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Phong Nha

Dense Vietnamese jungle, the former Ho Chi Minh Trail, and some of the biggest caves in the world.

Story by Dustin Johnston July 24th, 2016

Hai's eco conservation

Phong Nha is new to tourism. I’m told that just 10 years ago the town was starving and mostly living off of trapping animals from the jungle. Tourism has changed everything in the area. In 1991 a local discovered a cave that, when later surveyed in 2009, was found to be the largest cave in the world. This cave, called Hang Son Doong, is just one of many caves in the now protected Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. We heard that just a couple years back, the town had only one bar with a refrigerator. Now there’s all kinds of restaurants, bars, hotels, and travel agencies ready to serve tourists looking to trek in the local jungle and caves. We would have loved to see Hang Son Doong, but it was too far, and too expensive for our trip. Instead we visited smaller caves that still gave us a glimpse into unique culture and geology of the region.

There are a handful of tour companies in Phong Nha, but only one who is doing “eco tourism,” rehabilitating wild animals, educating the public about conservation, and employing former poachers as trek leaders. We were lucky enough to book Hai’s Eco Conservation Tour and enjoyed a difficult but fascinating trek deep through the Vietnamese jungle.

Hai and Khao educate us about the only animal rehabilitation center in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
A civet at the animal rehabilitation center.
One of three macaques we met. Most were taken from locals who tried to keep them as pets. One day they will be reintroduced to the wild.
The macaques were very interested in us and my camera.
A baby macaque hangs in his enclosure.

hiking Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

I over-packed for this hike and brought too much camera gear. I barely even took many photos because the hike was more arduous than photogenic. We saw a handful of small lizards and bugs but nothing to excite the nature photographer in me. The jungle was lush and overgrown and thus I found it difficult to photograph. After an hour or so of hiking, I put my camera away to concentrate on *not* falling down the mountainside.

My wife, Carol, bravely exposes her shoulders to the Vietnamese mosquitoes.
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A view from inside the dense jungle that carpets the mountainside.
We arrived to this overhang where a lunch was already being prepared for us.
Grilled pork to be eaten with cucumber and greens, rolled up in rice paper and dipped in a sweet and sour sauce.
At this point we were all drenched in sweat and our guides looked as if they had been hanging out in air conditioning.

Overnight in a vietcong weapons cave

After a long day’s hike, we came to this cave where we were to have dinner and camp for the night. We were told that this was a supply cave along the Ho Chi Minh trail, where many truck-fulls of ammunition and medical supplies had been stored and protected from American bombings. The cave was mostly manmade, dug out from what was originally a much smaller cave.

The cave was treated as an almost holy place by our tour guides, who laid out some fruit, candles, and incense as votive offerings. They also started a fire in a raised rock pit that they explained was now common culture in the area, always keeping the heat off of the ground in case of any unknown bombs laying untouched in the ground.

Us and our Vietnamese trekking crew posing outside of the weapons cave.
Lighting incense before completing a small prayer over the votive offerings.
Carol uses a headlamp to lead her through the darkness.
Our friend Vien uses his machete to strip banana leaves into dinner plates.
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The first time I've seen an egg fried over a campfire.
Our incredible dinner: grilled chicken, sticky rice with crushed peanuts and sugar, papaya salad, eggs, and all the good sauces to go with.
Our home for the night.
A cinemagraph of the chickens cooking over an open fire.

One day Tu lan cave trek

Not pictured above is how badly Hai’s jungle trek whooped our butts. We were absolutely exhausted afterwards and were questioning our ability to get back out hiking the next day. Luckily, this Oxalis day tour was an absolute cakewalk in comparison. It could really just be considered a nice stretch for our weary legs.

The Oxalis hike took us through an impoverished village just outside the cave system.
In the "small" Rat Cave, named for its entrance's resemblance to an ear of a rat.
Deeper in the Rat Cave, looking back at the light from the entrance.
Inside the cave were countless formations that took tens of thousands of years to create.
Photography was very difficult inside the dark caves but I wanted to post this blurry photo to give an idea of the scale and formations.
Some of the largest cave pearls in the world are found in this region. The pearls in this photo are nearly golf ball sized.
A look at the dense jungle in the national park.
Unfortunately, I was unable to photograph our cave swimming, but here's a photo I snapped after, looking back at the river outside the cave.
Epic landscapes on our hike back to camp.
Footnote: Photos by Dustin Johnston // Twitter, Instagram: @DJPhotoVideo //
Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park Headquarter, Sơn Trạch, Quang Binh Province, Vietnam