The Bong Lai Valley is defiantly isolated and yet integral to Phong Nha’s tourist trail. A cantankerous dirt track links its residents together, constantly remoulded by rain and by the giant trucks that run ruts into its surface. The area is poor, but as tourism develops a number of local entrepreneurs are bringing new wealth to its hard-working people.
Three Hundred Ducks
“The crop decides if you will have a rich farm or a poor farm,” says Quynh, owner of The Duck Stop. “Our main crop is pepper and if we have a bad year the trees only produce a little, so we sell other things, too — cows, buffalo, ducks and some fruit and vegetables.”
At Quynh’s farm, the pepper is pulled from the trees by hand once a year and laid in the sun to dry. “We have 100 trees to harvest this year and 100 more still maturing,” says Quynh. “If the season is good, each tree will produce about VND200,000 worth of pepper.” The pepper is sold to traders who send it on a train of commerce that can stretch all around the world.
The Duck Stop is primarily a pepper farm, but it is also one of many farms in the area that have started working with tourists. Phong Nha Farmstay founder, Ben Mitchell, came to the valley in 2010 and began to introduce the local farmers to the concept of tourism, assisting them with his own insight into what the market is looking for.
“Ben gave our farm its name, The Duck Stop, because we have a lot of ducks,” Quynh says. “At one time we had 300 of them. I run a business now showing tourists our pepper farm, selling them our pepper and taking them to play with the ducks.”
Along the River
At the other end of the valley lies the Wild Boar Eco Farm. “We own about 2km of land along the river,” says owner, Cuong. “We grow rubber and acacia trees to sell, and other, cheaper crops to serve to our guests.” He also brews rice wine and sells rice from his fields nearby.
The farm has a small menu using ingredients grown onsite, from hot toasted peanuts and freshly cut sweet potato fries, to rice with vegetables and wild boar meat. The boars are caught in the jungle nearby and raised in a wide, brick-lined pen next to the house. “We have to feed one boar for 10 months to a year before it is big enough to eat,” says Cuong. “You can’t sell them for much, but people love to come here to try the meat.”
Visitors can also sleep at the Eco Farm, but because the road there is so bad, Cuong is struggling to get the business on its feet. He has two clean, wooden rooms set up for visitors and a massive bathroom. “Ben gave me the idea to start this place, and when he saw the size of the bathroom he told me to make it bigger,” he says. “That happened three times, and now it is very impressive.”
You Have a Fridge?
The Pub With Cold Beer is a must-see for any traveller to Phong Nha, but a few years ago it was just a hut on a hill with a mud floor and, strangely, a fridge. “Nhat, the owner, actually had a stereo and a fridge in her house which was really weird at the time,” Ben remembers. “Back then we used to bring people there on one of our day tours.”
As word got out, Nhat’s business began to flourish. “My customers are mostly foreigners, and in the high season I can have up to 40 people here from 12pm every day,” she says. “But it rains from October to around December and the numbers are lower.”
During the wet season, Nhat has to ride her bicycle to collect beer to stock her bar. “I usually make two trips in a day, each time carrying a big crate of the stuff,” she says. “Many people drive motorbikes and even buses come here in the dry season, but when the road is wet, the mud makes it impossible to navigate.”
Over the years, Nhat has dug away at the hillside next to her house and cleared a wide, open courtyard with a view across the river. “We do a little bit each year when we have money,” she says. “Eventually, I would like to have some rooms here so that people can stay the night.”
Nhat’s pub is famous for its grilled chicken, which customers can prepare themselves. Ben remembers the first ever meal Nhat sold. “She threw down a basket as big as a table with chicken laid out on banana leaves and rice wrapped in little leaf packets,” he says. “It was perfect. She has long tables now, but the food is just as good.”
Farm to Table
Moi Moi is one of the valley’s quietest spots, tucked away behind a hill and surrounded by soft grass. “I’ve had this restaurant for about a year now,” says Tuan, one of the owners. “I wanted to provide a place for tourists to come and enjoy the food from our farm.”
But since opening, Tuan has had more of a local customer base. “Young kids from Dong Hoi often come here on a Sunday to hang out, drink, eat and socialise,” says Ben.
But as the Bong Lai Valley gets more attention, an increasing number of travellers are coming to Moi Moi and Tuan is growing more food to cater to them. “Eventually, I want my farm to be completely driven by the restaurant here,” he says. “I want to grow things for customers to see, eat and to take away with them.”
About a five-minute drive from Moi Moi is The Pepper House Farmstay. This oasis, now a favourite among couples and families, boasting several beautiful rooms and a deep blue swimming pool, was once a simple farmhouse, with pepper as a major crop.
“I opened in 2013 with two simple bedrooms and bathrooms,” says owner Diem. “By the end of 2014 I had opened the villas.”
She now puts her pepper in most of her savoury dishes, and if guests like, they can join her at the market and in the kitchen to learn how to prepare local food. “They have to get up early to come with me, though,” Diem says. “I can also arrange for guests to experience work with the local farmers, or to visit the animals on local farms.”
Diem is currently building a private apartment in her farmstay for guests who would like to have their own kitchen facilities.
More and more tourists visit the Bong Lai Valley every year, bringing money and opportunity to its people. But as their businesses develop, locals have to contend with the balance between business and preserving their village. With help from a number of key pioneers in Phong Nha’s tourism industry, the Bong Lai Valley is doing its best to remain conscious of its integrity and self-sufficient in its economy. But there is no doubt — the valley will change.
One Boat One Family
Quang and his wife Suong have five children, a house and a boat. “My daughter is 23 and my sons are all younger than her,” says Quang. “The youngest is only 10, but they all work.” The children of the family have jobs in a local restaurant, and the mother and father own a long, blue boat. “This is our job. This boat, and the people who ride on it, is all that we have,” Quang says.
Like many others in Phong Nha, Quang’s family rely on tourism for their income. They take tourists to and from Phong Nha Cave. “In the high season each boat is allowed one trip every four days,” he says. “We earn VND360,000 from one trip, and we have to make it last.”
As we float under the rock, friends pass by in their leaf-like vessels, bumping gently into each other. “We get big fish here,” says Quang. “Bigger than your arms. They come all the way from Laos.”
Fixing a Hole
Paradise Cave echoes with tourists from morning to night, holding hundreds of people in its guts each day. As we walk down into the dark, Suu, a young local with a hat defiantly stuck to his head, squats next to the stairs. He has a mobile phone in one hand and a spanner in the other.
While tourists snap selfies above him, Suu and his team of light-footed tradesmen fiddle with the planks on which they walk. “We’re fixing the wires under the wood,” he says. “It’s maintenance really, making sure the lights work.” It’s a good job they don’t look down.
Outside, Trang plays with the steering on her electric shuttle, waiting to take tourists down the hill from the Cave. There are too many people working her job, too many shuttles and too few tourists to sit in them, but everyone gets a salary at the end of the working day.
Be My Driver
Minh (name changed) is a driver, but he didn’t used to be. “He used to carry explosives from the jungle and sell them in town,” says Hai, an old friend. “They would search for unexploded bombs and saw them in two, one man sitting on top of the metal to pour water inside as they sawed. Gunpowder was their bread and butter.”
Minh was eventually caught with seven others, carrying 371kg of explosives from over the Laos border. He was imprisoned for 12 months. “When Minh came out of prison his family was poor. He needed a job,” says Hai. “He now works for me as a tour driver. There are many like him — tourism has brought them new options.”
“When Minh first came on tour with me, he could not eat with the group,” says Hai. “He just stared at the food — he was emotional.” While Minh was inside, his family didn’t have enough to eat. “He couldn’t enjoy the tasty food when his daughters had so little.”
Lam is a sand merchant. “I’m taking the dirt out of the river and sifting it,” he says. “We lift it out with this machine, and move it to our truck.” Standing next to the river that runs the length of the Bong Lai Valley, Lam gestures to the ramshackle boat behind him. A long, plastic tube sucks grains from the water and pours them out onto the ground.
This sand will be sold to local construction workers and used to render the walls of one of Phong Nha’s many new buildings, but for now it belongs to the river, slowly gathering in a pile on its bank. A man on an excavator sifts through the mountain of silken silt and a truck waits on the road above us, ready to take the sand away. Lam smiles, “Now, it's ready.”
Photos by Mike Palumbo / March 2017