Blog // Tales from the trail
Once upon a time in a land far, far away, it was said that there was a magical place made up of hollow mountains! Not quite believing this could be true, two sprouts set off on their way from the Royal city of Hue to see for themselves. Along the way they met some other travellers who were also wondering about these 'caves', as they were apparently called, and ventured onwards together. It wasn't long before the light faded and the road became rutted - they didn't need to fear though, their chariot driver seemed to be content to continue to hurl along the road in the dark, ignoring most road signage - the passengers learning to trust that he knew what he was doing. After a few hours, they took a particularly wide bend and suddenly pulled up in the darkness on the main road (the only road) in the magical lands of 'Phong Nha'...right opposite ye olde Easy Tiger still going strong at 11pm, many staying at the 'Inn' young of face and very merry on cheap grog.
Feeling full of anticipation for what magic might lie in this small town, the sprouts woke early to hear the daily brief apparently given by the resident Leprechaun - only he wasn't a Leprechaun, just a regular Irish guy called Seamus.... OK, so back to reality.
Seamus's talk has apparently become legendary amongst the travellers who have heard it and we soon understood why; it was engaging, informative and passionate, he himself a member of MAG a not-for-profit organisation who clear landmines and unexploded bombs from areas of previous conflict. He started with some local history. Apparently although a seemingly quiet town, it became a very important location in the War because it falls in the narrowest part of Vietnam and was therefore a very convenient spot for the Americans to try and halt the transport of supplies down the infamous Ho Chi Min trail by the Viet Cong. All known bridges were bombed as were the roads, yet supplies kept getting through - how? Thinking that the trail must open up at night, aerial reconnaissance missions were conducted and flares were dropped to light up the area. Hurrah! This indeed showed up another bridge that hadn't been noticed before however, during the day this bridge simply didn't exist and this caused some confusion. It eventually transpired that it was a floating bridge (aaahhhhh) which was pulled out at night to complete the circuit, however by day the bridge was stored inside Phong Nha cave, meaning the 'Cave of Teeth' because of the stalactites hanging from the cave's entrance over the river. Once the secret was out, the Americans re-started their bombing campaign, this time flying as low as possible over the river flowing into Phong Nha cave, aiming bombs at the small mouth before having to make a sharp turn upwards to avoid colliding with the surrounding valley. This proved to be a very difficult and rather ineffective exercise because other than destroying the stalactites on the front, little else was affected. The caves still continued to operate as storage area, bunkers and a make-shift hospital.
With all manner of stories of the area and lists of things to do, including visiting several caves, one of which is the largest-known in the World (Son Doong), we were excited to get going and see them for ourselves. Together with another traveller, we headed to the boat ticket office learning that the price for getting the boat was the same whether there was 1 person on the boat, or the maximum number of 12. The boat 'station' is an organised community-managed system ensuring that the boat owners get their turn and their fair-share of customers. This meant that there were no touts aggressively trying to get our custom, or bad feeling amongst the boat handlers; everyone was happy to wait their turn, snoozing in their hammocks until this time. 40 minutes down the river were passed in peace and quiet, admiring the lush limestone valley and watching the boat people using giant chopsticks to fish out large clumps of river weed from the bottom of the river and into their boats.
Once we reached the cave's small entrance, the boat engine was cut and the boat man at the back and the boat lady at the front picked up their oars and rowed us 1.5 km through another world.
It's hard to describe what the inside of the cave was like, and the photos hardly do it justice - it was simply otherworldly and not the claustrophobic space you might associate with caves. This was possibly due to the professional lighting at select points, breaking up the inky darkness and showing off some particularly impressive stalagmites or stalactites (they're the ones hanging down from the ceiling because tights hang down of course!) but most likey because the space was simply cavernous, suddenly appearing from behind a bend in the river. As we rowed through, looking up at the ceiling, I had a flashback to visiting the Sistine Chapel - the mottled colours and textures on the ceiling feeling very much like nature's equivalent of Michelangelo's masterpiece!
On the return we beached up (yes a beach inside the cave!) and took our time taking in the sheer awesomeness of it all.
Eventually, big groups starting beaching up (with them noise and camera flashes) and so we walked on through to the back entrance and up approximately 467 steps to the cave above, a dry cave, called Tien Son.
Panting as we reached the top of the staircase, we found we were looking back down into another cavernous space, down a staircase and onto the wooden walkways beyond. Being a dry cave it was a completely different experience; I preferred the atmosphere of having the river and hearing the sounds of the water dripping or echoing through the cave, but Tien Son was equally impressive in scale and colour. How could the hills above still be standing after millions of years with such empty interiors? And how were these beautiful spaces and structures carved out quite simply by water dripping through them??
Constrained by time (and money) and after much deliberating over which one other cave we would go and see the next day, we hired ourselves a moped and decided on Paradise Cave; "If you're only going to see one cave in Phong Nha, this should be it" all the guide books chorused. Rainforest (or jungle?) by name, rainforest by nature, we were soon soaked by the low cloud and drizzle which quickly turned into heavy rain - not ideal when you have to pack everything up in a few hours' time and get on the night bus BUT we were about to see "Paradise" Cave and 'it will so be worth it'.
Oh! But it was wet. So, so wet! From the car park we hurried along the few kilometres through the (happily for us) cleared jungle which was super-dense and got us thinking about how the discoverer discovered the cave in the first place in 2005, apparently out for a walk looking for exotic timber product. And then there was the few hundred steps up to the mouth of the cave, the rain relentless; 'this really had better be worth it' we had started to say... Finally! An entrance! A small entrance, but an entrance nonetheless. We ducked through, shook off our rain coats and looked down into... complete and utter extraordinariness (I'm claiming it as a word!). It really was something out of this world and really, really, really worth it.
Taking the unguided route, the staircase leads some way down to the bottom of the cave and a walkway then traverses 1.5 km through a lit section. Options are also available to take an organsied tour and walk another 6km(!!) into the cave from the end of this walkway, however in darkness, the only light coming from your head torch. This only scratching the surface however, as in total the cave runs some 31 km underground.
Just seeing the early sections, the cavity is magnificent, prompting my thoughts of 'hollow' mountains. Also, skillfully (somehow) arriving at lunchtime meant we were either side of the tour buses and pretty much had the place to ourselves. Walking through, it was hard to imagine how the British caving team led by the Vietnamese discoverer must have felt when they were discovering the full extent of this cave, lighting up their first flare and (in my mind) watching it tumble down the giant entrance slope into the abyss beyond. We wanted to ask him ourselves when we stopped at the guesthouse he now runs, but he wasn't in so we settled for a cup of his chocolate coffee instead, reflecting on where we had just been. Hollow mountains do exist and they exist in Phong Nha.
We left Phong Nha a little disgruntled that we hadn't given ourselves more time to do the area justice, there being still so much to see, but so pleased that we had made the last-minute decision to visit. As Seamus muttered, more people have probably visited the moon than have been inside the cave network still largely undiscovered in this area. The town is relatively new to tourism, word of the natural wonder still being spread by mouth and many of the growing eco-tourism initiatives are community-managed which was great to see. We respected the Phong Nha farm stay (about 5km down outside of town offering professional tours in and around town) and their sister establishment, the Easy Tiger, for making a big effort to let visitors know about the local area, including its history, and how to be respectful of it, but standing at the roadside at 10pm waiting for our bus, we were a little uneasy about the noise and number of drunk people spilling out of the hostel and the impression they would leave on the fairly rural community.
The caves have been without doubt the highlight of our trip so far and we sure hope to go back one day for more adventures. If you have the opportunity to do so, go and see them; for one thing, it's cheaper than paying Richard Branson to take you to space!
Son Doong Cave was found by a local man named Ho-Khanh in 1991 but it wasn't fully explored and appreciated until 2009, when it overtook a Malaysian cave to take the title of the World's largest. The biggest chamber measures 5 km long, 200 m high and 150 m wide - so big are these caverns they could actually fit an entire New York city block of 40 storey buildings. There are even rumoured to be wispy clouds near the ceiling! The cave is limited to visitors, only 500 permits being made available every year. 6-day trips are sold at $3,000 per head in a bid to preserve the cave from heavy-duty tourism.
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