The Light at the End of the Cave
A Burnt Out Traveler in Phong Nha, Vietnam
Why Party Hostels are One of the Worst Things to Happen to the Tourism Industry
Phong Nha, Vietnam was one of my last stops on a 6 month trip through Southern Africa and South East Asia. By the time I arrived in this region I was sorely burnt out. I was counting down the days until I would fly from Hanoi, Vietnam to Honolulu, Hawaii. I was getting close!
The day I arrived in the mountain town of Phong Nha, I’d already been having a rough time. I had done a tour of the Demilitarized Zone north of Hue. Since I was burnt out, my brain and my eyes glazed over at most of the information presented to me, but I tried to soak up some insight on the Vietnam War. I still couldn’t figure out why America had been there and why we did so much damage. The only thing that kept me going that day was that I had a lot of wonderful conversations with a German Doctor named Laura who was sitting next to me on the over-air-conditioned mini-bus. I talked for hours about my observations in Madagascar and throughout Asia and Africa, and she shared her own. At least my brain was capable of cranking out something; for weeks I’d been feeling like mush.
When the tour ended, I was dropped in a town still north of Hue so a night bus could pick me up in a few hours to take me to Phong Nha. I was looking forward to spending the afternoon at a restaurant, maybe with wifi, so I could decompress and feel comfortable. Restaurants had become a huge mental relief for me while traveling. It was worth it for me to pay a little extra to sit in a warm and clean place where I could eat cooked food and mindlessly browse the internet on my phone (though I always had the intention of doing something more productive like reading).
When always on the move, it truly felt nice to be comfortable every once in a while, even if it was just for a few hours in a restaurant.
I dropped my bags at the bus office in this relatively large town and began my walk along the main road in search of a restaurant. There was nothing. There were tire shops, offices, clothing… No restaurants. There was some street food with plastic chairs, but they didn’t accomplish what I needed: a comfortable place to sit indoors… plus they didn’t have anything vegetarian. I would see fancy looking coffee shops in the distance, surely they could fit the bill! But in Vietnam, coffee shops are separate from food. Coffee shops are beautiful and comfortable, but they don’t even have snacks. Nothing.
I was shit out of luck. I walked for at least two hours up and down the street. I became increasingly irritable. But I had my heart set on finding a place to rest with food. Eventually I settled on some street food because I’d wasted the whole afternoon walking around and I did actually need to eat before the bus ride.
I felt so isolated and alone. I felt like I didn’t belong. It was an uninviting city. I had no place to go. The people I met were nice, but I had no place to just relax and shut off my brain.
Eventually I boarded the bus and we arrived in Phong Nha at 9pm.
I’d booked a bed at a highly recommended hostel called Easy Tiger. They coordinate cave tours and are known for having a “fun” atmosphere.
Once I dragged myself to the reception desk, I was completely overwhelmed by my surroundings. There were hundreds of drunk westerners running around. There was an open mic night and the girl singing was incredibly off key. I looked into the bar area and my instant reaction was “NOPE.” Where would I even begin?
I checked in, asked for a room with a lower bunk, and crawled into a tacky leopard print blanket with the hopes of falling asleep.
In the next few hours, the loud, terrible singing continued and people came in and out of the room. They apologized for making noise and I quietly said no “no worries.” I was a zombie either way.
Then the door cracked open and I made eye contact with a man. Suddenly there was a large “CRACK!” and dust was everywhere. I was covered in something. I thought a smoke bomb had gone off.
It took me a minute to register what had happened. I got out of the bed. The leopard print blanket was now a snow leopard…covered in a white powdery substance.
I walked outside in confusion. In the hallway stood a few Australian and European travelers, in their “traveling in Asia” beards and Chang Beer Tanktops. I asked what had happened. They told me a guy had come up and set off a fire extinguisher into the room. I asked who he had been. They didn’t know.
I was upset. I’d had a terrible day. I felt isolated and alone. And now I felt violated. I’d been sprayed in the face…by a fire extinguisher. I began to cry.
The Australians in the hallway said “it’s just a funny prank!”
A funny prank?? Spraying a stranger with chemicals? Oh sorry I guess I missed that part of humor class when I opted out of becoming a douche-bag frat guy.
Two other girls had their bags in the room. Their stuff was potentially ruined, but they were on the arms of a few tank-top clad Bros and they acted like it wasn’t a big deal. “We’ll just move our things and sleep with them in their rooms” they said. I guess it worked out. They were getting laid.
No one seemed concerned about the fire extinguisher. In fact, I was a naggy bitch for being upset about this. The two vapid girls and the brain-dead boys looked at me like I was a monster from the swamp when I said I was going to talk to reception.
Reception closed at 11 and no one was there.
There was no one. No one.
One nice American guy took pity and told me he would help me find someone to talk to. He had a modest beard, but he was missing the rest of the Douche-Bag Traveler in Asia Starter Kit. He wasn’t wearing a Beer Tank top.
There was a sweet Vietnamese man walking the grounds for the evening as security. I tried to relay to him what happened using a translator app. I did not get very far but I finally convinced him to follow me to the room to see the white powder covering the two bunk beds and all of the luggage.
He could tell something bad had happened but he motioned that there was nothing he could do. I insisted we try.
He took me to a room where someone who worked at the hostel was sleeping but no one answered the door.
That was it.
I grabbed my things and camped out on the couch in the lobby. The American boy and a relatively dumb guy from Australia stayed to chat for a bit.
And then I was alone on the couch in the echo-y hostel foyer.
I don’t think I slept.
At 3 am a staff member came to reception. I told him what happened and he was appalled. He told me there were security cameras but he didn’t know how to work them. He moved me into an empty room. I finally showered and fell asleep.
In the morning I was doing a Cave Tour. It’s what “you do” in Phong Nha.
The hostel did not have free breakfast, but they offered me an opportunity to order whatever I wanted (I was going to soak up all the free I could get out of this). As I was eating, the manager (from Australia?) of the hostel joined me to ask about the incident. He seemed disturbed but said “in a large hostel like this, sometimes you get bad eggs.” I looked at him in disgust. He offered to refund me the 10 dollar price I’d paid and move my things to a different hostel.
I was leaving for Hanoi that night anyways.
I couldn’t tell why I was so angry at this man at first, but later in the day I had a realization. This man was contributing to the epitome of the dark side of travel in Asia.
He created an environment for stupid, careless, assholes to come to a foreign place, drink all night at the “fun party hostel bar” and then do awful things because these people feel like there are no consequences in a place where no one knows them.
I was seeing terrible things like this all throughout the Asia Backpacking Circuit. But it finally dawned on me: Party Hostels are one the worst things to happen to the tourism industry. These places are built by westerners, for westerners with no regard for the local culture. They are there to exploit the weaker currency and provide a place for young people of privilege to live out their fantasies of drinking on beaches, sleeping with strangers (or even prostitutes…that’s a whole other issue) and running around like they own the world.
If you build it, they will come.
Despite my emotional deflation, I still did the cave tour I’d over paid for. (I couldn’t be bothered to find deals anymore).
Luckily the people on the tour were all kind and found the fire extinguisher incident atrocious (Nice to know I’m not insane!!).
We toured Paradise Cave. It was awe-inspiring. The gigantic limestone stalactites and stalagmites showed centuries of geologic change in their layers. Over millions of years water was dripping in this cave to create an earthly moonscape. It made one small, shitty incident at a hostel seem like nothing in the scheme of things.
We toured a few other places. There was a war memorial for a group who had hidden in a cave during the Vietnam War.
Our last stop was a jungle trek and a swim through the pitch black Tra Ang Cave.
Swimming through the darkness in a cave, dressed in helmets and life-jackets seemed a bit silly, but we floated along. As we climbed over limestone formations in and out of the endlessly opal water, I couldn’t help but think of the videos of the evolution of fish to the first amphibians crawling on land.
There were two hilarious travelers from England in the group, Amelia and Robbie. I instantly connected with them and we made absurd jokes along the way. They brought back a bit of life and silliness into my deadened state, though we learned quickly that English and American Sarcasm don’t mix well and just leave all parties confused. That’s obviously their fault, not mine.
Amelia and Robbie were also heading to Hanoi that night. Even though I wanted to avoid the terrible hostel for the rest of my life, I felt comfortable with them and joined them at the bar while we waited for the night bus. I actually had a fun time. I’d met enough people through the telling of the fire-extinguisher story that I had a lot to talk about. That night I was seeing the familiar faces of people who weren’t jerks and it made the hostel a much more inviting place.
But I was glad to leave that hell-hole and never turn back once the bus arrived at 9 pm. The Australian guys from the hallway and the girls from my room were on the bus too. They’d been caught on the security footage standing by and laughing during the fire-extinguisher incident. They had to pay a $40 fine each. The guy who actually set of the extinguisher was never identified. In the video, he had the standard look: tank-top, beard, and tattoos he probably got done in Thailand. This look became triggering to me. Most white guys I met traveling in Asia looked like this… They usually came in groups of 3+.
This was my worst experience in Vietnam. It’s not Vietnam’s fault. Phong Nha is beautiful. But there are some aspects of Travel Culture in Asia that really suck. I had about a week left of my trip in Asia and I could see the light at the end of the cave. It was time to go home. It was seriously time to go home.