Seasoned travellers, Brett and Linda Hardaker (Ken’s brother and sister-in-law), are recently back from Vietnam where they visited two locations that are currently not high on most travellers’ itineraries, but that’s about to change. In this, our first ever guest post, Brett and Linda report on what they think will soon become must see destinations for any trip to Vietnam – coastal Phu Quoc and Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park.
Our previous trip to Vietnam in October 2013 encompassed the well visited cities of HCMC, Hanoi and Da Nang (Hoi An), all excellent and must see destinations for the first time visitor, however when Jetstar released some very inexpensive return direct flights to HCMC for dates in Feb 2018 it was time to research some of the less frequented destinations for this journey. After some reading and internet searches we settled on Phu Quoc and the cave district of Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park.
We flew from Sydney direct to HCMC with the flight on time and arriving at 12.30am. Our flight to Phu Quoc departed at 6am the same day so we checked into the very basic but affordable Erato Boutique Hotel. It’s within walking distance from the arrival hall and for $25* per double room it was ideal for a shower and few hours rest prior to our next flight.
Note that flights to Phu Quoc depart from HCMC Domestic terminal which is a 500m walk from the International terminal. Allow extra time for security and passport checks at both International and domestic terminals at HCMC, queues can be 1 hour or more just to pass security.
* All prices quoted in this post are in Australian dollars.
Phu Quoc (Pronounced Foo Wok or Foo Kwok) is an island located off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand and a short 45-minute flight west from HCMC. As it is part of Vietnam no additional visa requirements are required to visit. The route is serviced with regular daily flights from HCMC through local carriers Jetstar Pacific and Vietjet. A one-way flight with luggage should cost less than $80. With a new International airport just opened direct flights from other nations are quickly opening up. The island itself is the largest of all the Vietnamese islands at 567km2 and is approx. 50km long from north to south and 28km at its widest point in the north and about 3km wide in the south. Accommodation choices are plentiful and for all budgets and tastes with the majority located on the west coast, south of the largest town Duong Dong, along a 20km stretch of palm fringed coastline not unsurprising known as Long Beach.
Local taxis are cheap and readily available from the airport. Expect to pay less than $10 from the airport to your Long Beach accommodation or around $15 if you’re staying north of Duong Dong near Ong Lang Beach.
We had the next 5 days to discover the island and as our accommodation (Mai House Resort) was located on Long Beach, roughly the geographical central of the island, we decided to rent a scooter for 2 days, dedicating a day each to explore the south then the north. The idea of riding a scooter in Asia has never thrilled me however other than local private tours which can be expensive, getting around the island can be difficult. Local buses are sporadic and only service the route between the main port (An Thoi) and Duong Dong, rental cars are non-existent and cycling in tropical heat across long distances had no appeal. That leaves taxis or scooter rental as your only option.
Scooter rental is available from most hotels, shops, cafes and of course dedicated scooter rental shops. Expect to pay between 150,000 and 250,000VND ($9 to $14) per day depending on the age and quality of the scooter. You will spend $1 or $2 on fuel per day. The main north to south road is in excellent condition with long stretches of newly constructed dual carriageways, dedicated bike lanes and very little traffic…at least for now. Other peripheral roads are well paved however some of the tracks to the beaches are dirt, potholed and bumpy. If you intend to rent a scooter, drive slowly, stick to the right, always wear your helmet and you will be fine. The locals will give you are wide berth and a scooter will give you the freedom to explore all the nooks and crannies of the towns and coastline. Once we got on the road it was a lot of fun and we felt quite safe at all times.
Note: Scooter rental practices can at times be a little relaxed, not needing renters to produce a bike licence from their home country. We'd recommend only experienced scooter or motorbike riders rent scooters. It's also worth checking with your travel insurance provider beforehand if you are covered for accidents or losses in relation to scooter rentals in Vietnam.
Our trip south followed the main highway towards An Thoi, the island’s port and second largest town where after an hour or so riding we arrived, spending some time wandering the local market and bustling harbour. The port supports a large fishing fleet as well as other tourist vessels taking day trippers, snorkelers and scuba divers to the nearby An Thoi islands and surrounding reefs.
We also stumbled across a very large and impressing looking cable car stretching from An Thoi to the nearby islands, only to learn that it is in fact the world’s longest and fastest cable car. Who would have thought! Straddling the 3 nearby islands via huge 160m pylons, the ride terminates at Hon Thom taking 15 minutes to reach and travelling at speeds in excess of 30km/hr.! We found the gondola boarding point, a kitschy concrete lost city of Atlantis style building, located at the end of a new road, the turnoff of which is approx. 2km north of town on the main highway. (All signage is in Vietnamese so look for the sign with the picture of the cable car!)
We had contemplated a boat trip to the An Thoi islands but after discovering the cable car we decided 15 minutes to Hon Thom, supposedly one of the prettiest islands was an efficient use of time. The attraction had only been opened several days and with few punters around we spent the 500,000 VND ($30 round trip p.p) and boarded the empty gondola car to see what all the fuss was about.
To say this is an impressive piece of engineering is an understatement and if you are into cable cars this is the mecca. The views of the harbour, outer islands and surrounding reefs are stunning, and the final destination of Hon Thom was no doubt a pristine piece of paradise before the development. The small sandy beach that you are ferried to in electric carts after you step off the cable car is pretty and excellent for a swim. Parasailing, jet skis and an inflatable water park are all on offer as well as a large open-air restaurant. There are numerous theme park style rides in various stages of construction so in future there will be plenty of other attractions on the island designed to extract some additional dong from your wallet. The beach experience is free, and we stayed for around an hour before heading back for the return journey.
Other sites worthy of a visit in the south include Sao Beach and the Phu Quoc Prison. The prison was originally built in 1949-1950 by the French Colonist to jail those considered dangerous to the colonial government and was then used by the Americans to house Vietcong and North Vietnamese POWS during the Vietnam war. It’s located on the main highway approx. 3km north of An Thoi. Mannequins depicting various forms of torture dot the precinct however according to some locals we met, the facts surrounding the brutal treatments metered out to Vietcong prisoners are questionable at best so visit with an open mind. Entry is free.
2km further north from the prison you will find the turnoff to Sao Beach, a beautiful white sand beach with incredible turquoise water. If you can tune out to the drone of the jet skis and arrive early or late in the afternoon to avoid the hordes of people, then it’s certainly worth a visit. Park your scooter in the main carpark and walk 500m up the southern end of the beach to escape the crowds. There are bars and restaurants scattered along the entire beach. Unfortunately, plastic and litter is a problem on the high tide mark as it is in most parts of Asia. The water was clear and inviting when we were there.
With more than half of the island declared National Park, the north offers a different landscape to the south with mountains and dense jungle dominating the interior. Phu Quoc is famous for its pepper and fish sauce so try to incorporate a visit to a farm or factory or both if you have time. There are pepper farms dotting the countryside and fish sauce factories in the main town, so you’ll have no trouble locating one. Our journey north took us through the centre of Duong Dong and onto the main highway towards the tip of the island.
Duong Dong is an interesting town and its bustling market and picturesque harbour brimming with the local fishing fleet make it worthy of a half day exploration. At dusk the night market comes alive with a plethora of “choose your own” seafood restaurants and although you’ll pay more here the freshness is guaranteed.
Leaving the main town, the excellent highway north becomes increasingly deserted, passing some small villages before winding its way through some lush hilly terrain, terminating after 27km at the northernmost part of the island and the tiny village of Thom Beach. The small family run establishment here (Look for the “Local Beach” sign) is an excellent spot for a refreshment or local seafood dish. Don’t expect a large expanse of sandy beach here, the coast is more mangroves and shallows, however the lack of development, coconut fringed shoreline and vistas across the sea to nearby Cambodia make it compulsory if you are in the vicinity.
The “jungle” road which dissects the north western part of the island ends at Ganh Dau and is certainly your most scenic option if you intend to explore the western shore. The turnoff is located 13km south on the main highway from Thom Beach. Heavily pot holed and washed out in some sections, the 11km stretch of dirt road requires respect so take it easy and you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful ride past organic pepper farms, meandering through cooler dense jungle and forest before you sight the blue expanse of the Gulf of Thailand. A couple of kms south of Ganh Dau is the sandy expanse of Dai Beach which unfortunately is no longer accessible to the general public. The whole strip is now occupied by a massive Vinpearl development which includes hotels, condominiums, golf courses and a water theme park. Access to the coastline here is limited to paying guests as we discovered when “trespassing” down one of the paved, garden lined roads that leads off the main highway towards the ocean. If you have kids they will love the uncrowded water park which is open to the general public and located on the main highway. If viewing African animals in Asia is your thing then the nearby Vinpearl Safari park is also on offer.
Continuing south for another 6km take the turnoff towards Vung Bau beach then continue on the coast road for another 5km before reaching scenic Cua Can Beach, an excellent secluded spot for a swim. The backstreets of the village make for an interesting ride with the road spanning the river on several occasions on rickety timber bridges. The coast road then loops back onto the main highway and another 15 minutes further on turn off towards the coastal resort area of Ong Lang Beach. Here you’ll find many top end resorts where the premium price ensures seclusion and privacy. The area is speckled with sheltered sandy bays and rocky outcrops and if you feel like splurging on lunch the beachside seafood restaurant at the Mango Bay Resort is highly recommended. There are also other more affordable beachfront eateries in the area and the swimming along this section offers some of the cleanest and best on the island. If you have a spare half day this is a great place to relax.
Another 10km south and you will be back in the Long Beach hustle and bustle. With the majority of the island’s accommodation located here the sandy ribbon also supports a plethora of bars, cafes, restaurants and open-air massage options catering to the throng of punters. Sunsets are spectacular and with good swimming and cheap “feet in the sand” dining options punctuating the shoreline it certainly has all bases covered. The best time to visit is Nov- March when warm clear skies dominate, and the humidity is lower.
With some extensive infrastructure projects already completed its clear that the Vietnamese Government has big plans for Phu Quoc. Large scale hotel developments are underway, and some have already come to fruition. Get there soon while it still retains some of its small island charm.
Phong Nha- Ke Bang National Park
Another hidden gem still off the radar for most visitors to Vietnam is the Phong Nha- Ke Bang National Park. World Heritage listed in 2003 it is home to numerous wildlife species and hundreds of cave systems located within a vast area of limestone karsts and dense tropical jungle that covers 857km2 and stretches all the way to the Laos border. To access the area most people fly to Dong Hoi, a relatively small coastal town located on the main railway line roughly halfway between Hanoi and Da Nang. As well as rail travel, Dong Hoi is also easily accessed by air from both Hanoi and HCMC. We took the 1 ½ flight from HCMC and our hotel arranged for a driver for the 40minute road transfer to our digs for the next 3 nights.
The region’s main town, Son Trach (Often referred to as Phong Nha) supports a variety of budget eateries, backpacker accommodation and basic hotels where you can pick up a room for around $20 (350,000 VND).
Big resorts and high-end hotel chains are so far non-existent in the locale, with the nicest option in the area and our choice; the Phong Nha Lakehouse located 7km east of Son Trach (Pay the extra USD10 for a lakefront room, worth every penny). The Lakehouse also hosted the cast and crew of the big budget Hollywood action film Kong: Skull Island filmed in the park in 2016 and which has also helped put the region on the global map.
With the afternoon to spare we grabbed a couple of the free bicycles from the hotel and headed off to explore the attractive nearby Bong Lai Valley and surrounding countryside. With emerald green rice paddies dominating the fertile landscape it’s a beautiful place to spend the afternoon cycling. Highly recommended, well sign posted and located approx. 3km from the Lakehouse is an excellent lunch choice, “The Pub with Cold Beer”. Not your traditional pub, the friendly local farming family run establishment is perched on a hill with fine views of the river valley, nearby suspension bridge and distant mountains and true to its name serves the coldest local beer in Vietnam. The lunch menu is not extensive with the chicken as the stand out dish. You also have the option of catching and killing your own bird (not for the faint-hearted) but testament to the freshest free-range chicken you’ll probably ever encounter. A whole bird with homemade peanut sauce, rice, green veges and cold beers for 2 for under $15.
With limited transport choices in the region other than private transfers or overpriced bus tours, your best option for getting around is the humble scooter. The roads are good and for the most part deserted so we had our hotel organise a good quality bike for 250,000 VND (around $14) and promptly set off to explore the region.
The Phong Nha- Ke Bang National Park is home to 3 of the 4 largest caves in the world, with the mother of them all and the largest on the planet, Son Doong only discovered in 2009 by a local hunter. Access to Son Doong is a difficult 3-4 day trek through dense and mountainous terrain and is only available on a guided tour through Oxalis, the only trekking company authorised to conduct expeditions in the region. At USD3000 for the privilege you need to book 12 months in advance or put your name on a waiting list and hope for the best. More people have set foot on the summit of Mt Everest than have stepped inside Son Doong so you’ll be in exclusive company if your get the opportunity. Large enough to house a 747 jet and a 40 storey New York skyscraper it’s apparently worth the price of admission. We however set our sights on something slightly more achievable and affordable.
Discovered in 2005, Paradise Cave located approx. 30kms from our hotel and deep within the National Park is supposedly one of the most impressive in the region. The scenic road winds its way through lush forested valleys often hugging the river as it cuts its way between the towering limestone karsts. Entrance to the cave is 250,000 VND plus extra if you opt for the electric car that only takes you to the start of the foot only pathway to the cave. From here it’s a steep 15-minute climb up the path to the tiny cave entrance.
The cave itself is absolutely spectacular and the 1km staircase and boardwalk guides you through the cathedral sized space with all the cave formations imaginable, illuminated and oversized, on display. Allow at least an hour or 2 to soak it all in. Highly recommended.
We headed back to Son Trach to find a lunch spot and were certainly not disappointed with the enormous and brimming pork baguettes from “The Best Spit Roast Pork and Noodle Shop in the World (Probably)”. Lunch and beers for less than $5 and the general consensus from the steady stream of punters is that they could likely dispense with the “Probably”.
Several months prior to our departure we booked a one-day Tu Lan Cave experience with Oxalis. As one of the more popular one day treks in the region, booking ahead is highly recommended to avoid disappointment. Oxalis, one of the largest businesses in the region is a well organised outfit who employ all local guides, porters, and ground staff for their operation. The starting point for the 9km round trek was the small village of Tan Hoa, some 80 km and 2 hours’ drive from Son Trach.
Once you have been briefed, signed the waiver and donned your Oxalis supplied hiking boots the day begins with a leisurely walk through a spectacular lush limestone valley, the location for some of the scenes of the aforementioned Kong Film.
Be aware that the rest of the trip will be fairly challenging, and a reasonable amount of fitness is necessary. You will cross flowing rivers fully clothed and scramble over muddy, craggy karsts.
Due to prior rain in the region the track was thick with slippery mud, so every step was taken with extreme caution. The highlight of the trip is a plunge with life jackets on into a swirling stream with your headlight the only source of illumination. You then drift through an underground cave system before emerging into an idyllic beach complete with cliffs and waterfalls.
It really was quite exhilarating and once out of the water you are greeted with a warm fire and hot roast pork rolls to provide sustenance for the return hike. Beers and showers are on offer back at Oxalis HQ and the transfer will get you back to your accommodation by early evening. You won’t be disappointed with a trek with Oxalis and there are many on offer including some 2 or 3-day adventures, giving you the opportunity to explore deeper into this pristine wilderness.
Phong Nha- Ke Bang National Park really is one of the last untouched wilderness areas remaining on the planet. It’s estimated that more than 75% is still unexplored so no doubt there are more behemoth caves to be discovered. Thankfully plans to construct a cable car to Son Doong have been shelved however requests to open up some of the other top 4 to mass tourism are on the drawing board so it’s only a matter of time…. With good low-key infrastructure currently in place now is the time to visit.
Brett and Linda