If saying in cinema terms, Vietnam can be considered the superstar of Southeast Asia. Endless war movies and the odd love film have beamed images of its beautiful scenery and jungle vistas to television screens and cinemas across the globe.
Before we’d even set foot in the country, my boyfriend and I had very clear expectations about what we would see. Naive as we were, our preconceptions could not have been more wrong …..until we went to Phong Nha-Ke Bang, the national park which borders Laos.
It was there that much of the hand to hand jungle combat made famous in films such as Platoon actually took place. For the first time, the scenery we passed corresponded with all the movies we knew – rivers and jungles and dense vegetation, as well as rice paddies, villages and traditional rural life. There is much in the area for those that are interested in finding out about the American War and local tour operators run trips to many sites in which key battles took place. Significant sections of the famous Ho Chi Minh trail are located in the park, and it is possible to visit the nearby Vinh Moc tunnels, the Ben Hai River Museum, and the Hien Luong Riverbank where the former demilitarized zone was officially set.
But Phong Nha is more than the sum of its war connections. Due to its biodiversity, unique beauty and geodiversity, the national park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. Hidden in the depths of the mountains is the spectacular Son Doong (the world’s largest cave, discovered in 2005). If that doesn’t satisfy your caveman instincts, pop into Phong Nha cave which contains hundreds of beautiful stalactites and stalagmites as well as the world’s longest underground river.
The trickiest thing about the area is getting there. Be warned: it is remote, but worth the journey, and the cheapest option is a six hour haul by local bus from Danang. Our bus ride entailed an ongoing game of musical chairs while passengers and their luggage (including a motorbike) were shuffled around the available space. We slept at the Phong Nha farmstay, a little utopia with a swimming pool at the end of a rice paddy, and spent happy evenings there meeting other travelers and trying local dishes.
My favorite day was actually the least activity packed – I simply went for a walk with some new friends along the local roads. I’ll forever chuckle over the excitement we caused when we walked past a school – all the children burst through the gate and surrounded us, laughing and demanding to have their photos taken. Their enthusiasm and warm welcome, in the midst of the beautiful national park, is one of my happiest memories from our travels in Vietnam.