And - it appears as though the development of the tourist industry has been transformational to the locals and their ways of life. For a start, they are now connected to the world - previously it took up to 6 hours to make the 53km journey from the nearest town of Dong Hoi over rutted roads - now it is 40 mins by highway. Previously, all the young people left town to find jobs (in the cities, in poorly paid construction, on Chinese fishing boats) - leaving just the old and the young to plant and harvest the crops - now many work in the tourist industry (there are currently more jobs than people to fill them). Lastly - work for many consisted of illegal logging and hunting jungle meat, which was not only destructive it was also low paid and insecure.
Most of all, however, and the thing that made us feel as though we'd died and gone to tourist heaven - was that the development of the park and the local tourism industry is being done as a partnership between the local communities and the government, which means tourism decisions are based on what is best for the community and the environment, not the commercial tourist operators.
Day 1 in Phong Nha was an adventure tour of Paradise Cave (believe me, with an outside temp of 38, it really was paradise inside the cave at a steady 18 degrees). Paradise Cave is 31km long - we only got to see the first km but what we saw was amazing.
And yes - in case you're wondering - the lights did go off (this is Vietnam after all) and yes it was scary but just for a couple of seconds.
After the cave walk it was lunch and then adventure time - we ziplined across the river and took a 1km walk through a mud cave to a mud pool which felt - as the 13-year-old aptly described - like bathing in cake batter. Didn't taste like it, though. Sadly, because of the mud and the water and me in swimming togs and the non-waterproof camera thing we didn't get any photos of the mud pool. But we did manage to snap some of the river.
We thought ziplining and a mudpool was going to be hard to beat - and then on day 2 in Phong Nha we went on Hai's Eco Conservation Tour. Our day started by being picked up on motorbikes and taken to a animal rehabilitation shelter, where the 9-year-old got to make friends with the primates.
After that it was back on the motorbikes for a 4 hour jungle trek along part of the old Ho Chi Minh trail.
Lunch was BBQ pork spring rolls, cooked in the cave and eaten outside under the shelter of a beautifully cool limestone rock. Then there was another trek to the top of the hill, followed by a swim at the end and a motorbike ride home.
And I just want to finish this post by saluting Hai, our Eco hero. Hai set up the conservation tour 18 months ago as a way to raise funds for the conservation centre (when much of your population are subsistence farmers living below the poverty line, conservation is not high on the government priority list) and also to employ locals - many of whom would otherwise have to turn to poaching and illegal logging to earn money. Over the course of the day we learned that Hai is also one of the area's most successful entrepreneurs, owning both the towns most popular hostel (Easy Tiger) and the excellent Bamboo cafe. He uses the income from his businesses to support his full time (and mostly unpaid) work on the conservation tour. What a dude.
Phong Nha-Kebang information
How we got there: Overnight train from Hanoi - Dong Hoi approx $250 for 3 adults & 1 child tickets, 'soft' sleeper (booked through our hotel in Hanoi).
Where we stayed: Phong Nha Farmstay NZ$90 per night for 1x poolside family room (including breakfast).
What we did: National Park Tour, NZ$90pp; Hai's Eco Conservation Tour NZ$87pp (both booked through the Farmstay).