What to do, see and eat and avoid in Phong Nha, Vietnam


Growing up between Bulli and a station near Cobar, NSW, Ben Mitchell was working in construction near Da Nang when he met is wife-to-be, Bich. She took him to meet the family in Phong Nha in Central Vietnam, where they have lived for 13 years and run a farmstay and promote local tourism. See phong-nha-cave.com


Until 2004, the Ho Chi Minh Trail (West) between Phong Nha and Khe Sanh (yes, as in the Cold Chisel song), was an army walking trail. It is now a 240-kilometre sealed road over jungle-covered mountain passes, down river valleys and through minority villages. It's a dream ride on any motorbike, even for non-riders, who can go as a pillion passenger with a licensed local professional. To ride yourself through Vietnam, see Trevor at saigonmotorcycles.com. For organised motorcycle tours, see Jeff or Halkmoon at onyabikeadventures.com


Moi Moi restaurant is about as farm-to-table as it gets. Our typical lunch spread includes whole wood-fired roast chicken that's caught, killed and prepared on order, and bamboo pork – marinated pork and seasonal vegetables stuffed into a length of bamboo and cooked in a fire, which is split to serve. Accompany with rau xao voi toi (sweet potato leaves, morning glory and the pumpkin plant stir-fried with fresh chili and garlic), cheo – a unique dipping sauce with crushed green chili and secret herbs, Bong Lai satay sauce made with peanuts from the restaurant's garden and ban loc (dumplings). I have a tendency to over order at Moi Moi, Bong Lai Valley.


The Phong Nha area boasts arguably the best cave adventures in the world. The river systems of the UNESCO World Heritage listed Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park have formed three main cave systems including the Vom Cave system and its show cave, Thien Duong (Paradise Cave). Visit the Phong Nha Cave by boat, the Dark Cave by zip-line, and the world's largest cave, Hang Son Doing, by a lot of money. It's a life-changing experience. I did it with caving experts Howard and Deb Limbert, who first explored the cave.


When in the jungle on an overnight trek, the porters are sure to share their locally produced rice wine. Rough-and-ready, it can get you inebriated at haste: best kept to the jungle. More civilised, Phong Nha expats gather at Momma D's rooftop bar. Denise has 15 types of bottled craft beers and seven ciders, all produced in Vietnam. But if I'm there for sunset, I'll be ordering their signature frozen peach bellini or a passionfruit mojito, made with fruit grown on the bar's terrace. See mommadsrooftop.com


Orphanages. Cuddle tourism isn't cool. And instead of giving pens, lollies, money or colouring paper to children, give second-hand children's English story books directly to a local teacher, or maybe donate to a responsible NGO such as BlueDragon Foundation, which fights against people smuggling, or MAG International, which clears UXOs (unexploded bombs) from peoples' gardens. See bluedragon.org, magamerica.org