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Could Phong Nha Be One of Vietnam's Top Sustainable Travel Destinations?

A recent trip to Phong Nha — before this most recent COVID-19 wave — left me wondering whether I had just visited one of Vietnam’s more sustainable travel destinations. Of all the places I have been so far, it felt that way.

In essence, a sustainable tourist destination engages with residents; is committed to preserving authenticity and not becoming “too touristy"; increases the number and quality of local jobs; is respectful to heritage, culture and tradition; and protects the environment.

With international tourism currently on pause, we have an opportunity to re-think how travel will look in a post-COVID world. In my opinion, Phong Nha is a worthy example of how tourism in Vietnam is done “right,” and here is why.

Consideration for the community and generating quality jobs

We arrived at Phong Nha Farmstay just before sunset. The air was fresher than expected, so the sun that beat down was welcome for once. My expectations were high, which would usually spell disappointment, but not in this case.

We were welcomed by Mai, who has been working for Phong Nha Farmstay for eight years. Her soft, attentive nature instantly made us feel relaxed, and we could tell she was more than just a member of the staff.

The charming purpose-built property spanned both sides of the quiet countryside road, and I could sense the hours that had been whiled away here. On the other side of the road lay the heart of the property, the alpine-like restaurant with an open fireplace, accommodations, and a simple reception area.

Ben Mitchell, who over time has operated five businesses in the area with his wife Bích and other local partners, introduces himself and casually takes a seat at our table. The couple have been working in tourism for 13 years and are both prominent personalities in the area. Despite the barrage of COVID-related cancellations, Mitchell is in high spirits.

All around us are thriving rice paddies and vegetable patches. The food served here is homegrown and organic. They grow enough food to feed guests, family, and staff throughout the year. Mitchell tells us that, pre-COVID, he would need to buy extra rice from his workers’ families to fulfill demand. I can see it upsets him that he can't provide this source of income to the local community any longer.

I ask about 2020 and the impact it had on him and the area.

"Although it has been tough to keep two remaining businesses running, we had a great year," Mitchell said. "Before the pandemic, we were working like crazy. Slowing down and spending time with the family was much-needed."

He went on to say that the residents of Phong Nha and its surrounding area are accustomed to surviving. Many of the businesses benefiting from tourism hadn't actually been open that long, so it was relatively easy for them to go back to the old way of living. He half-joked that they are in hibernation until the cold snap of tourism is over.

One such business is the literally named Pub with the Cold Beer. What started as a ramshackle house perched on a hill has become a popular refueling spot for both residents and tourists. We visited after a bumpy cycle past grazing buffalo. Although we were the only guests there, the young family that runs it can survive off their land until things get back to “normal.”

Phong Nha would most certainly not be as captivating if not for the local community. After what was an extremely testing year for them, with the pandemic and then the devastating floods of October and November, they only showed resourcefulness, resilience and light-heartedness. Some joked that during the storms, the region became the Ha Long Bay of central Vietnam.

Many households, I was told, live below the poverty line here, earning under US$1,000 per year. The introduction of quality tourism jobs has generated higher incomes and created better options for people to improve their quality of life.

Preservation of Environment

Our primary reason to visit Phong Nha was undoubtedly the caves, namely an exploration of the Tu Lan cave system with Oxalis Adventures starting early in the morning. Our tour guide met us as we were finishing our home-cooked breakfast, and he instantly joked that it was his first day on the job. His cheeky introduction set the mood for the rest of the trip.

Oxalis pledges to keep group sizes small and, luckily for us, there were just two of us venturing out that morning. Like the rest of the tourism industry, Oxalis’ numbers had plummeted compared to the previous year. However, despite the downturn, there had naturally been an increase in domestic tourism. Holidays have become more accessible and appealing to Vietnamese travelers, "now that the country is not dominated by foreign tourists," our guide said.

The scenic drive along the famous Ho Chi Minh Highway gave us just enough time to take in Oxalis’ backstory. Named after a small, purplish flower that can be seen along the roadside, the company was founded back in 2011 by Nguyễn Châu Á. He intended to recreate his childhood memories, exploring the wild jungle terrain and sleeping in imposing caves. He began by offering local tours to share his knowledge and love for his hometown.

When it was time for Oxalis to expand, they enlisted the help of the British Cave Research Association (BCRA). Now, except for a few international staff, Oxalis mainly employs locals from the nearby village. Each takes its mission to enhance customer experiences and preserve the area seriously. Oxalis boasts that sustainability and environmental protection are the cornerstone of their business model.

As far as I could see, they are living up to their commitment. Careful consideration is taken over the positioning of the camps. Each is set to stunning backdrops of fauna, freshwater lakes and flowing waterfalls. To prevent the waterways from becoming contaminated, guides have installed compost toilets at all campsites. The lakes and underground rivers are fresh, clean and perfect to swim in. The water emanates an emerald green that entices you into its depths, and even the rivers outside the site are swimmable.

Waste on our tour was minimal. Besides the wrappers of a few moon cakes and Oreos, which we devoured after strenuous uphill climbs, we didn’t see much else. All that we did consume was removed from camps and trails, then taken back to the main office to be disposed of. Cavers are asked to bring their own refillable water bottles and were given a bio-degradable bag each before setting off.

Not becoming "too touristy"

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 2003 and is protected for future generations to enjoy. Unlike other tourist destinations in Vietnam, there are no permanent structures in the cave systems, and no imminent plan to construct any. The development of a cable car was rejected in 2017 for the second time, and construction is blocked — for the time being at least.

Vietnam is a country that sometimes favors economic growth at the expense of the natural landscape; just look to Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa as examples. Both have fallen victim to the cable car obsession and, before the crisis, were pulling in millions of tourists each year at the detriment of the environment.

Phong Nha, on the other hand, attracts visitors looking to avoid the usual tourist hot spots and who seek out authentic experiences. These type of visitors usually spend more money on said experiences, and money is often more fairly distributed.

But what happens next? How does one make more considered choices when choosing holiday destinations?

Who knows if tourism will ever return to the same as it was before the pandemic. And, do we really want it to? You could say the way it was heading was a bit short-sighted, with the country ranking among the least-sustainable tourist destinations earlier this year.

Mark Ratcliff, a sustainability specialist, based in Da Lat, says that choosing accommodation wisely by opting for smaller, more established hotels or homestays is one solution.

Others include doing better research on destinations and looking for initiatives that support local culture and traditions without exploiting them, as well as opting for hotels that support local farming communities by buying produce locally instead of from big corporations. Finally, finding tour operators whose main driver is a commitment to the environment is key.

Of course, questions around Phong Nha remain, and we don't know what will happen once the borders someday re-open. Is the infrastructure in place to grow sustainably into the future? Only time will tell, but my experience of Phong Nha was positive; it is a majestic destination that left a lasting impression on me.

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