Phong Nha, Vietnam

Last summer we had the chance to travel to Southeast Asia for about three weeks, with stops in Hanoi, Luang Prabang, Siem Reap, Huế, Phong Nha, and Hội An. Phong Nha is the outlier in this set of places, as it is a rural part of Vietnam that does not see as many tourists as the other places we visited, though this has started to change in the last decade, with dramatic effects for the place and the people who live there. Phong Nha is a rural region in central Vietnam, a few hours from the former imperial capital of Huế, where Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park contains some of the most impressive caves in the world, many of them only recently mapped by researchers, though known to local people in the region for longer. UNESCO named the park and the caves a World Heritage site in 2003, and since then tourist development has picked up in the region as visitors come to see the caves.

We arrived in Phong Nha after a four hour bus ride from Huế, and were dropped off on the side of the road in a rural village. From there we walked, maybe a kilometer or so, to our small farmstay hotel (surprise, it was full of white westerners and we ate pizza). The roads were newly paved, and many of the small farm homes along the road had newish motor bikes, satellite dishes, or outlying concrete construction, all evidence of the capital flowing into the area and underwritten by growing tourism to the region. We only ventured into the central town in the area, Sơn Trạch, when it was time to make our cave trek, as the office of the tour company was located there. All along the short drive from the hotel to the town, I noted young people on new motorbikes, and the town itself (population maybe one to two thousand, according to our hosts) appears to have been mostly built in the last five years, with new construction ongoing along the main streets. Virtually all of this construction is three- or four-story hotels, or buildings to house tourists services, such as small retail outlets or shops selling groceries, water, and souvenirs. US air forces bombed Phong Nha heavily during the last stages of the Vietnam War, as part of the Ho Chi Minh supply trails ran through what is now the national park. A local guide pointed out that clusters of trees in the middle of the extensive rice paddies were often markers of where American bombs had once exploded and damaged fields. I am not sure of the exact processes by which bomb craters might eventually become tree stands, but the widespread and relentless bombing campaigns of the Vietnam War have left lasting scars across the landscape. The negative long-term effects of this were evident as the war was drawing to a close, and are still visible today in areas where hillsides remain denuded of vegetation or you risk losing life and limb due to unexploded bombs and landmines. The area today seems far removed from the ravages of the war, though the sacrifice of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers is memorialized in the national park, where a Buddhist temple stands where several fighters perished in 1972 when an American bombing run sealed the cave in which they had taken refuge and died. The bell at the temple is made from a bomb casing.

Today the caves are the major tourist draw to the region. The company that runs the tours to the caves, Oxalis, is the only one licensed to do so by the Vietnamese government, and is linked to a team of cave researchers based in Britain. Our guide, a young Vietnamese man from the local area, told us that the company makes great efforts to hire locals, and provides extensive language and safety training as part of a commitment to the region and its residents. Once we were geared up, we drove an hour or so into the karst landscape of the park and then set off from the side of the road along a path cut into the thick jungle vegetation. While the hike of a few kilometers was not especially difficult, it was intensely humid under the tree canopy. We were the only two people on this tour, but we were accompanied by our guide, his assistant, three porters, and a ranger from the national park. We visited two caves, the first being Nuoc Nut and the second Hang Va. The trek between the two was more difficult, as we had to scramble up, over and then back down a sharp limestone ridge. At the entrance to Hang Va, the company had established a kind of permanent camp, with tarps set up to protect from the frequent rain, tables, tents, and hammocks, a fully functional camp kitchen (in fact, one of the porters was carrying a new and rather large camp stove on his back to augment what was already there), and a few dugout composting toilets. The caves were impressive, and Hang Va itself had only recently been mapped and added to the tours, so we were among only a handful of people who have had the chance to visit the cave and see the rare conical formations there.

There are lots of pictures of these caves’ interiors online elsewhere, and stories in the New York Times and other media outlets, as well as numerous travel and tour review websites, where you can read about the caves and tours. I was struck most by something the guide told us after dinner at the camp, which was that massive investment in tourist infrastructure was coming to Phong Nha, and that this threatened the park and the caves itself. Though he was happy to have the job as a tourist guide, as it provided him a good income, more language training, and the chance to meet a lot of new people from all over the world (and to use his college education and do something besides be a farmer like his parents), he knew that rapid new tourism development would fundamentally alter the character of the place and likely disrupt the park’s delicate ecosystems and threaten the caves themselves. He mentioned that there was talk locally of building gondola systems to criss-cross the deep, jagged karst valleys in the park and to bring people directly to the entrances of some of the caves. This would inevitably lead to more visitors and ecological harm. Rapid hotel construction in the town and road and other infrastructure development in the wider region was already preparing for this growth in the number of visitors, many of which, our guide explained, were likely to come from Vietnam and especially China. The growth of a more prosperous wealthy and middle class in China especially has meant that Chinese tourists have more expendable income and development at beach resorts, national parks, and in urban shopping districts across Southeast Asia is targeting this cohort of newly affluent tourists. Our guide seemed both excited and melancholy at the prospect of further rapid change to the caves, the park, and the region. This will also mean profound changes in the lives of local people and the local landscape as the web of ecological, economic, and political connections linking Phong Nha to other parts of the region, Vietnam, and the world is altered by an influx of visitors and money.