Dong Hoi & Phong Nha: Two Years of Development

As mentioned previously, this is my second time in Vietnam. As well as visiting new places, I am heading to some of the same places. Naturally, these places are new to Mitch, and I get a totally different experience travelling with him, rather than travelling solo.

Two of the places I’ve visited for a second time on this trip are Dong Hoi and Phong Nha. The former is a small town on the coast, the latter is a National Park famous for it’s recently discovered caves.

I loved both of these places last time. And, seeing as we passed them on our route, it would have been rude not to stop off there.

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The sunset in Phong Nha in 2014

Dong Hoi in 2014

 Last time I rocked up in Dong Hoi at about 6am, after getting a night train from Ninh Binh. I got a taxi to my hotel (Nam Long) and stayed in a spacious and cheap dorm room with an awesome view. With only one day there, I headed out to explore the town, knowing relatively nothing about it. I was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled across this gorgeous, quiet beach. I was unprepared for swimming, but I dipped my toes in the water and spent some time reading my book while enjoying the untouched beach.

The gorgeous empty beach in Dong Hoi in 2014
The gorgeous empty beach in Dong Hoi in 2014

Not long afterwards I went on a walk around the town, seeing the very few sights and arranging my journey to Phong Nha the next day. Apart from the few other people in my dorm room and in the hotel, there weren’t very many tourists. Those who were there either went on day trips to the National Park or used it as a stop-off point (like myself). I enjoyed the quietness and less touristic nature of Dong Hoi, and I was happy to have spent a night there.

Phong Nha in 2014

Phong Nha National Park became a world heritage site in 2003, and  public access is still relatively new. It was totally off my radar when I first started travelling in Vietnam. It was recommended to me by a girl I met on my travels and so, as I had no time-frame or plan for my trip, I decided to visit.

Faithfully following my Lonely Planet guide, I looked into staying at Phong Nha Farmstay. Upon communicating with the Farmstay, they informed me that they don’t have dorms anymore but recommended a newly opened hostel, and so it was that I headed to Easy Tiger Hostel in Son Trac (the village just outside the National Park).

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Easy Tiger offered gorgeous views in 2014.

 

Wanting to get stuck in with what the National Park has to offer, I went on their day trip, which offered exploration of the Paradise Cave and Dark Cave (two highlights of the National Park). I LOVED it. What’s more, I loved Phong Nha and the surrounding village. Due to the fact that the caves hadn’t been open long to the public, there was less tourism in the village. On another day I cycled around the area. All of the kids ran up to my bike to say “Hello” and to wave at me. It was great!

Dong Hoi & Phong Nha in 2016

 Nothing has dramatically changed in two years. There aren’t any skyscrapers lining the beach or caves, or hundreds of tourists lining the streets, but there has been a lot of development.

Mitch and I stayed in Buffalo Hostel in Dong Hoi, a backpacker haven with loud music and happy hour in the evenings. I’m pretty sure I would have noticed this place last time I was there. What’s more, English speaking cafes and restaurants now line the river. The Tree Hugger Café is new, a relaxed place to eat locally-sourced food and get information about the local area. I would have loved sitting there two years ago with my book. This time we were there using the wifi to work and to book flights. Evidently, I’ve also changed in two years.

Thankfully, the beach was still just as quiet as last time. The sand was as yellow and the sea was the same gorgeous blue. As I said, it’s certainly not rapid development, but I feel like Dong Hoi has certainly upped its game to cater for tourists a little more.

The yellow sand and blue sea in Dong Hoi remained just as untouched in 2016.
The yellow sand and blue sea in Dong Hoi remained just as untouched in 2016.

As for Phong Nha, much of the same can be said. Although I loved my stay at Easy Tiger last time, I wanted to experience new things. Mitch and I opted for a guesthouse/homestay just outside of the village. It’s very chilled, it’s very quiet, and it looks right over the river, which is lovely.

We strolled to the main street of the village and I was struck by just how many more hotels, hostels, and restaurants there were with many more being built as I type. Even Easy Tiger Hostel has expanded; what used to be the bike renting part is now the bar and restaurant while the bike renting is a whole new place next door. And they now have a swimming pool. I wish there was a pool when I was there!

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The guesthouse we stayed in was right along the river, very calm and beautiful

Prices have increased slightly for tours. Unless you hire a motorbike for the day, most day tours are over £40. This isn’t too expensive for a whole day trip, but if you’re on a budget, then it does add up. What’s more, due to Brexit, the value of the Great British Pound has dropped significantly against the Vietnamese Dong in the past two years. The combination of tour prices going up and the pound decreasing, means the £36 tour I went on two years ago is now £48. That’s a large jump!

Development isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. We decided not to do any organised day tours but we did get the boat and go and see Phong-Nha cave. The boat takes your right into the heart of the cave and I’m certain that, this time around, the boat went even further inside. More money from tourism means they can explore the caves more and make it more accessible, which is amazing.

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Top photo (2014), bottom photo (2016). Going down the river, there were more buildings and, as you can see, more marketing.

The increase in hotels and restaurants means more jobs which is great for the local economy, and it makes it easier for tourists to access the National Park. Easy Tiger’s expansion also means hiring more local staff, which is also great for the local economy. So it’s a good thing …right?

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Our boat went very far into Phong Nha cave

My only concern is with rapid development comes a decline in local culture. I don’t think the Vietnamese will ever lose their culture and identity, especially after fighting for it for so long. I just hope Phong Nha doesn’t become a road full of hotels in the next two years. But hey, maybe that’s okay?

What are your thoughts about developments of small villages for tourism? Is it a good thing, is it a bad thing, or are you undecided? Let me know in the comments.

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