It’s sometimes said among travellers in Vietnam that there isn’t much worth seeing between Huế and Hanoi. This is actually true if you’re following the coast. I met a fellow from Vinh, whom I asked about things to do there. He said there wasn’t anything, aside from Uncle Ho’s hometown nearby. That’s why he lived in Huế. However, on the western side of Vietnam you can find one of Vietnam’s greatest natural blessings: Phong Nha – Khe Bang national park, home of Vietnam’s biggest cave system, including Hang Son Doong – the biggest cave in the world.
This account is actually a combination of two visits that I’ve made.
After my long trip from Khe Sanh, arriving at last in Sơn Trạch, I found myself at a rather poor hostel. However, I managed to get myself shifted to another hotel, which turned out to be almost completely empty.
I rode around, took some snaps, checked out the caves. There are farming areas and lots of little roads to explore. The hills are reminiscent of those found in Ha Long bay, and in Tam Coc, and also in the similarly-named Phang Nga, in southern Thailand.
The hotel was fine for the two nights I was there. But for next time, I knew where I’d be staying instead.
The Easy Tiger hostel is the centre of foreign tourism in this area. This one establishment has actually managed to shift the heart of business in town – its end of the street is now the most popular, and the area around the tourist centre is no longer the place to be.
To be fair, the whole town is still in a developing state. Less than a decade ago it was like any other commune in Vietnam, with (I’m imagining) a small market, a few stores and a whole lot of farms. The only foreigners with any interest in the area were speleologists. But all of this has rapidly changed, and is still changing.
On my second visit, I found the hostel I first stayed at was (thankfully) no longer in business. Lots of small restaurants serving western food had sprung up and places that had been new the previous year were now part of the furniture.
Two of these OG venues are D-Arts and the Bomb Crater Bar. I chatted with the owners of BCB who impressed on me the pace of growth in the area. More importantly, I felt how important it was to grow the area in a way that benefits everyone fairly. Easy Tiger helps in this area.
While Easy Tiger dominates the tourist market in Sơn Trạch, the management is trying to give local entrepreneurs some space to grow and a positive example to follow. The kitchen there provides only western food, leaving locals the opportunity to serve Vietnamese food, for example. And it purposefully has no private rooms, only bunks. It also sets a high standard of hospitality, with well-trained staff, no-BS communication and clean facilities. With any luck, the township at the park can build its own positive culture, and avoid becoming a tourist trap.
It will be fascinating to see how this place grows.