Phong Nha - Ke Bang (Vườn quốc gia Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng) is a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Bố Trạch and Minh Hóa districts of central Quang Binh Province, in north-central Vietnam, about 500 km south of the nation's capital, Hanoi. The park borders the Hin Namno Nature Reserve in the province of Khammouan, Laos by the west, 42 km east of South China Sea from its point. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is situated in a limestone zone of 2,000 km² in Vietnamese territory and borders another limestone zone of 2,000 km² of Hin Namno in Laotian territory. The core zone of this national park covers 857.54 km² and a buffer zone of 1,954 km². The park was created to protect one of the world's two largest karst regions with 300 caves and grottoes and also protects the ecosystem of limestone forest of the Annamite Range region in north central coast of Vietnam.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang area is noted for its cave and grotto systems as it is composed of 300 caves and grottos with a total length of about 70 km, of which only 20 have been surveyed by Vietnamese and British scientists; 17 of these are in located in the Phong Nha area and three in the Ke Bang area. Phong Nha holds several world cave records, as it has the longest underground river, as well as the largest caverns and passageways.
The park derives it name from Phong Nha cave, the most beautiful of all, containing many fascinating rock formations, and Ke Bang forest.
The plateau on which the park is situated is probably one of the finest and most distinctive examples of a complex karst landform in Southeast Asia.
This national park was listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 2003 for its geographical values as defined in its criteria viii.
In the late 19th century, Léopold Michel Cadière, a French Catholic priest, conducted an expedition to explore Phong Nha cave, where he discovered Champa scripts. He proclaimed Phong Nha cave "The number one cave of Indochina". In July 1924, an English expeditionist, Barton, stated that Phong Nha cave is second to none of famous caves of Padirac (France), Cuevas del Drach (Spain) as far as the beauty and miracles are concerned.
In 1935, a local inhabitant accidentally discovered a beautiful cave 1 km from Phong Nha cave mouth, at an elevation of 200 m. It was called Tien Son cave (lit.: Fairy-tale cave), or Dry cave due to the fact that its inside landscape is similar to fairy-tales and it has no underground river.
In 1937, the Bureau of Tourism of French Resident Superior (in Huế) issued a brochure to introduce tourism in Quang Binh and Phong Nha Cave was included in this introduction. This tour site is ranked second in French Indochina. Before 1990, several explorations were conducted by Vietnamese and foreign groups but the mystery of this area still remained. From 1990 on, there marked a turning point in discovering activities, from exploration to research, thus full documents for submission to UNESCO for World Natural Heritage nomination were made available.
For the first time in 1990, Hanoi University accepted the cooperation proposal of the British Cave Research Association. They combined efforts in exploring and researching caves and grottoes in the area comprehensively. The first exploration was conducted in 1990 by a group from the British Cave Research Association and Faculty for Geology and Geography of Hanoi University, led by Howard Limbert. They completed research of a large part of Vom Cave.
In 1992, the second exploration was conducted by a group of 12 British scientists, six professors from Hanoi University. This time, this group completed their exploration of 7,729 m of Phong Nha Cave and 13,690 m of Vom Cave and adjacent caves and grottos. In 1994, a third exploration was carried out by a group of 11 British scientists and five Vietnamese professors of Hanoi University.
In 1999 scientists from the Vietnam-Russia Tropical Centre also conducted zoological and botanical surveys in the Ke Bang area.
From the results of these three explorations, more thorough knowledge of the cave and grotto systems in this park was made available to the Vietnamese and local government for the protection, planning, and tourism development of this park.
In 2005, scientists from the British Cave Research Association discovered a new cave and named it Paradise Cave (động Thiên Đường). The newly discovered cave was acclaimed by the British scientists as "the largest and the most beautiful cave in Phong Nha-Ke Bang area".
On June 1, 2006, the Ministry of Culture and Information of Vietnam issued a stamp collection of depicting various landscapes found in Phong Nha-Ke Bang.
Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park is located in the territories of communes (: xã): Tan Trach, Thuong Trach, Phuc Trach, Xuan Trach and Son Trach of Bo Trach district and a small part of Minh Hoa district in the center of Quang Binh province, around 40 km north-west of the provincial capital city of Dong Hoi. The park is bordered by Hin Namno karst area of Khammouan Province of Laos in the west. The road distances are about 500 km south of the capital Hanoi and 260 km north of the port city of Da Nang. The geographical coordinates are .
The park is situated around 30 km west of South China Sea and National Road 1A, near Ho Chi Minh Highway and 28 km west of Hanoi-Saigon Railway and is accessed by road or waterway by boat through the estuary in South China Sea upwards. There is a small airport near the park accessible by helicopter or small aircraft (Khe Giat Airbase), an airbase used by North Vietnamese Air Force during Vietnam War, notably in the Battle of Dong Hoi.
The park covers a total area of 857.54 km² which are divided into three zones, a "strictly protected zone" (648.94 km²), an "ecological recovery zone" (174.49 km²), and an "administrative service zone" (34.11 km²).
Phong Nha-Ke Bang area today is a result of 5 stages of Earth's crust development and movement in this area:
In general, there are two groups of landforms in the Phong Nha - Kẻ Bàng area, namely non-karstic and karstic landforms. Non-karstic landforms includes three types: The middle and low dome-block mountains developed in intrusive magmatic massifs; The middle denudation-structural mountain belts developed in terrigenous rocks of Cretaceous age; and The low block-denudational mountain belts developed in other terrigenous rocks.
Karstic landforms in this area are of typical tropical karst which are divided into two groups of forms: The karstic forms on the surface including cone and tower karst, karrens, valleys and dolines, border polje, etc; The underground karst consisting of caves.
In comparison with three other national parks listed in UNESCO's World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia, namely Gunung Mulu National Park in Malaysia, Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park in Palawan of the Philippines and Lorentz National Park in West Irian of Indonesia and some other karst regions in Thailand, China, Papua New Guinea, karst in Phong Nha-Ke Bang is older, has more complicated geological structure; diverse and complex underground rivers.
Mounts in karstic area of the park rise at typical height of above 800 m constitute a continuous range along Laotian-Vietnamese borderline, of which notable summits above 1000 m are: Phu Tạo (1174 m), Co Unet (1150 m), Phu Canh (1095 m), Phu Mun (1078 m), Phu Tu En (1078 m), Phu On Chinh (1068 m), Phu Dung (1064 m), Phu Tu Ôc (1053 m), Phu Long (1015 m), Phu Ôc (1015 m), Phu Dong (1002 m). Inserting into these summits are 800-1000 m high summits of Phu Sinh (965 m), Phu Co Tri (949 m), Phu On Boi (933 m), Phu Tu (956 m), Phu Toan (905 m), Phu Phong (902 m), núi Ma Ma (835 m).
Non-karstic topograhical area accounts for a low percentage, distributing mainly in outer circle of limestone in the north, northeast and southeast of this national park. The height of these summits varies from 500-1000 m with the deep divisions and high sloping level from 25-30o. There are some narrow valleys along streams such as Am creek, Cha Lo creek, Chua Ngút creek and a valley along Rao Thuong river in the southernmost edge. In the north-south direction, there exists notable summits: Phu Toc Vu (1000 m), Mã Tác (1068 m), Cổ Khu (886 m), U Bò (1009 m), Co Rilata (1128 m); The highest summit in the non-karstic area and also the highest summt of this national park is Co Preu (1213 m), a summit in the southernmost edge of the park.
Besides the grotto and cave systems, Phong Nha has the longest underground river. The Son and Chay are the main rivers in this national park. Most of caves here have been shaped by Son and Chay Rivers. The Son River flows into the mouth of the Phong Nha cave and keeps on underground, where it is called as the Nam Aki River. It emerges 20 km to the south near Pu-Pha-Dam Mountain.
There are over ten spectacular streams, springs and waterfalls in Phong Nha-Ke Bang area, namely: Gió waterfall, Madame Loan waterfall, Mọc stream erupting from a limestone mount range, and Trạ Ang stream.
According to the assessment of UNESCO, The karst formation of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park has evolved since the Palaeozoic (some 400 million years ago) and so is the oldest major karst area in Asia and Phong Nha displays an impressive amount of evidence of earth’s history. It is a site of very great importance for increasing our understanding of the geologic, geomorphic and geo-chronological history of the region.
According to Lê Quý Đôn, Phong Nha was the former name of a nearby village. Other theory suggests that, Phong Nha derived its name from the imagination that mounts in this region standing in line looks similar to the scene of mandarins in front of the king in royal courts, therefore, it was named Phong Nha (Han Tu: phong (峰) means "summit" and nha (衙) means "mandarin").
Other names of Phong Nha cave includes: Thầy Tiên cave, Thầy Mount, and Troóc cave.
The park is part of the Annamites eco-region. By far the largest vegetation type is tropical dense moist evergreen forest on limestone under 800 m above sea level. 96.2% of this national park is covered with forest, 92.2% of which is intact primary forest. 74.7% (1104.76 sq km) of the park is covered with evergreen tropical wet forest on limestone rocks at the elevation of under 800 m; 8.5% (126 sq km) is evergreen tropical wet forest on limestone rocks at the elevation of above 800 m; 8.3% (122.2 sq km) evergreen tropical wet forest on soil mounts at the elevation of under 800 m; evergreen tropical wet forest on limestone rocks at the elevation of under 800 m; 0.7% (10.7 sq km) evergreen tropical wet forest on limestone rocks at the elevation of above 800; 1.1% impacted evergreen tropical wet forest on limestone rocks; 2.8% (42.12 sq km) impacted evergreen tropical wet forest on soil mounts; 1.3% (1,925) grass, bush on limestone rocks; 2% (29.5 sq km) grass, bush on soil mounts; permanent wetland forest: 1.8 sq km; rattan and bamboo forest: 1.5 sq km; and agricultural plants: 5.21 km² or 0.3%. According to the results of initial surveys, the primary tropical forest in Phong Nha - Ke Bang 140 families, 427 genera, and 751 species of vascular plants, of which 36 species are endangered and listed in the Vietnam's Red Data Book.
The most commont tree species in this park are Hopea sp., Sumbaviopsis albicans, Garcinia fragraeoides, Burretionendron hsienmu, Chukrasia tabularis, Photinia aroboreum and Dysospyros saletti. Seedlings can only grow in holes and cracks in the limestone where soil has accumulated, so in general regeneration after disturbance is slow.
The forest type in this national park is dominated by evergreen tree species with scattered deciduous trees such as Dipterocarpus kerri, Anogeissus acuminate, Pometia pinnata and Lagerstroemia calyculata.
In this park, the dominant plant families are the Lauraceae, Fagacaeae, Theaceae and Rosaceae, with some scattered gymnosperms such as Podocarpus imbricatus, Podocarpus neriifolius, and Nageia fleuryi.
In this national park, there exists a 50 km² forest of Calocedrus macrolepis on limestone (Calocedrus rupestris) mounts with about 2,500 trees, 60,000 per sq km. This is the largest forest with this tree in Vietnam. Most of the trees here are 500-600 years old. These trees are listed in group 2A (rare, precious and limited exploitation) of the official letter 3399/VPCP-NN dated 21 June 2002, an amendment to the Decree 48 by the Government of Vietnam.
Natural University, Hanoi National University, in combination with the Research Center of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, has discovered 1,320 additional species in this park, of which some groups are assessed as specially rare and precious.
Biologists have discovered three rare orchid species. Orchids found here include: Paphiopedilum malipoense, Paphiopedilum dianthum, Paphiopedilum concolor. In 1996 IUCN classified these orchid species in danger of extinction in the near future.
Endemic species in this national park is composed of: Burretiodendron hsienmu, Cryptocarya lenticellata,Deutrizanthus tonkinensis, Eberhardtia tonkinensis, Heritiera macrophylla, Hopea sp., Illicium parviflorum, Litsea baviensis, Madhuca pasquieri, Michelia faveolata, Pelthophorum tonkinensis, Semecarpus annamensis, Sindora tonkinensis.
The forest is also home to 98 families, 256 genera and 381 species of vertebrates. Sixty-six animal species are listed in the Vietnam's Red Data Book and 23 other species in the World Red Book of Endangered Species.
In 2005, a new species of gecko (Lygosoma boehmeiwas) was discovered here by a group of Vietnamese biologists together with biologists working for the park, Cologne Zoo in Germany and the Saint Petersburg Wild Zoology Institute in Russia.
The Gaur and one species of eel have been discovered in this park. Ten new species never seen before in Vietnam were discovered by scientists in this national park.
The Park is home to significant populations of primates in Vietnam, with ten species and sub-species. These include the globally vulnerable Pig-tailed Macaque, Assamese Macaque, Stump-tailed Macaque and White-cheeked Crested Gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys and Nomascus leucogenys siki). The Park is probably home to the largest population of Francois' Langur in Vietnam, including two different forms of the species. The area is highly significant for its population of Hatinh Langur and Black Langur. It is undoubtedly the largest population of these species in the world, and probably the only population represented in a protected area. Other endangered large mammals include the Mainland Serow (Capricornis sumatraensis), Giant Muntjac (Megamuntiacus vuquangensis) and possibly the Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis). The Asiatic Black Bear (Selenarctos thibetanus) and Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus) are confirmed. Other smaller mammals include Sunda Pangolins (Manis javanica) and the recently discovered Striped hare, called locally 'tho van' (Nesolagus timminsii). Ten bat species listed in the IUCN List of Threatened Species have been recorded in this park.
Of the 59 recorded reptile and amphibian species, 18 are listed in Vietnam's Red Data Book and 6 are listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. The 72 fish species include 4 species endemic to the area, including Chela quangbinhensis.
The park is home to over 200 bird species, inclusive of several rare birds such as: Chestnut-necklaced Partridge, Red-collared Woodpecker, Brown Hornbill, Sooty Babbler and Short-tailed Scimitar-babbler. There is good evidence for the Vietnamese Pheasant (Lophura hatinhensis) and Imperial Pheasant (Lophura imperialis) species at Phong Nha - Kẻ Bàng area.
An initiative survey conducted by Russian and Vietnamese scientists from Vietnam-Russia Tropical Centre (funded by WWF) recorded 259 butterfly species of 11 families. Almost all major butterfly taxa in Vietnam can be found in Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park.
In 1899, a French missioner, Léopold Cadière surveyed the customs and culture of the local inhabitants living along the Son River. In the letter to École française d'Extrême-Orient, he stated that: “What remains here proves to be valuable for history. To keep it is to help science”. In early 20th century, cave explorers and researchers from France and the UK discovered several ancient Champa and Vietnamese relics, such as altar, steles, hieroglyphic script, sculptures, stone statues, Buddha statues, and Chinese artifacts.
During the Vietnam War, the caves were an impregnable major base of the North Vietnamese Army, comprising; Xuan Son Ferry, Ho Chi Minh Trail, Road 20, Mụ Giạ, A.T.P, Trà Ang, Cà Tang, a curve road, Ve stream, Six Sisters grotto, Nine Story grotto, Nguyen Van Troi Ferry, storage depots in caves and grottos in Tuyen Hoa, and Minh Hoa.
In 1999, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) conducted a field survey in January and February. At the meeting in July 1999, Evaluation Bureau concluded that Phong Nha Nature Reserve would meet with criteria I and IV as a world heritage nominee on the condition that this nature reserve was expanded to include the larger Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park with an associated fully integrated management structure. This bureau stated that the site was part of an extremely complex and ancient karst plateau with high geodiversity which also encompasses Ke Bang and Hin Namno karsts. The reserve is largely covered in tropical forest with a high level of biodiversity and endemic species. Lack of research means that the true significance of the biodiversity and geology of the area cannot be fully assessed. The evaluation bureau concluded that the nominated area on its own is not considered to meet World Heritage criteria. Nevertheless, if this nature reserve was jointly nominated with the Hin Namno karst ecosystem in Laos, the combined site would constitute the largest surviving area of karst forest in South-east Asia and may merit World Heritage status. The Bureau decided to defer the nomination of Phong Nha Nature Reserve.
In 2000, the government of Vietnam submitted a revised nomination with a much larger area. At this time, however, the National Assemby and government of Vietnam also announced that it would be constructing the north-south Ho Chi Minh Highway and a link road between the Highway and Route 20 that bisects part of the core area of the Phong Nha Nature Reserve. The news of this road construction raised concern over its impacts on the Phong Nha Nature Reserve, and many international organization like IUCN, Flora and Fauna International called on Vietnamese government to reconsider its plan. They also advised of the negative impact of these road and construction activities on biodiversity. Due to this plan of road construction, the evaluation bureau did not proceed further consideration of nomination from Vietnamese government at that time.
The government of Vietname provided the bureau with additional information in in May 2002, announcing the decision of the Prime Minister of Vietnam (December, 2001) on the upgrading of the Phong Nha – Ke Bang Nature Reserve to the Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park with a total area of 857.54 sq km; providing information on projects for the conservation and development of the Park and revised maps. This revised nominated site has a much smaller area than the 2000 nomination, though still relatively larger than that of 1998.
It was recognized as a world natural heritage site at the UNESCO's 27th general assembly session being held in Paris June 30–July 5, 2003. At the session, delegates from over 160 member countries of UNESCO World Heritage Convention agreed to include Phong Nha-Ke Bang park and 30 others worldwide in the list of world heritage sites. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park meets with criteria viiii in accordance with UNESCO’s appraisal scale as it displays an impressive amount of evidence of earth’s history and is a site of very great importance for increasing human understanding of the geologic, geomorphic and geo-chronological history of the region.
The number of tourists has increased dramatically since the park was listed in UNESCO's World Heritage Sites.
Quang Binh Province has invested into upgrading the Phong Nha-Ke Bang visitor site to turn it into one of Vietnam's major tourist destinations.
Multiple eco-tourist projects have been licensed for development and the area is being heavily developed by the province to turn it into a major tourist site in Vietnam. Phong Nha Ke Bang is part of a tourism promotion program called: "Middle World Heritage Road" which includes the ancient capital of Huế, the Champa relics of My Son, the city of Hoi An, nha nhac and the Space of Gong Culture in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
Tourist activities in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park are organized by local travel agencies and vary in form:
One of the adventure tour sites is boating upward on the Chay River into primitive forests, as the river becomes sinuous with several waterfalls and whirlpools until tourists arrive at Tro Mong. This tour sites have been surveyed and included in local travel agents besides cave exploration tour. In Phong Nha-Ke Bang park, there are is a 50 m-high waterfall, Chai Waterfall. There is a bull filed called Ran Bo (Bull Field) due to the fact that wild bulls usually comes and reproduce in mating season. There are also some interesting tourist attractions in this park like Nước Ngang (lit.: Horizontal Spring), a spring runs horizontally instead of vertically as usual; Ðá Nằm (Crouching Stone), a stone blockading a stream current; Chân Thớt (Chopping Board), a chopping-board-shaped stone. But above all, the most spectacular scene is this area is Nước Trồi (Surfacing Stream), a stream surfacing from the ground. Several streams here run for a long distance, then disappear under the ground.
Thanks to the tourism development in this national park, about 1000 local residents have jobs in tourism. The provincial Centre for Phong Nha-Ke Bang’s Ecotourism and Culture currently has 248 boats, creating jobs for 500 locals . Every boat has two trained boatmen earning VND70,000 per day. This income is relatively high for peasants in this province. This centre also launched a programme in 2000 to train former loggers to work as photographers taking pictures for tourists and about 300 former loggers are now doing this.
In order to facilitate the increasing flow of tourists to the site, the Dong Hoi Airport was constructed and is due to be operational at the end of 2008.
A semi-wild zone of 0.18 sq km, surrounded by electrical wire fence, saved for the primate species was created in this park. This project is sponsored by Zoologische Gesellschaft Frankfurt (Germany) in order to provide a sanctuary for 10 species of primates, including Trachypithecus francoisi hatinhensis, red-shanked douc langur or Pygathrix nemaeus nemaeus. This protection zone is suitable for primates habitat.
The increase of visitors to this park is also a problem to the park since unexpected pollution (water pollution, rubbish), human impacts on caves and grottos may cause damage to them and especially threaten biodiversity. Hunting is a significant threat to the wildlife because local people have a great consumption demand on wild meat and this has contributed to the significant decrease of species such as the wild pig, binturong and primates. While local authorities have taken no legal action, nevertheless, some civil servants and policemen are the owners of restaurants that serve wild animal meats hunted in this national park. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is currently not meaningful for protection of tigers, Asian Elephants, and wild bulls.
Rare eels like Anguilla marmorota and Anguilla bicolo have been caught and consumed in large numbers by the local residents and served as specialities in restaurants due to the fact that local inhabitants believe they are "natural Viagra".
Excessive exploitation of rare wood such as Go Mun wood (Diospyros spp.) and Go Hue wood (Dalbergia rimosa) and oils from trees such as Cinnamomum balansea, rattan has cause an exhaustion of these plants in many areas of the park. Bat population in caves and grottos also face disturbance by human activities.
Ho Chi Minh Highway, Road 20 crossing the edge zone and the connection road linking these two roads crossing the core zone also contribute danger to the wildlife in this national park, especially populations of Hatinh Langur and Black Langur. During the construction of this road, blasts and other activities kept several primates away from their regular habitat. Due to poor management by the local government, many areas of forest in the buffer zone were cleared heavily, some completely.
Limestone in Phong Nha-Ke Bang area has been exploited for commercial purposes by local inhabitants, but the local authority has taken no countermeasures to prevent this.
The provincial government approved a 3600MW coal-fueled thermaleclectrical plant in Vĩnh Sơn village, Quảng Đông commune, Quang Trach district, 40 km northeast of this national park. This project has deeply concerned many enviromentlists as it will probably cause air and water pollution to the park.
Wildfire in the dry season is a regular threat to the forest in this national park.
The land management and regulation of the commercial activities in the area surrounding the park have been carried out by the provincial authorities in a disorganized manner. Blocks of land have been sold to local investors and inhabitants for building service utilities in a haphazard way, resulting in the formation of a slum at the entrance of the park. This has been compounded by some investors who do not develop their lots but hold them for future sale. The planning scheme for 2 km² of land adjacent to the park was criticized by many experts as having been done "without future vision". Quang Binh's provincial government responded by declaring their intention to recruit internationally-recognised planners to help draft tourism development plans for the adjacent areas.
In 2007, the German government donated a further 1.8 million euros to Vietnam for protection of this park.
Fauna & Flora International donated USD 132,000 to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park Management Board for the protection of primates in this national park as well as in the buffer zone.
In 1998, FFI conducted a training project for the management staff of the park. The British Commission for International Development sponsored a fund for the WWF to protect the biodiversity in the park and in the adjacent Hin Namno Nature Reserve in Laos. FFI also received environmental funding from the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to implement a campaign targeted at increasing awareness about biodiversity protection among tourists and locals.