THE BEAUTY OF PHONG NHA CAVES CAN ONLY BE REACHED BY AN EXACTING TREK OVER MOUNTAINS AND DOWN THROUGH VALLEYS, BUT THE REWARDS ARE WELL WORTH THE EFFORT
My trip to Phong Nha in central Quang Binh province took place about a year after I moved to Hanoi. I was living with four housemates, one of whom worked in the tourism industry and was heading down to Phong Nha to help set up a caving tour. There were two trails in the jungle, she explained, one starting in the west and the other in the east, but they didn’t meet up in the middle. It was her job to connect the two to creat a continuous trail that went through one of the cave systems. As she told us all about it she could see the excitement in our eyes, so she invited us along for the journey…to which we all said “YES!”
The journey began with a train trip from Hanoi to a village just a little north of Hue, where we got off and were taken to the office of the travel company, which was about 20 kilometres away in another village. When we arrived there was no time for sitting around; all of the gear we would need for the trek was laid out ready for us to pack into our own bags. Unfortunately, that meant we had to ditch most of the comfort items we brought with us for four-day trek, like a change of clothes. After about an hour packing, unpacking and repacking, we set off down the road to catch a boat that would take us about four hours up a river.
The boat ride came to an abrupt end as we reached a dam. From there, we had a very long trek ahead of us to reach the caves. It was hot, I was hungry, and my bag was pretty heavy. But I knew from previous hikes that the first couple of hours are always the worst. We came to a point where we needed to cross a river and there were some people who were willing to take us across on some rather sketchy boats. We made it across and then walked up the embankment onto a road. By this time everyone had enough of walking for the day so we sat on the side of the road and were deciding what to do when one of those crazy country buses came screeching to a halt to see if we wanted a ride.
We all locked at each other and didn’t even need to say a word. We jumped on the bus and cranked up the AC. Most of our fellow travelers had never seen a westerner before, so they were full of questions as we sat squashed together in the compact bus. We had a lot of laughs and made a few friends, but unfortunately we had to leave them and the AC to get back to the trail.
Once back on the trail we were all recharged and ready to go. We put one foot in front of the other and marched on and on up hills, down hills, through streams and across valleys until we reached a stream that came out from the side of a mountain through a small cave opening. The only way across was to carefully grip the side of the cave walls and very slowly work your way across over the opening. This was the first true test of the trek. The sharp, slippery rocks and the uncomfortable climbing angle made it that much more of a challenge not to slip and fall into a pool filled with more sharp and slippery rocks. One by one, we all made it across to a beach, which would be our first camping site of the trip. The first day had been long and tiring, so after a few shots of rice wine and a delicious meal made over the fire we all retired to the hammocks we had tied to trees.
At the crack of dawn I was awake. We had a quick breakfast and started walking to a large cave nearby. What I saw when I reached the massive opening was better than anything I could have imagined. I looked like a scene out of The Lost World. Lush green plants grew everywhere. We all took time to take in the sight before the guides handed us some flashlights and we entered the cave. Not long in we had to cross a very narrow “bridge” in order to reach the back caverns. The bridge seemed to be part of an old pool that had dried up a long, long time ago. It was narrow, slippery and looked like it was made of millions of drip of wax from candle. The tour guides made it easily across, walking very slowly one foot at a time as if they were on a tightrope. When it was my turn to cross. I started out walking just as they were, but then I looked down. All I saw was black. I shined my flashlight to the right and it was as if I had shined into a black hole; the light just disappeared into the darkness. At that point I decided to sit down and slowly edge my way cross.
As we went deeper and deeper into the cave we reached the middle of large cavern that was difficult to manoeuvre around due to random holes in the cave floor that plunged unknown depths. I managed to get close enough to one of the cave walls and shone my light on what looked like a group of reflections. To my dismay I discovered that the reflections were actually massive spiders. I panned the wall with my light only and saw there were hundreds and hundreds of these things all over the place. That was when we decided to leave.
We had a long trek over a couple of mountains that needed to be done over the next day and a half to get to another cave system. We hiked until we could not hike anymore; the mountains and the heat were taking their toll. We were slowly accepting the fact that we still had a few hours to hike that day when we stumbled upon a logging road just as two trucks passed by. Thinking fast, we flagged them down and the drivers agreed to let us hop in the back, dropping us off close to a small village by a river where we camped for the night.
The next day it was another early rise as we headed for the new cave system. After reaching the mouth we crawled through an unassuming hole at the base of the mountain down to an underground river that would lead us to the other side. As we were putting on our life jackets in order to safely float down the current, we were told to float with our feet first so we didn’t get stabbed by submerged stalamites. After a few minutes in the water there was a visible light at the end of the river and at that point we were swept out of the cave and into the pool, the guides told us, was because “we don’t know where it goes”
After overnight stay in the mouth of the cave where the river exited, we were on our way back home. We spent the whole day trekking back to a village before getting into a waiting bus. We said our goodbyes to the friends that we had made on our adventure and we headed to the train station for the trip back to Hanoi. It was a tough trip, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.