What kind of cheese do you use to get a bear out of a cave? Camembert! Ha ha ha. That’s literally the only joke I can remember. No joke! While our caving adventure in Central Vietnam was bear-free, it certainly wasn’t short of excitement. But I should back up a bit. A few years ago I read an article in National Geographic about the recent discovery of the world’s largest cave. Largest in all dimensions: the newly discovered Son Doong Cave has a height of 250 meters, width of 200 meters and lengths of approximately 8 kilometers. That’s enough space for a) a city block of 40-story buildings b) a 747 airplane to sit comfortably c) two and a half Statues of Liberty d) all of my excitement. Oh, and it has a completely distinct rainforest ecology growing inside. Watch this to see! Unfortunately we couldn’t quite justify the week-long $3000 adventure in Son Doong, so we settled for another tour with the same caving company, Oxalis Adventure Tours, who I would highly recommend should you ever be in Phong Nha National Park. There are heaps of caves to choose from here, and they take you to the least known/furthest away ones.
We met our guide, three porters from the local village, and three fellow cavers in the small town of Phong Nha. We collected our helmets and torches, dry bags and life jackets and were off! We weaved through the peanut and corn fields, past the buffaloes wading in the river and immediately found ourselves in the rocky terrain of the next two days. Dry bags slung on our backs we scrambled up craggy rocks and boulders, always being outpaced by the porters who were carrying at least twice as much weight as us and wearing nothing but flimsy sandals. It’s worth mentioning at this point that I had gastroenteritis (undiagnosed at this point) and a lingering ankle injury that was definitely put to the test. My rough shape made the porters’ strength and agility that much more impressive. These guys were dynamos! Anyhow, with the distance between them and us always growing, we enjoyed the jagged limestone karsts jutting out all around us, the sounds of the jungle, and the constant climb towards our first goal, Hung Ton Cave. Our group of five finally arrived, caked in sweat and a glimmering sheen of bug spray, just as the porters were casually finishing up their umpteenth cigarette. Looking effortless in the jungle clearly involves an aura of smoke at all times. They prepared us a fantastic meal at the mouth of the cave, and from here we found ourselves surrounded by blackness, creepy spiders, and dripping stalactites. Trying to take in the immensity of the cave is difficult. As we crane our heads up, the heights of the ceiling engulf our tiny headlights, which is for the best really as we need our trivial beams to shine light on the damp stone beneath us. Shimmying down through cracks, hugging walls to avoid gaping holes into nothingness, we crept our way down into the vastness. (Afterward, Curtis and I pondered what would happen if someone had a serious accident in there. It’s probably best that no one did.) Eventually we reach the bottom and find ourselves in deep black placid water. Our guide regales us with (not) hilarious stories of monsters in its depths. We swim and swim, casting our lights above us to try and catch glimpses of the thousands of bats echoing around us. It is absolutely serene in the belly of the cave, swimming awkwardly in all our clothes and trekking gear. I feel connected to the millennias before me that have created these caverns, and will continue to do so long after I’m gone. It’s comforting in a weird way, the world is an amazing place.
This pattern of climbing up, shimmying down and swimming in our gear continued until we reached our campsite for the evening. Our piddly water-proof camera really doesn’t do it justice. It was a beautiful spot tucked between the mouth of the cave, waterfalls and green jungle. There were the porters, smoking away in their care-free sandals as Curtis and I struggled to swim to shore. For some reason everyone else was much better at swimming with helmets and shoes than us! I mean I’m not a great swimmer I know, but clearly I need to do some drills. The evening was spent under waterfalls, then under thick layers of deet, then under the comatose state we were all in after the most amazing dinner I had in Vietnam. Those porters were excellent cooks! Not that their families would know, unfortunately, as apparently they never cook at home. Vietnam has very clear gender-roles, unsurprisingly. Soon it is dark out and there isn’t much left to do besides swig rice wine that would clean out a car battery and climb into our hammocks slung between two trees. I’ve never slept in a hammock all night, it was quite nice!
The next morning we arose to complete the pattern of climbing and swimming, only this time with the added challenge of sore muscles and filthy wet clothes. All was forgotten though once we slipped into the murky water in each cave we (we went through four in total). Time froze, darkness reigned, and it was truly spectacular. Finally we found ourselves back in the peanut fields we started in, and the flat solid ground found us again. Incidentally so did a flash floody rain storm. Good timing on our part! Well sort of, the porters were waiting back at the village for us, bone dry of course, smoke and babies everywhere. I’m so thankful that Curtis and I were able to do this trek together, it’s been a bucket list item for me since I knew the National Park existed! Rock on, awesome caves, rock on. I’ll be back again one day, I hope.