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It was a long drive from our starting point in Dong Hoi, Vietnam, to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Thankfully, though, it was a scenic one — full of limestone karst and verdant fields and a river that meandered across a carpet of green.
It alleviated the dullness that had taken over our bus, a product of both the exhaustion from our 14-hour flight and the blistering hikes in the mountains that had followed.
The fact that our local tour guide, Victor, was pleasantly and unexpectedly hilarious, despite his obvious natural timid nature, helped even more. There couldn’t have been a more fitting or a more patient person to shuttle about our eclectic group who, somehow, without discussing it, all managed to take turns at being ill-tempered.
Of course, a lot can be said about a tour operator based on its tour guides. But what’s on the operator’s menu of offerings is just as important.
Locally owned tour operator Phongnha Discovery, founded in 2009, provides a plethora of options, from quick daylong trips to multiday treks into hard-to-reach caves, and even accommodation and excursion packages. It’s a treasure trove for travel agents who are searching for a wide variety of options for their clients, and Phongnha Discovery has become a go-to tour operator for most adventures that include Vietnam’s Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
Its prices are wonderfully affordable, too. Rates range from $50 per person for a daily tour to approximately $335 per person for multiday trekking. One standout day trip allows clients to explore the deepest parts of Paradise Cave, which is not open to the general public, for just $115 per person.
My group participated in a multiday tour, which officially began at Chay Lap Farmstay, a serene, sprigged property whose air-conditioned, dressed-down villas were wonderfully scented with lemongrass.
Chay Lap Farmstay is set a stone’s throw away from Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, and it’s from here where we set off on our adventures: exploring the stalactites and stalagmites within Paradise Cave; ziplining right in front of the Hang Toi cave and happily-yet-clumsily stumbling about its dark, mud-slathered tunnels; bathing in its mud pools; and more.
Our trip officially ended at Muong Thanh Quang Binh Hotel in Dong Hoi, where Victor took us back for a good night’s rest.
But instead of going home and leaving us to our own devices for the night, Victor stayed behind. He invited us to sit with him for some local beer and to sample some delicious regional dishes at the town’s boardwalk, where several vendors set up al fresco shops.
As I reflected on my time with Phongnha Discovery, I could see why its selection of tours is arguably the best in the area. But in the end, it’s still the warm reception of its guides that truly won me over.