Story: Thuy Dung
Photos: Nguyen Hai, Jungle Boss, Toan Bamboo

In the dreamy poems of Xuan Quynh, the landscape of Quang Binh appears peaceful, with endless ivory sand dunes and the typical scorching westerly summer wind:
 “The hot wind leaves a nostalgia as she leaves,
The brittle sand stays behind with its remaining love.”

Trekking through the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park

Located in the tropical monsoon zone on the narrowest lagoon in Central Vietnam, Quang Binh’s weather is always harsh. Its cities frequently face fierce storms from the East Sea. With its floods, storms, and dry westerly wind, I remember Quang Binh as a primitive oasis full of natural wonders. If you love to hike through evergreen forests past white-water streams, Quang Binh should be number one on your bucket list of summer destinations.

Hiking in Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park and kayaking along Tra Ang Stream

This one-day journey is a perfect choice for explorers who are short on time but love to trek in old-growth forests. Moving along the legendary Road 20 – Quyet Thang into the core of Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park, we began to discover the Tra Ang Valley. The first challenge was a 2km-long trail through jungle full of rich and rare flora and fauna. In early summer, we were lucky to witness the breeding season of Ho Diep butterflies. On the edges of Phong Nha Forest, by small streams or on both sides of the trail, we feasted our eyes on spectacular flights of white butterflies.

The Botanical Gardens of Phong Nha Ke Bang

The Tra Ang Valley lies deep inside Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park. There is a system of caves that run 667m-long, with an average width of 40m to 50m. An underground river flows from Swallow Cave (Hang En) to Son Doong Cave and Va Cave to Tra Ang Stream. This emerald-colored stream starts from the entrance of Tra Ang and runs parallel with Road 20- Quyet Thang for more than 4km.

This trek triggered many strong emotions. I had to overcome my fears to conquer sharp rocks so as to enjoy the icy water of Tra Ang Stream. Surrounded by nature, our team enjoyed the magical landscape and challenged ourselves with kayaks, or relaxed with thousands of fish that swam with us in the stream.

A 10km trek through Truong Son Forest to experience Bru-Van Kieu culture

I chose a two-day, one-night itinerary to discover Quang Binh’s natural beauty. After the team gathered in the tour operator’s office in Khe Sung Village to equip ourselves with proper footwear, gloves, and communication devices, the tour guide introduced the itinerary and rules for trekking and camping in the forest.

Kids enjoy a hiking tour

The 10km-long trek made my feet burn with pain as I walked through the rocky canyon of Coi Cave and passed beneath the leaf canopy of ancient trees. Accompanying us was a young village boy named Mat, a local Bru-Van Kieu guide. Although the trek was long, it felt easier thanks to Mat’s stories. He spoke of the local custom of “worshipping the living” to wish for health and peace, and how he’d hesitated about becoming a tour guide in the summers to earn extra income for his family.

Perhaps my favorite part of the tour was the 2.5km-long trail leading to Cold Water (Nuoc Lanh) Ravine. The stream was crystal clear, with  emerald water forming many small rapids. There was a crashing waterfall where the water fell like silky fairy hair. Mat told us the stream was named Ho Tien, meaning “Fairy Lake”. The water temperature ranged from a refreshing 17 to 20C. Immersed in this cool stream, all tiredness soon disappeared.

Fresh air and cool water charm visitors

Another beautiful spot was Love Valley – endless green fields hidden by rocks near Coi Village, our destination after a long day of trekking. As the sun set, we enjoyed a BBQ party beside a bonfire. Life seemed to slow down in this natural setting. With no phone reception or internet, we only had stories to tell and laughter to share.

When the sun rose over the mountain range, we practiced Tai Chi and Yoga under the tutelage of some team members. This further enriched the picturesque landscape. Continuing on our journey, we passed stilt-houses of Bru-Van Kieu people. For a short time, we were able to live as locals, savoring dishes prepared by Bru-Van Kieu moms and sisters, such as steamed wild sticky rice with black sesame, wild boar meat rolled with herbs and “cheo” salt, and shrimp caught in the ravine dipped in “cham cheo” sauce.

Living slowly and finding a balance

The “Follow the River” trekking tour was a different experience, as we learned to navigate a stand-up paddle board, or SUP. First, we spent 120 minutes hiking through the botanical gardens in Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park, past century-old Erythrophleum fordii trees and Gua trees. The tropical rainforest hid gems like Windy Waterfall (thac Gio), which is 30m-high, and the dreamy Vang Anh Lake.

After the botanical gardens, we reached the shore of the Da Can – Chay River, where we could try SUP and relax. Da Can Shore resembles a miniature Ha Long Bay, with rocks emerging from the emerald water that flows through the limestone mountains of Phong Nha. The calm, chilly water is perfect for water sports like swimming, paddle-boarding, kayaking, snorkeling, and riding jet-skis.

Camping and cooking in the forest

Toan, our local tour guide, spent 15 minutes helping me get used to the SUP since it was my first experience. I went from being a total novice to mastering turns and different paddling techniques, allowing me to pose for “chilled” photos on my board. The best season to SUP on the Chay River is from February to September, when the peaceful green water offsets the majestic mountain scenery. 

Trekking is a popular tourism trend. Apart from breathing fresh air and working out, you can enjoy tranquil moments in nature, explore wild places, and overcome your own limits.