably people from outside the province will come in, buy up land and start trying to make some money — they’re already having issues with the bus companies — there is much that can be done locally.
One idea that Ben has is to try and expand the different types of business models that everyone has. Through this fashion they can create a place with diversity rather than one which is full of copycats with each business providing exactly the same product as the next.
He cites the example of Bong Lai Valley, 5km to the east of Phong Nha Village. There are a number of locally owned businesses there — Wild Boar Eco Farm, The Duck Stop, Muoi Muoi Restaurant, The Pub With Cold Beer, The Pepper House Farmstay — and each one has a different model, a different attraction.
The Wild Boar Eco Farm, for example, is a chill-out places with wild boars, while The Duck Stop sells refreshments and home-grown pepper. The Pub With Cold Beer is famous for its barbecued chicken and, naturally, the cold beer, while Muoi Muoi cooks up good, wholesome local food. Then there’s the Pepper House Homestay with its four rooms around a pool. “It’s a big swimming pool set in the middle of the countryside with nothing around it,” says Ben. “It’s really, really beautiful.”
Another idea he’s pushing is branding the locally grown pepper.
“We’re trying to make Phong Nha black pepper famous,” he explains. “We’ve already got The Nam Hai and Victoria Hoi An using the pepper in their kitchens. And someone in Hoi An is selling the pepper.”
And then there’s the concept of marketing Phong Nha as three separate areas: Phong Nha Village, Bong Lai Valley and Farmstay Village.
While Ben cites unforeseen problems like growing amounts of rubbish being strewn around the town and difficulties dealing with waste, the general outlook is positive.
“Everything here is for the community,” he says. “It’s not individualistic. And it’s not everyone trying to cut everyone off all the time.”
Yet Ben is also aware that as a foreigner who’s running two successful businesses in the area, he has to give something back. By thinking and acting in the interest of the community at large, it allows him to live and operate in Phong Nha.
“Can you imagine what the locals would think if they hadn’t had the opportunity to be part of it all?” he says. “They’d be making life very difficult.”
Photos by Nick Ross and Julie Vola