A Quiet, Little Place Called Phong Nha

Location: Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam

Dawn in Phong Nha fades the sky over this lush, mountainous place from a haunted violet-blue to a 90’s-eyeshadow periwinkle. And the strangeness of these colors is reflected in the landscape, which has the same profile as one of Dr. Seuss’s fantastical worlds. Rounded mountains shaped like the clumsily constructed sand castles of an especially uncoordinated three-year-old rise randomly from otherwise entirely flat fields.  Even the winding river that cuts through it all is so calm that the surface glints green and glassy and reflects the skies, clouds, and cliffs perfectly.  

Even Phong Nha’s main street, which follows the wide curves of the river before cutting inward between the mountains, is disorienting. Everything is a little bit run down, from the skinny, three-story homes painted the bright colors of 80’s architecture to the ones that line the cracked asphalt of the two-lane road. Just behind all of these buildings is a line of ghetto-like, half-built, open concrete shacks that offers everything from haircuts to motorbike rentals to cheap liquor.

I can’t imagine anyone that isn’t a backpacker, local, or nomad staying here. Vietnam’s tourism industry either just hasn’t boomed here yet or it’s bypassed the town almost completely, even though Western influence is present (there’s actually a copy of the Hollywood sign on one of the mountains reading “PHONG NHA” in tall, white letters). What buildings are in town are mostly combination hostels, restaurants, hotels, motorbike rentals, and karaoke bars. I actually ended up staying in a family’s extra room (I’m pretty sure it was the son’s bedroom and they kicked him out for a few nights) of a karaoke joint-slash-convenience store. And beyond the short snake of concrete that defines Phong Nha’s township is just unbroken farmland dotted with homes.

The town is a quick job, a reaction to the recent exploration and public opening of the cave systems of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. You see, Phong Nha’s biggest tourist attraction wasn’t even discovered until the 1990’s and most of it still remains unexplored. The largest cave in the system, Paradise Cave, actually wasn’t even found or named until 2005. Yet, the cave system has now been titled a UNESCO World Heritage Site and tourists come from all over the world to see the natural wonders within these curious mountains.

I only found out about Phong Nha from other travelers; they told me that this newly opened destination is something that you shouldn’t miss if you visit Vietnam. And the town, as tiny, quiet, and offbeat as it is,  is mostly just a stopping point for those visiting the caves, anyway.

Just Outside of Hanoi's Old French Quarter

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi is the crossroads for travel all throughout the north of Vietnam, so chances are if you're headed to Ha Long Bay or SaPa, you'll be back in Hanoi soon. 

Here are some scenes from my second stay in Hanoi. I wandered around just outside of the Old French Quarter.

Drift Backpackers Hostel

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam

I don’t usually like to endorse specific hostels, especially when I’ve only stayed in them for a short period, but I have to make an exception for Drift Backpackers Hostel. That place is so cheap, fun, and happily run that it sucks me in every time. If the showers weren’t cold water only, I think I’d stay there for more than just a few days (and I have friends that have spent an upwards of three weeks in dorms and had to be dragged away).

The Vietnamese staff is incredibly friendly, good humored, and bursting with touchy-feely love for their patrons. Every time I walked through the doors I was greeted with some sort of snack and a moment of giggly hand-holding.

The leader of the love-team is Anna, an adorable woman whose make-up was always on point and whose five-inch heels constantly clack between the dorm rooms and the front desk. I don’t understand how she constantly makes her way up and down the thin, steep spiral staircase that leads up to all the rooms, but she’s always on her game.

This is one of those hostels that you can get sucked into pretty quick. Every night they have happy hour from 6PM-8PM. It consists of two kegs of cheap, warmish beer. You get a mug and drink for free until they’re empty. And that’s that. It doesn’t matter how many people are downstairs; there are always kegs. The environment is so friendly; tons of people travel through these doors and there are always people sitting downstairs, ready to meet others. You’ll definitely make friends if you spend enough time hanging around at happy hour.

Expenses:

  • Dorm Bed Per Night: $2.50

  • Happy Hour: FREE