Caving in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Deep into an episode of Louie, I barely notice my bus has stopped in a dark, ghost town. I am the last passenger.
I had tried my best to take my attention away from the unpleasant 6 hour ride. Crammed between a drafty window and a young man with a small baby in his lap, I had little room for my legs in the Asian-sized vehicle. The baby kept grabbing my arm or reaching for my water bottle. The man’s wife, the baby’s mother, was vomiting loudly into a plastic shopping bag for much of the journey. Though I know she was more uncomfortable than me, I struggled to find sympathy. A few other passengers, either as a result of the woman or of the bumpy ride, also heaved into plastic bags. I turned up my headphones and faced the cold window.
The driver motions for me to get out. The bus will go no further. I must grab my bag and wait at the dark, gravel intersection.
I had boarded this bus in DaNang. Following instructions from my guest house, I had looked for the Bao Vuong bus to Phong Nha. When I couldn’t find the exact suggested bus, I was directed to another bus which included the name “Phong Nha.” I figured this must be as good as the same. I was wrong.
Where the bus now stopped is definitely not Phong Nah. I say “Phong Nha???” to the driver and to the random men on motorbikes in front of me. They shake their head no. One squats on the ground and tries to draw me a map.
With no English speakers in sight, I call my guesthouse and ask them to speak with my driver and find out just exactly where I am. It turns out my bus had stopped in a rural community 30k from Phong Nha. The receptionist tells me I can get a cab for D$500,000 or a mototaxi for D$200,000.
Naturally, I opt for the cheaper option. With all my stuff, I hop on the back of a motorbike. As it’s only about 40*F, I live to regret this decision. After a bumpy, downright terrifying, 40 minutes of harrowing turns down one windy and pitch black country road after another, I arrive at the Easy Tiger Hostel. As I approach the bright property and take in the inviting fire pit surrounded by travelers, pool table and plates of burgers and pasta, I realize I have never been so happy to arrive at a hostel.
I check in and immediately book a full day tour for the following day. The area has become famous in recent years due to the discovery of Son Doong, the largest known cave in the world. However with a 5 year waiting list and $3,000 price tag, I would not be making a stop here.
I spend the remainder of my evening chatting with fellow travelers and thawing myself in front of the fire. NOTE: for those of you who imagine Vietnam as a steamy jungle–you’re only half right. Anywhere north of central Vietnam, can be downright cold in the winter.
After a good nights sleep, I awaken, grab breakfast and am picked up by a shuttle. We are first taken to a nearby national park where we admire stunning scenery and learn of the areas significance in the “American War.” Because of the region’s crucial role as a supply route between the north and south, this area endured heavy bombing during the war. Large, black holes still scar the limestone cliffs.
We next drive to our first cave–Paradise Cave. Upon entering this underground wonderland, appropriately named for its comfortable temperature and stunning interior, I’m overwhelmed by the size and beauty of the inside. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. Nature is showing off. I’m impressed.
The cave had been discovered in 2010 and the land bought by a wealthy local man. After a mere 7 months of construction, a massive set of steps/ramps to the mouth plus a wooden walkway and steps into its interior was completed, making the cave comfortably accessible and open to tourists of all ages and physical abilities. Tasteful lights illuminate the inner walls.
After a filling lunch of stir fried beef and veggies we head to the next cave. This one, named Dark Cave because of its black (or old) limestone, has no steps or lights or walkways. We must kayak to the mouth of the cave then enter, wearing helmets, headlamps, life jackets, and wearing no clothing in the cool 60 degree weather but our bathing suits. We follow our guide deep into the cave’s dark bowels. When we reach a narrow passageway lined with thick mud we take off our shoes and enter the slimy goop barefoot. We walk through the cool, smooth and thick muck, eventually grabbing it with our hands and smooshing it between our toes. After playing in the mud like happy children, we must swim through a dark channel to rinse ourselves clean. The air and water cool, this is immensely invigorating. Freezing from our swim, we scurry to our kayaks and row quickly back to the van, our towel and our warm, dry clothes. We celebrate with hot soup and shots of sweet rum.
I end the deeply satisfying day with a burger by the fire, a few beers and a game of pool.
Though many people on my tour had also booked another caving expedition for the following day, I had decided to do my own thing rather than splurge on another costly tour. However, I’m awoken early the next morning by a girl from my tour telling me the friendly couple from Ohio had insisted on paying for me so I too could join. Overwhelmed with gratitude, I throw on clothes, pack my bag (A night bus to Hanoi already booked for 9:30 that night) to store it and check out, and run to hop on the shuttle with the rest of the group.
As I had not actually booked the tour or planned on joining, I had no real idea what I had gotten myself into.
We drive for nearly an hour before stopping in a rural village. Here we are fitted in bright orange helmets, headlamps, life jackets and cheap, Cambodian army shoes. We make the hour long walk through rice paddies and corn fields; women direct water buffalo-powered plows through the tough earth, dramatic limestone cliffs visible in the distance. It’s surreally beautiful.
We pass knee deep through a river colored turquoise by limestone and climb through craggily earth to the mouth of our first cave. As the cave’s only human inhabitants, we feel like explorers as we wander through it’s damp, quiet interior. After sufficient time for admiration we make our way out and over to a field where porters have set up a picnic lunch of baguettes with ham, veggies and cheese, dragon fruit and guava, cookies, cakes and coffee. Like ravenous vultures, we devour every last bite.
After lunch we must traverse another river, climb up then down two limestone cliffs and into the mouth of another cave. This cave is more amazing than then last. At one point we climb down a steep ladder, deeper underground. Here, our guide points out, was where 2 skeletons were found when the cave was first explored. They had likely fallen to their deaths, not to be discovered for some 20 years. At another point we see a massive prehistoric-looking spider perched on the damp marbled wall. And at another, our guide points out amazing, perfectly round rock formations he calls cave pearls.
We eventually reach a point where we must jump into an icy underground river and swim until we reach another opening. This is a shocking swim to daylight, rewarded with a hot cup of coffee and dry clothes. Now we must climb up then down the limestone cliffs, cross the river, cut through the rice fields, and back to where our ride awaits.
We reach the van just as the sun sets and enjoy a beer before making the hour long ride back to the hostel.
Just in time, I eat dinner, change my clothes, grab my pack and catch a shuttle to the bus station–quite sure that my action-packed day will make sleep on my night bus to Hanoi come quick and easy. Somehow this day was even better than the last. I decide this incredible stop in Phong Nha was well worth my unpleasant journey from DaNang. Often the most rewarding travel comes with high tolls.