27.06.2014 - 02.07.2014
I (Greg) first read about Phong Nha in an article by The New York Times entitled 52 places to go in 2014, published in January. At number 8 was Quang Binh province, Vietnam or more specifically, Son Doong cave in Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park, central Vietnam. The description was simple but exciting "Now open: One of the worlds largest caves", enough to make the wish list of places to visit on our trip.
The thing with extended and flexible travel is that there is always research and planning to be done, so when I read about it again in a similar article on matadornetwork.com entitled "52 tourist attractions that actually live up to the hype", published in April, I knew we just had to go. This list put it lower, at number 26, but the description was even more appealing:
"26. Son Doong cave (Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam): this is the largest cave in the whole friggin’ world. Not in Vietnam. Not in Asia. The whole world. It also has a huge underground river. As if that weren’t enough reason to visit, organized tours only began in August 2013, making this one of the least spoiled attractions on this list."
In the whole friggin' world! Every traveler's dream is to find those beautiful untouched destinations, before the mass tour groups, touts and souvenir shops setup and ruin the authenticity of the area. We all are put off by the places that have become "too touristy". Its hypocritical I know, as we are tourists ourselves contributing to the problem, but we all hope to find those places off the beaten track, before it gets "beaten". We later found out that the August 2013 organized tour mentioned, was in fact only a trial tour and the cave only actually became accessible to the public in 2014. Yes please!
As we got closer to Vietnam, I gradually started to do more research on the cave and how to access it and came across only one company which offered a seven day trek as the only option. A little longer than we had planned to spend in the area, but with such an opportunity, how could we skip it? That was until I discovered that only 200 visitor permits are issued a year and the 2014 quota, not surprisingly, had already been filled, despite the hefty price tag for the privilege of USD $3,000. A crushing blow.
Further reading however indicated that Phong Nha had plenty of other caving and trekking experiences to offer, all very impressive in their own right and located in an area of the country, off the mainstream tourist route so still relatively untouched. A good compromise.
Leaving transport and accommodation to the last minute, I reached out to a local guesthouse, Phong Nha Farmstay, that came highly recommended by the Lonely Planet. They were super helpful and responded with a long email of all the activities available in the area. Reading it made us realize we may actually want to spend some more time there despite not getting to Son Doong.
After a horrible 12-hour bus ride that turned into 18 hours due to a breakdown at 3am, we finally arrived in Dong Hoi and had a quick lunch before transferring inland to Phong Nha. Dong Hoi isn't really a tourist destination, so not much English is spoken, and sadly we hadn't made much effort to learn the local language, so ordering lunch was comical. As dog meat often appears on the local menu in Vietnam, we did our best to ensure we got chicken. We tried sign language, we tried clucking, there might have even been a chicken dance, which had all the staff laughing and actually had our waiter collapse on the floor in a pile of laughter (ROFL quite literally), but we managed to get chicken. See this language isn't so hard!
Verifying weight restriction compliance
Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) shop open at 3am where we were able to sit down, have a drink and watch some football - thank God for the World Cup!
Vietnames sleeper bus:
With all the last minute indesicion on which caves and treks to do and how many days to stay, the Farmstay had filled up, so we were referred to an affiliated hostel instead, where we took our first shared dorm room.
Arriving in Phong Nha:
Easy Tiger hostel:
Due to the bus delay, we arrived later than expected so just took the time to relax and plan our activities. We decided on a 2-day trek the next day to Hang En cave, made famous by National Geographic (see attached link).
We jumped into a minivan bright and early with our guide Than, a park ranger, four other travelers and a team of porters for a 45 minute drive into the national park to the beginning of our trek. We had been advised to wear a long sleeve shirt and long pants to protect ourselves from leeches and stinging nettles and were each given a pair of Cambodian canvas army boots as they were better suited for river crossings than our normal trekking boots.
The trek to the cave started with a steep descent down to a river which we then followed all the way to the cave entrance, crossing it numerous times on our way through the picturesque valley.
We passed through one of the few tribal villages along the way and spent some time with the locals, who just rapped off to the guide and porters in Vietnamese, their second language after their tribal language. With the small trekking groups coming through the village both on the way there and the way back, one of the cute kids was learning to say "see you again" in English. Hearing him practice by pronouncing each word as if on its own, almost abruptly, in succession to form a sentence, with "again" being the most troublesome, is a memory that brings a smile to my face. It was amazing to see how simple yet happy their lives are.
Debrief with Than:
"Seeeee yoo ahgueen"
Smoking some locally grown tobacco:
Our lunch spread:
Unfortunately the food attracted thousands of fruit flies and my extermination technique proved to be the most efficient - patience Daniel-san:
You can actually see one of the big cave openings on the far right:
With rain clouds closing in, we arrived at the entrance of the cave just in time to avoid the downpour, which allowed for a well deserved rest while watching nature do its thing. The same river we followed actually flows through the cave, which is about 1.6km long, and out the other side. Downpours like this apparently carry the risk of flash flooding the cave if they continue for a few hours, but luckily this one only lasted about 20 minutes. A relief considering we were spending the night inside! We were camping about 400m in on a large sand bank which receives natural light from a huge opening that used to be the entrance millions of years ago. From the continuous erosion of the rocks, the entrance must have collapsed blocking the river's path and forcing it to carve a new entrance slightly further down, where we entered.
The big opening blocked by fallen rocks so we headed for a smaller entrance on the right:
Following the rivers path which took us deeper inside the cave and back around to the campsite:
Behind me, the porters setting up the campsite:
Another view of our campsite inside Hang En:
The porters cooked up a huge spread for dinner, which we devoured after the strenuous day, but not before a Vietnamese cheer which echoed through the cave and a shot of happy water (rice wine), which continued through the evening until we were cut off! Issy happened to be the only girl on the trek, so the porters turned to her with much curiosity during each shot, impressed that she was managing to keep up. The oldest of them even started doing separate shots just with her, in addition to the ones we did as a group, with much excitement. I must say she handled it well and with everybody firing on all cylinders, it was time for arm wrestling, as you do. It was a great cultural interaction through a rice wine induced haze. The older porter even challenged Issy, which she won, to much laughter from the other porters and the old man himself. Issy says it was a fair fight..... He then came back for another to save face and they left it at one a piece.
Mot! Hai! Ba! Yo! - Vietnamese for One, two, three, cheers!
Not much light unfortunately but you can hear the enthusiasm: Hang En youtube clip
After many attempts, we finally managed to write the whole thing in 30 seconds with nothing but a head torch:
In between "happy water" shots, we learnt some more information about Hang En and Hang Son Doong. Our guide had been to Son Doong six times, which naturally had me inquiring about employment opportunities as the fast track option to see Son Doong, being unemployed and all, but he saw right through it. Hang En is actually where the seven day trekkers to Son Doong spend their first and last nights, so at least we can say we experienced a part of it.
The next morning we rose at a reasonable hour considering the previous night's festivities and set off to explore the rest of the cave. The river continues its path through the cave, and we just followed it to the other cave opening.
This tree was washed up on top of fallen rocks about 20m above the river. Just shows how high the river can get when it floods:
We climbed a few meters higher and finally arrived at the breathtaking site.
If you look at National Geographic's picture on the link above, you can see people near the entrance which will give you a good idea of the scale.
Incredible to think about the power and time it must have taken to carve this long route through the mountain.
The route to Son Doong - perhaps another time:
We then headed back to the campsite and onwards following the river back to the village and up the steep ascent out of the valley. This time we weren't so lucky with the rain and got drenched right through. The rain also brought out the leeches! Nasty suckers.
Issy carefully sliding back down the huge rock near the campsite - Than climbed it with a coffee in one hand:
The trek ended back on the main road with a thorough leech inspection, some beers and some more arm wrestling. A leech managed to get Issy on the leg (we think it got in through the pant leg zipper which was probably not shut properly) and must have been feasting for some time as it looked huge. She wouldn't wait long enough to get a picture, before ripping it off and running away in disgust. Girls
Strolling through Phong Nha's main street that evening, we stumbled upon these ladies just chilling in the middle of the street. I tried to get closer but was quickly chased away (top right corner):
The following day we hired a scooter to explore the rest of the surrounding area. The odometer read over 70,000km and was broken, which meant it probably had done a lot more than that. Huge milage for a small scooter. It must of worked it useful life and then got put in the rental market!??? The chances of it breaking down were high but, as with most things since our trip began, we hoped for the best.
Risk running out of fuel or put too much in??? Risk it! - Issy shaking her head....
With a little hand drawn map, we made our way around in search of more caves. First stop, the dark cave. A little cave (compared to Son Doong and even Hang En, but still a decent sized cave by normal measures) on the opposite side of the river. Our guide told us to get into our swim gear and we hopped onto a kayak to paddle across the river to the entrance. The dark cave is a short drive from the main town, and on the route to the popular paradise cave, so we expected there to be some tourists, but we were the only ones there, for the full hour and a half tour, the only ones inside. Golden.
Beep beep! room for two more?
The main attraction of the dark cave, and the reason we were in our swim gear, are the mud pools found in narrow tunnels off of the main cave. It was absolutely incredible. The gopro came in handy until it got covered in mud itself.
A muddy mess:
Thinking nothing could top Hang En and the Dark cave, we decided to skip paradise cave as we were told it was very touristy with lights and walkways and bus loads of tourists. We went in search of lunch instead. The Farmstay email had recommended a local place deep within a farming area named "The pub with cold beer", a favorite of the Farmstay owner (an Australian) who named it. The drawn map was obviously not to scale, as we made a few wrong turns and headed in the completely wrong direction a few times until we eventually found it along a long muddy dirt road in the middle of nowhere. The search was worth it, as the food was good, the beer cold and it was a great place to relax.
The cute girls at "The pub with cold beer" - I ordered a Choco Pie so that's what they started calling me. Priceless!
Lending a helping hand:
Always with a packed agenda and having missed the opportunity to stay at the Farmstay, we still wanted to head there to relax and enjoy a nice sunset over the rice fields.
Enjoying the atmosphere at the Farmstay, we decided to inquire about availability for the following night and luckily they had a room for us. From planning on staying in Phong Nha for two nights in the area, we had now extended it to five, it really is that kind of place.
The following day we succumbed to the temptation to visit Paradise cave having heard how spectacular the formations are, despite its touristy nature. Yes it was all lit up with walkways all the way and tourists everywhere, but the size and beauty of the formations were truly amazing and frankly the lights were needed to reveal how incredible they are.
Trying a shortcut:
Yummy Vietnamese coffee - that's condensed milk at the bottom:
Having seen three entirely different caves, we felt we had earned an afternoon and evening of relaxation at our new guesthouse.
The Farmstay on the left:
Cold beer delivery to the roof:
The most exciting part of moving to the Farmstay was their outdoor movie night. The selection was perfectly suited - at 7pm, a National Geographic documentary on Hang Son Doong followed by Good Morning Vietnam at 8pm.
Before the documentary we actually realized that both the lead caver and the first foreigner to ever enter Son Doong, a professional caver, were staying at the Farmstay that night, ahead of the next trek leaving just a few days later. That is just the beauty of this place, despite it hosting the worlds largest cave, other than the tour buses that come from neighboring towns to visit Paradise cave, there aren't hordes of people and overpriced accommodation. It remains relatively untouched with its back to basics atmosphere. We thoroughly enjoyed it, although wish we had stayed at the Farmstay from the beginning.
Through various conversations, I learnt that they have had a few last minute cancelations on previous treks to Son Doong (remember they only issue 200 visitor permits for the year, so these are like hens teeth) which they then open to either staff or tourists that have the time, inclination and money to join. Despite departing the next day, I insisted I would be available if there was a cancelation on the tour leaving two days later. I never heard anything though. I guess there is always 2015 - any takers?
In the morning we made our way to Hoi An, with a few stops along the way which will follow in our next post.
Greg and Issy