From impoverished farming community to tourism hub, in just a decade Phong Nha Town has got itself enough eating and drinking options to make it a good place to hang out and do more than just visit caves. Words by Zoe Osborne. Photos by Mike Palumbo

 

Since Phong Nha Farmstay opened in 2010 and began bringing the first international tourists to Phong Nha, the area has become a hive of economic activity with plenty of bars and restaurants. Here’s a rundown of what’s available.

 

Vung Hue Restaurant

 

The menu here is a long list of options, from tender meat and fish to tofu vegetarian dishes, all served with rice and bright yellow tea. Ca vuoc sot ca chua is a succulent, tangy plate of surprisingly un-fishy sea bass and tangerine tomato sauce. It’s served beneath a cluster of bright, well-done vegetables, and while you have to navigate its bones the flesh is soft and light. The muoi tri suon chua ngot (sweet and sour ribs) are another well-known delicacy at Vung Hue, and are just as sticky as they sound. Put the chopsticks down and use your fingers.

 

Cost: A plate of ca vuoc costs VND80,000, pork ribs cost VND80,000 and rau lang xao is VND30,000.

 

Easy Tiger

 

Easy Tiger is the kind of place where you could instantly make a bunch of new best friends simply by sitting down. The telltale buzz of a good backpacker joint seeps out of the front gate and onto the street long after most other restaurants close.

 

The Easy Tiger kitchen serves meals and finger food from 6am to 10.30pm, focusing on Western dishes with a local twist. The bar is open until 11pm, offering a range of beer, sodas, fresh juices, smoothies, wines and even ciders, with free drinking water refills. Easy Tiger is also known for its in-house band that plays three to four nights a week, filling the space with hits and classics.

 

Cost: Drinks range from VND15,000 for a soda and VND20,000 for a Huda beer to VND80,000 for a Magners Apple Cider.

 

Bomb Crater Bar

 

The Bomb Crater bar sells a range of beer, soda, hot drinks, coffee and comfort food, on a very interesting piece of land. A crisp, cold beer is always a winner, but take that beer and put it on a handmade bamboo table in the middle of a bomb crater, and you’ve got something special.

 

The area around the bar was used as a fuel depot during The War. In the early 1970s, a 2000lb American bomb created the crater that the bar now sits in — a once deep gouge in the earth that has been filled in over time by river sediment and vegetation.

 

Overlooking the river, the Bomb Crater Bar is a great spot to unwind and relax.

 

Cost: A Huda beer costs VND20,000, soda is VND15,000 and mixed drinks are VND50,000. Snacks range from VND5,000 for a bag of crisps to VND70,000 for a meal.

 

Phong Nha Farmstay

 

At Phong Nha Farmstay, the view is just as good as the food. Seating is mainly outside and as you eat you can watch the rice paddies ripple in the jungle air. The kitchen at Phong Nha Farmstay is open from 6.30am to 8.30pm and staff are ready to serve you throughout the day.

 

One breakfast favourite is the Farmstay’s pancakes — golden toasted dough with a topping of fresh fruit, local honey or jam, lemon and sugar, and cinnamon sugar. Pizzas are also popular here, as is the pho bo, served with fresh, curly beef, coriander, basil and the optional lemon. There are also a number of vegetarian dishes on the menu. A good time to come here is for sunset. The view over the paddy fields is spectacular.

 

Cost: Food ranges from VND30,000 for a garden salad or garlic bread, to VND180,000 for a hamburger pizza with beef, bacon, salami and ham.

 

Omar’s Namaste

 

The curries at Namaste are very satisfying. They’re the kinds of meals you would order if your stomach was particularly hungry, or if you’d had a long day exploring and wanted to give yourself a treat. The menu offers a variety of dishes from all over India, each curry coming in its own silver bowl with a twirl of white cream on top.

 

Red-hot curries aside, Omar’s Namaste at Phong Nha is a master of Indian breads. The roti here are wide, fluffy discs of freshly cooked dough with a light crunch on the outside but soft, warm bread on the inside.

 

Cost: Main dishes range from VND80,000 to VND150,000. Namaste offers a deal of a bhaji or samosa, poppadom and dip, rice, naan, any vegetable or chicken main and a beer or soda included, all for VND150,000.

 

Bamboo Café

 

Bamboo Café has been built around the concept of eco-friendly living, from its recycled soda-can utensil holders to the plant pots lining its walls. Owner and founder Hai Nguyen also runs a tour company in Phong Nha, educating visitors on conservation in the area.

 

If you’re looking for something local and light to eat, try the Bamboo Cafe’s fresh spring rolls. These wraps of vegetables, noodles, egg and pork come in a ring around a bowl of homemade peanut sauce. Coffee here is like rocket fuel — very strong and tasty.

 

Cost: The spring rolls cost VND60,000, sweet and sour ribs with rice go for VND80,000 and a Phong Nha vegetarian volcano (tofu, mushroom, tomato, onion and capsicum) costs VND50,000.

 

Capture Café

 

Capture Café’s main draw is its buffet of a food menu, with its warm, freshly baked bread, gourmet pizza, Texas-style enchiladas and tasty salads and sandwiches. Dig in to one of Capture’s homemade crisp-crust pizzas, or indulge on a delicious creamy lasagna.

 

The menu also includes a number of specifically vegan and vegetarian dishes, including vegan penne, a vegetarian lasagna and a vegetarian enchilada, and there are plenty of options if you’re looking for something light. Try the veggie hummus sandwich, a two-slice creation with roasted tomato, pumpkin, carrot, cucumber, bell pepper and lettuce, served with a generous side of fresh, crispy garden salad.

 

Cost: Food prices range from a veggie hummus sandwich at VND70,000 to a classic pizza at VND180,000. Drinks prices range from VND15,000 for a soda and VND20,000 for local beer to a Capture Nutella frappe at VND90,000.

 

East Hill

 

East Hill is Phong Nha’s most bizarrely creative establishment, perched on the top of a mound of earth. The owner originally opened it for the backpacker market, but now most of his customers are Vietnamese — students and teachers from Dong Hoi. The café looks out over the valley and you can almost taste the peaceful quiet that washes over it with the breeze. Bright yellow flowers waft gently on one side and a long wooden bench rims the front of the café hut, laden with a few big smooth stones on which someone has painted the Wifi password. Order a morning ca phe den or sua da and join the locals as they watch the sun wake up.

 

Cost: Ranges from VND15,000 for beer to VND17,000 for a delicious coffee.

 

The Best Spit Roast Pork and Noodle Shop in the World (Probably)

 

This local gem serves a number of dishes using what they’re famous for — crispy barbequed pork. You can order their glistening, tender meat with bun noodles, with a freshly baked banh mi and home-made sauce, with rice or simply on its own with a selection of local herbs that bring subtlety to its otherwise rich, wholesome flavour.

 

The shop opens in the morning, but the spit starts turning later on in the day and continues until around 9pm. Strangely enough, vegetarians can be catered to here, too. Simply let the owner know and she will whip something up.

 

Cost: Prices range from VND40,000 to over VND100,000 depending on what you’re eating with your meat and how much meat you’re actually eating.

 

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