Vietnam’s sleeping beauty: Quang Binh province

16:09 | 06/07/2012
Quang Binh province boasts an incredibly diverse and attractive mix of natural attractions with some of world’s most beautiful and magnificent caves and stunning beaches. Duc Hanh reports

Quang Binh province has been blessed by Mother Nature with forests, seas, rivers and a stunning coastline. History has been less kind but this battle-hardened province and long-term impoverished land is now making the most of its natural assets and reemerging as one of Vietnam’s most talked about up-and-coming tourist destinations.

A heady mix of beaches, historical sites and cultural landscapes (in particular Unesco World Natural Heritage Phong Nha -Ke Bang National Park) has also tempted investors to set up stunning resorts, which in turn are luring more well-heeled tourists from Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and beyond.

Keen to help generate some momentum, the provincial authorities are hosting Quang Binh Tourism Month 2012 to highlight both Quang Binh’s charms and cave tourism.  

The caves in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park are one of the biggest attractions. A world natural heritage since 2003, the remarkable karsts formation process has produced some of the world’s longest and largest caves and underground river systems. Many of the caves have only been partially explored. Some have already been opened to tourism. There is 65km of underground rivers, dry caves, terraced caves, suspended caves, dendritic caves and intersecting caves filled with abundant stalactites and stalagmites. It’s an underground wonderland.

In 1990, British scientists surveyed 35km of a cave and discovered the main cavern is nearly 8km long with 14 other caves nearby. The karsts of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park are said to have been evolving since the Palaeozoic (some 400 million years ago) and so these are also some of the oldest karsts in Asia. Subject to massive tectonic changes, the park’s karsts landscape is extremely complex with many geomorphic features of considerable significance.

“Phong Nha – Ke Bang is still attracting many local tourists during the summer time,” said Pham Ha, CEO of Luxury Travel.

According to Ha, to attract international tourists, besides developing sea tourism and caves adventure tours, Phong Nha - Ke Bang should invest more in developing stable and community tourism like homestay.

Local guides should be trained for specific themed products such as bird watching, photography, trekking, kayaking, forest adventure tours, and so on, to help tourist delve deeper into the province’s natural treasures.  

“The provincial authorities should take the full advantages of international tourism and trade fairs to promote their tourism potential. Currently, some resorts and travel companies running promotional campaigns to advertise the region; these are not official campaigns launched by the authorities,” adds Ha.

Travel agencies are confident Quang Binh province can succeed with so much to offer: unspoiled beaches and amazing caves plus delicious seafood.  

Convenient transportation connecting the province with Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is also helping to develop tourism. Many tourists take overnight trains from Hanoi but increasingly tourists are taking direct flights from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to Dong Hoi city.

From Dong Hoi, it’s easy to book tour at Sun Spa Resort or through local travel agencies. You can go solo and order a taxi for a day tour. Phong Nha – Ke Bang national park is in the village of Son Trach, 50km northwest of Dong Hoi town. The road is very smooth and beautiful with green forest and mountains all around.

At the pier to discover Phong Nha – Ke Bang, the first vehicle you will see is an engine boat. The boat terminal is rather tidy and there is no fighting over tourists by boat owners. All boats are numbered and lined up in an orderly fashion.

To highlight “cave discovery” tourism, this year Quang Binh province introduces two new routes to explore Rao Thuong river – Hang En and Phong Nha, E caves and Sinh Ton valley
Phong Nha Cave

Discovered in 1935, but only opened to tourists in 1999, Phong Nha Cave was made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003.
Compared to the citadel of Hue, the ancient town of Hoi An and My Son Sanctuary – Phong Nha has remained largely off the beaten track at least for international tourists.  

In part this has been due to its comparative inaccessibility, however, the opening of a regular air service from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to the city of Dong Hoi, some 40km from the caves in September 2008 has changed all that. Now the caves are a 45-minute flight away from the Vietnamese capital and 1.5 hours from the southern hub. Like Halong Bay’s rocks, the caves date back to the Palaeozoic period, some 400 million years ago.

The limestone karsts formations will be familiar to most visitors coming to Vietnam’s most highly prized heritage site, Halong Bay. The main difference lies in the vast scale of the cave. The whole complex is some 65km long stretching towards the Lao border.

 To explore the cave and underground river system more effectively, the province has launched a special tour to explore further into the mysterious cave. Besides visiting the cave by engine boat as usual, tourists can now kayak down the underground river to access the well-known and unexplored caves.

The entrance is the last part of an underground river that connects the Son River and you can go inside for a distance of 1,500m. In some places there are lighting systems highlighting the diverse and awe-inspiring stalactites.

One stalactite is said to resemble a tiger, one looks like an eagle, one can be perceived as a child, one is named as a Buddhist, and one seems to be similar to a young or old woman holding her child in her arms depending on where you stand to view it or on how vivid your imagination is!

Son Doong cave

Son Doong cave, meaning Mountain River Cave, is a cave in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Bo Trach district. The cave is located near the Laos-Vietnam border.

It has a large fast-flowing underground river inside. The cave was found by a local man named Ho-Khanh in 1991. The local jungle men were afraid of the cave for the whistling sounds made by the underground river.

 However, not until 2009 was it made known to the public when a group of British scientists from the British Cave Research Association, led by Howard and Deb Limbert, conducted a survey in Phong Nha-Ke Bang from April 10-14, 2009. Their progress was stopped by a large calcite wall.  
According to Limbert, this cave is five times larger than the Phong Nha cave, previously considered the biggest cave in Vietnam. The biggest chamber of  Son Doong is over five kilometres in length, 200 meters high and 150 meters wide.

With these dimensions, Son Doong overtakes Deer cave in Malaysia to take the title of the world’s largest cave.

Mist often shrouds the hills of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park but during the American-Vietnam War, Vietnamese soldiers often hid in caves while US engaged in air strikes. Bomb craters now serve as fishponds.

There is also a jungle inside a cave; a roof collapse long ago in Hang Son Doong let in light and plants thickly followed. There are moss-covered boulders and a 10m drop at the forest-shrouded entrance to Hang Son Doong. Hunters found caves by spotting winds gusting from underground openings.

Going underground, you will find Hang En, a cave tunnelled out by the Rao Thuong River. Dwindling to a series of ponds during the dry months, the river can rise almost 90m during the flood season.  

Hang Son Doong’s airy chambers sprout life where light enters from above—a different world from the bare, cramped, pitch-black spaces familiar to most cavers. Ferns and other greenery colonize rimstone. In the jungles directly beneath roof openings, explorers have seen monkeys, snakes, and birds.

Rare cave pearls fill dried-out terrace pools near Hang Son Doong. This unusually large collection of stone spheres were formed drip-by-drip over the centuries as calcite crystals left behind by water layered themselves around grains of sand, enlarging over time. The results are both magical and mysterious. A work of art courtesy of Mother Nature.

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