I grew up skirting the edges of Fantasy Land (now called Galaxyland) at the West Edmonton Mall (WEM) in Alberta, Canada. On my way to a shop or a movie, the vibrations of this enormous indoor amusement park pulsed through the food court and into neighbouring businesses. Even though it’s been many years since I’ve stood under its halo, I can still hear the dull roar of the Mind-Bender, a roller-coaster, touted as the largest indoors and infamous since 1986 when three people fell to their deaths. Despite never having been a disciple of Fantasy Land, the title was part of my vernacular.
So, I usually write my titles last, after I’ve written and re-written the body, searching for a heartbeat to whatever it is I’m working on. But I knew immediately what to call this short piece on one of our most recent journeys. Phong Nha in Quang Binh Province is a genuine Fantasy Land. Forget that noisy atrocity in a city I so love. That’s not it. This is it! And I know that not everyone will agree and that’s good too.
A fantastical place inspires awe and can be ‘other-worldly’. I have always loved the sense of anticipation one feels when you’re in such a remarkably beautiful place, that you are overcome by the wonder of what’s around the next corner. A Fantasy Land makes the ordinary sublime.
Phong Nha, both a village and a national park (called the Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park) is in Northern Central Vietnam less than 15 km from the coast. When I use the name, I’m referring to an a fairly large area. The fact that this place holds the world’s largest cave (discovered in 2009) and has a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation has nothing to do with my evaluation. The reason we went was because a friend told us to. And from now on, I will always listen to her advice.
The confluence of rice and cassava fields, tropical jungles, large limestone karsts (almost mountains), and waterways, some of which go for miles underground is at times mesmerizing. Magic hour according to the light could have been at any number of times of the day. I wish I could have take an aerial shot of the late afternoon light reflecting off the muddy backs of tens of buffalo in bright green fields. I just couldn’t get high up enough.
I had a sense that this was one of the few rural communities where poverty was being held at bay. (I have tried to find statistical evidence to get at the truth – but so far nothing). I hope I am not wrong about this. The large buffalo and cow herds grazing in the fields buoyed my optimism, as did the many many large homes throughout the area. I know it’s changing rapidly as word of the ‘enchantment’ spreads and I fear for the future.
A 70km motorbike journey around the park, twisting and turning our way on switchback roads sparked my imagination of what was in the mass of green. And even though I felt a pit in my stomach when I saw signs announcing snakes as one of the park’s main inhabitants, I still found the place beguiling. Rumour has it that a Hollywood crew was there earlier in the year filming for the latest King Kong movie. I understand why.
Zip-lining and a foray into the ‘Dark Cave’ to float in the mud was fun and an opportunity to meet some other travellers. But this kind of activity leaves me very conflicted and since we’re talking about Fantasies, let’s move on.
Really what I loved most was just being there, and the night we ventured out to the ‘Pub with Cold Beer’. Driving 10 km down a very bumpy dirt road, we arrived at the Pub at dusk. I was a bit panicked about the drive home, but settled in as we were handed cold beer and told to pick our chicken. Happy that Somara was distracted by the two girls who lived there, she and I skedaddled off to play pool while Tim participated in the killing and cooking of dinner. Note that Somara cries in a zoo when she sees animals enclosed let alone slaughtered. Tim however, was in his glory. Unquestionably the best chicken we’ve eaten in Vietnam, we were also treated to fresh pepper and fresh quava from the trees in front of the house. The magic of this evening was getting to know these two girls, both close in age to Somara, who didn’t just want to play with us, but who were interested in finding out more about Canada. So smart and so sweet, we hugged them good-bye a mere 90 minutes after meeting them. As we bumped and stumbled our way home in the dark on our motorbikes Tim suggested we stop and turn off our motors. In addition to our star extravaganza was the cacophony of unknown creatures many of which must have been frogs. I wish we had tents, but then we would have troubling getting to sleep.
I don’t want to bottle up our experience or even tell too many of you how to get there; I feel both the privilege and the burden of having been in Phong Nha. The fantasy of this place may ultimately be fleeting, but I will hang onto it for as long as I can.