Blazing the Banana Pancake Trail: Phong Nha, Vietnam

Greetings from Phong Nha, Vietnam, about 35km west of the unassuming beach town of Dong Hoi. Historically, this area was known for its geography: it’s just an hour north of the DMZ, and was the site of heavy fighting in the Vietnam (American) War. But geology, too, is important here: Phong Nha is the site of a massive national park and cave system, home to a handful of the world’s most stunning caves. Despite the incredible tourist potential, the caves–nay, the entire region–seems completely neglected by tourists. But today I witnessed a sea change in the tides of tourism, initiated by none other than the Banana Pancake Trailblazers, Lonely Planet.

I’m staying at the Phong Nha Farmstay, a unique lodging run by an Australian-Vietnamese couple. The name is only somewhat accurate: The owners built the property to resemble an old French colonial farmhouse, but the place itself does not operate a farm. In the middle of friggin nowhere and opened just seven months ago, it’s as off-the-beaten-path as it gets in Vietnam. The huge, faux-farmhouse is set plop in the middle of hundreds of hectares of rice paddy and, yes, farms and has gained a quiet but steady following in the backpacker crowd. The place was buzzing but not full, and my newest travel buddy, Ailien, and I enjoyed a quiet sunset from a pair of hammocks on our first night.

The Phong Nha Farmstay

The Farmstay's front yard

I stepped in some mud. This became known as Paddy Foot.

Yesterday we hopped on the back of a pair of motorcycles, driven by a couple of local guys. I’d have rented one myself, but they didn’t have automatics, and pathetically, I can’t drive a manual transmission. (Yet. This is on my self-betterment list for 2012). We spent the entire day on the bikes, gazing dreamily as undulating, impossibly green rice paddies passed by; hugging turns around farmlands that stretched as far as our sunglassed eyes could see, waving enthusiastically to gaggles of children laughing and shouting “hello!!” at us; zipping around light bicycle and motorbike traffic and drinking in deserted highways lined with lush, tropical landscape all around. We were on Victory Highway #20 for much of the trip, which was built by the Viet Cong during the American War.

Entering the Phong Nha National Park

River running through Phong Nha National Park

Between mind-blowing landscape on the bike, we made a number of stops, including at Paradise Cave, discovered just two years ago. It’s Vietnam’s largest and most impressive cave. It’s 33 kilometers long, but the public can walk through just the first kilometer. And it was fabulous–I never dreamt of such an otherworldly landscape, with arching ceilings, mind-boggling stalagmites and stalactites, never-ending cavernous recesses and all-around sheer magnificence. It was mostly empty–there were maybe 30 or so Vietnamese tourists milling about, but the place felt deserted. (Could have been the 600 stone steps required to reach the mouth of the cave…).

Paradise Cave

Taking a break on the highway

In fact, deserted is a good word to use. There were basically no tourists–we saw one other Westerner all day–and the highways were all but empty. Only when we arrived back at the Farmstay we were reminded that we weren’t too far off the the Banana Pancake Trail after all. We took quick showers, as the hot water runs out fast, and settled in for an evening of socializing with our fellow farmstayers.

Sunset over the farm

And then–something amazing happening. It turns out the new edition of Lonely Planet Vietnam came out last week, and the Phong Nha Farmstay is in it. Ben, the Australian half of the ownership, burst into the room. Beer in one hand, newly pressed guidebook in the other, he announced in his loudest, drunkest voice that they’d made it. It was the first copy of the physical book he’d seen, and not only is the Farmstay in the book, it’s LP‘s “Top Choice” of lodging in these parts. And what’s more–this entire region of the country had just two paragraphs in the 2009 edition. This one has an entire chapter, complete with the newly mapped Paradise Cave, which hadn’t even been discovered when the last edition came out.

A word on the Farmstay. The farmstay was buzzing, but not full, and the vibe was low-key and, yes, a bit exclusive. You sort of got the feeling that you’d arrived at a club for the cool travelers–everyone had a motorbike, no plan, and an armful of moderately hardcore traveling stories. There were no rookies, and we preferred it that way. It was a good crowd, fun without being rowdy, an equal balance of young and old, and new friendships were made over drinks in the evening.

The LP listing will change much of that. Ben, despite his frat-boy beer-cheersing euphoria, had a look of knowing in his eyes as well, realizing what awaits him. He built this “farmhouse” with his hands, has a 16-month-old son, and will soon have many expectant LP-toting backpackers to please. His face showed equal parts pride and distress.

As Ben was rounding up the staff and guests to take a shot to celebrate the LP release, a van pulled up with four new arrivals. Ben hurried off, saying “Thor, are you Thor? Welcome to the Farm, man!” and enthusiastically greeting his new customers. As we all prepared for the shot again, the baby started crying, and Bich (his Vietnamese wife) quickly attended to him. Finally we got the shot off the ground, group picture and all.

Am I happy for Ben and Bich? Naturally. I understand it, too: Both Awamaki and The Big Idea are in their respective Lonely Planet guidebooks, and I get how important that kind of recognition is for business. I even understand how seeing one’s labor of love in print in the sacred LP is a form of validation. It’s exciting. But, as any traveler can attest, the LP cult is sort of out of control. In the last LP, this region goes basically unmentioned, and so goes basically deserted. Last week, the LP came out, and within months this entire region will change. Ben’s already tried spreading the word around to the sleepy cave-tour agencies in town, but, in his words, “they have no idea what this means.”

Ailien left today and I took a long bike ride to another cave, this one a water cave, to check it out. Again, deserted, and one other lone Westerner. This cave was mapped in 1990 and was known as the Cave of Teeth–though the “teeth,” or stagmites that guarded the entrance, were blown off by the US during the war. The Viet Cong used it as a hiding place.

Surreal landscape inside Phong Nha Cave--that's a sandy beach leading to the river!

I’m certainly glad that I got to experience this part of Vietnam before the onslaught of tourists arrive. It was a real highlight–maybe THE highlight of this country for me. No doubt I would recommend the caves and Farmstay to anyone willing to listen, but it saddens me to know that with increased numbers, some of the magic here will be lost. The LP effect is not unique to this place and, despite all travelers’ reluctance to adhere to the LP path, we all end up doing so to one extent or another. In that way, the LP path and the Banana Pancake Trail are inextricably linked–indeed, LP is the blazer (or is it paver?) of the Banana Pancake Trail. And sure–the beaten path is beaten for a reason. But one of the biggest joys of this trip has been escaping it and finding tranquility and true examples of everyday life in Asia. Phong Nha was one such experience, but won’t be for long.

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