A backdated entry to about a year ago… …
I was excited to be on my first caving expedition in Phong Nha. I had arrived a day earlier after a 1.5 hours flight from Dong Hoi and a 1 hour-long bumpy motorbike ride into Phong Nha town. It was an early start and the guys from Oxalis picked me from Phong Nha Mountain homestay. We had our briefing at the Oxalis office, packed up our stuff and we were ready to go.
We were a relatively small group, only 7 of us. We have 1 guide, Vhu, 1 assistant guide and 2 cave experts, Dave and Ruth with us. And there was also a small entourage of porters and cooks who took care of our extra belongings we needed at the campsites, tents and food supplies. The coach we had took us to the starting point of the trek and I guessed as far along the main highway as it could possibly go before we had to head off into the jungle.
The weather in Vietnam had been a bit out of the norm. It was supposed to be spring but it seems that it was an exceptionally cold spring or an extension of winter. Largely due to the cold draft from China, it had been the coldest winter Vietnam ever experienced in 40 years. I had known it was going to be a wet trip, but wet and cold was a different story. I hoped I can survive this.
The day had started beautifully with clear weather and a bit of sun, so I was keeping my fingers crossed. Looking at this, I had also opted to sleep in a hammock tonight, another first for me in a jungle camping trip. Lots of new things to look forward to and the adrenaline kept me going. Honestly, I wasn’t as fit as I hoped I would be. It had been a busy week back home clearing work off before I could come over. I did my usual swims and tried to go for a few more runs in the weeks leading up to this, so I hoped that would really help tremendously.
I had done mountains before and it was always the tiring ascend in the beginning but I did not know why I had this silly notion that all caves should be on lower grounds so we should be on a descend first rather than heading upwards. It was then that Vhu explained that as these are natural untouched caves and they had kept it as pristine as they could, we literally had to go over hills to get to them and in February which was the beginning of each season after the monsoon period, the ‘trek’ would be almost non existent and pretty much overgrown. And this was the 2nd trip of the year. Quite honestly, though I had done treks on my own without a guide, they were all pretty marked out but I was certain I would not have been able to find my way around.
Even though we were out in the elements, it didn’t mean that we would need to scrimp on food. The array of fruits and tidbits was impressive. As it was Tet holidays, our snacks included lots of New year goodies, surprisingly very similar to the Chinese New Year goodies I just had prior to coming over.
We saw a burnt out fireplace and it seems that some of the locals still hunt out in the jungle and they could have taken shelter here. In fact, that was how the a local, Mr Ho Khanh, found what is today the largest cave in the world, Hang Son Doong. I had gone to Mulu national park in 2011 and Deer cave was supposedly the largest cave back then. It wasn’t a competition but for a moment of pride, I though I should at least attempt to visit the contender in this case. Hang Son Doong was unfortunately fully booked so I decided since I had already gotten my air tickets, I should try out the other caves. The Oxalis staff, Yen, had been more than helpful in suggesting expedition trips I could go on instead and was so kind even to help me collect my train ticket and pay for it in advance for my trip to Da Nang after Phong Nha. I most likely would have to come back again but first, I need to survive this.
My first non-tourist cave. 🙂 While we were enjoying our food, the rope had been set up and we took turns climbing down. Vhu and his team were exceptional in assisting each of us down, ensuring we had proper footing and grip. And so our first ‘dark hole’ in the ground. I really wondered how people discover caves like this.
We had each been handed a helmet and head lamp earlier and now I knew exactly what we needed them for. Vhu made us do a little test. When we all turned off our lights, it was pitch dark. I couldn’t even see my wriggling fingers in front of me. And helmets were definitely a must as we had to crawl through several sections. I did bump my head a few times so I was definitely glad to have the helmet on. I was behind the group with Ruth and so it was really an enriching trip when she shared information about caves and how certain elements and structures were formed. We were also told to keep to the designated track and to avoid widening the pathway or creating unnecessary marks. It took millions of years for these to form and one careless mistake on our part, we would destroy it.
We were lucky to have Dave on the trip and as he was an avid photographer himself, he really took time to set up lights, position models and taught us how to do this as a group effort. Though I did not have a DSLR but it still help a lot with my little Olympus Tough TG4. On a side note, I loved the ‘live composite’ function it has.
There wasn’t much live forms in the cave and so a little spider really attracted our attention. It wasn’t easy to live a life in caves especially when it would be flooded most of the time in the last quarter of the year. But water or rather a moving river is what kept the caves alive. I’m not a caving expert and all I share here are probably what I registered along the trip. There were also some amazing formations and structures that I had never seen. It was almost like a world of its own down in these caves.
Whenever we come to a more challenging section of the cave, Vhu would do a little demonstration of how we could go around or over it. I thought that was extremely helpful, not just for our safety but it really minimised human contacts with the rare formations around.
Dave would usually spot the best places to take a photo and we would have volunteer models and someone light ‘painting’ the section so the rest of us could take a proper photo. Only when the lights were put into the waters did I realise how clear and beautiful it really was.
And liked what we were told, or pre-warned, we were soaked into water pretty much all the way from this point on. The only thing that disturbed me was the cold. And yes, it was cold waters.
Besides the guests and staff from Oxalis, we also had a park ranger that we picked up from their main office on our way to the start of the trek. His job was to make sure we did not do any unlawful things within the park. Apparently, Oxalis had to pay a fee to the national park to operate as a tour agent which explained the rather expensive trip costs. But if that all goes into research and protection of the park, I guessed it was well warranted for. After having been into the cave, I could well see that it a lot of effort had been put in to ensure it stayed pristine and untouched.
As we walked on, Ruth spotted a little green shoot. In this cave engulfed by total darkness, it was impossible to see any forms of vegetation. This was probably washed in by the river and the pale coloured shoot was a major hint it would not blossom further than this. I wondered how long it would be able to survive.
The rumbling sound was unmistakable, but what came as an unexpected treat, was the series of waterfalls. The rivers were forced through crevices and cracks and came gushing through as mini waterfalls along this little face of the cave. The underwater lights lit up the pond beautifully, transforming it into an instant turquoise blue lagoon. When our lights dimmed out, the sound of water became strikingly apparent, echoing throughout.
We were walking in water most of the ways now and the cold was getting to me. I was all wet and there was actually a slight chill tunnelling through the cave. I hoped I don’t catch a cold, not at this point.
I was taking photos along the way since I had a waterproof camera. A lot of times, I just snapped away, pretty unsure of how the photos might actually turned up. But I just couldn’t help it as everything looked so amazing. The colours in the cave walls, the layering effect from the presence of different minerals in the rocks and the dripping waters from the roof of the cave. My eyes were enjoying a feast and definitely too busy to stop even for a short moment.
I was a little slow and when I caught up, Vhu was showing the group something really small. As I edged closer, what I thought was strung up water droplets were threads of ‘silk’. We were all trying to spot the little creature responsible for the shimmering veil. I needed to squint a little to see the tiny moving spot on that thin thread.
Did I say earlier that there was not much life in the cave? This was indeed a rare treat. These bats would usually be hanging from the ceiling of the cave but we were lucky to spot a number of them in the crevices along the cave walls. They were such darlings and I took countless photos of them from all angles. Little jewels dotting the wall and we would have missed them if not for Dave’s sharp eyes.
We had a little dry passage and it was a short moment of joy. But Vhu spotted more silkworm and for some reason, we did not hesitate to step back into the waters just to have better look. I love the way they shimmer when our lights fall on them, really, really pretty.
We came to a huge column and it was teamwork again. The models and the guys with the torches all took their place while the photographers tried to set up their cameras as best as they could. For me, I did not have a tripod so I had to look for nice rocks that I could perch my camera on to frame the photo. Well, it worked and my tiny camera did manage some pretty decent shots. Not as impressive as the rest of the group but I was a happy girl.
The cave was huge and I really appreciated the human scale to show how grand these structures really were. I was in awe every moment of the trip and it was definitely one that I would not forget for the rest of my life.
Much of the cave would be submerged in water for most parts of the year and February was the opening season for caving expeditions in Phong Nha. As such, the walls were mostly still wet slippery. Our guide and his assistants were very attentive and were constantly helping us along when the going gets tough. I was also trying hard to follow their steps and instructions lest I slipped and fall and land on areas I shouldn’t. I definitely would not want to squash this little green fellow.
And there it was, the light at the end of the tunnel. Getting out was definitely not much easier than getting out. At least we were one step to our destination of the trip. For now, it was setting up camp, washing up and having a good rest.
Our porters and cook team had obviously been ahead of us and things were pretty much all set up. Our hammocks were all hung up, the changing ‘room’ all set and the toilets all ready to be used. As the sun set, it got a lot more chilly and I was eager for my turn to get to the changing area to get out of all the dripping wet clothes and socks.
And I had the tastiest coffee ever after I got out of my wet clothes. I was one of the most layered up person but I could only hope I would be warm enough. For the moment, it was just good to sit around the fire.
Dinner was delicious and we had a little chat around the fire that night before we headed to bed. It was dark and it took me a while to struggle into the sleeping bag in the hammock. The night was cold and the hammock was not a smart choice after all. I could feel the cold rising from the ground and penetrating through my sleeping back. I tossed and turned quite a bit and was only glad that I managed to get a little sleep.
It was only in the morning that I realised I wasn’t the only one feeling the chill. It was just too cold. After breakfast, it was yet another struggle, putting on my wet clothes and socks from the previous day. We took turns to have our harnesses put on. Packed up and we were ready to go.
Today was the highlight of the trip. I had seen some of the photos on the website and was eager to see it for myself. I was a little tired but adrenaline and expectation kept me going.
We were entering from above and as it was almost a vertical wall, we were using ropes as a safety precaution. As we got down further, it got darker and finally pitch dark again.
And Vhu was right. It was pointless to put on fresh dry clothes as we soon got wet again within a few minutes. We lit up again for our photo session. And this is Mei, our model volunteer for almost all the photography session. She was also my best pal on the trip, an amazing lady from Taiwan who is presently working in Vietnam. Simply love her personality and energy.
And this cave probably shared the same life and energy. It needs to stay wet to ‘grow’ and sustain itself. These tiny ‘straws’ were baby stalactites. All limestone stalactites begin with a single mineral-laden drop of water and these are like little eyelets looking at us as we thread through the cave. Given time, they would grow and the deposit on the ground would form stalagmites. Eventually the 2 might meet to form what we saw yesterday as columns. The process will take millions of years and these are intricate structures that kept the cave ‘alive’.
We got all wet and cold again pretty soon. What was different about today’s cave or this section of the cave system was the low hanging ceiling above.
The ceilings were amazing and the distinct colourings showed different bands of mineral deposits. This was a piece of artwork on its own.
All along the way, water droplets were falling on us. The damp, cold air had a wet, musky smell to it. Suddenly, I heard a louder flow of water, almost liked a tap turned on full blast. Not sure if this would be a worrying thing, but the water was bursting in through cracks along the ceiling and walls of the cave. They were an amazing sight and even though I was cold, I couldn’t resist getting a shower from it. Oh, and we found another little bat.
The way in had been wet but rather flat so far, so when we reached a wall, I knew it was going to be a tough climb up now. We hooked in onto the ropes that were already rigged in and climbed over one by one. It was a slow process as the walls were kind of muddy and slippery. We were also told to keep to the designated path as much as possible because everything was super fragile from this point on.
I slipped and thankfully for the harness and rope, I did not fall to the bottom. I felt a little guilty too as I had placed a footprint where it shouldn’t be. After that, I slowed down quite a bit, afraid to make another wrong footing.
The deeper we ventured in, the more unusual the formations got. It was completely unlike any caves I had seen so far. Everything was so brittle and delicate. Oxalis had put in some metal steps so we could walk across on a designated path. It also keep our footing and gave us some form of traction as the ground was unusually soft.
The view we were treated to was an unreal pond with stalagmites growing from the ground. There were so many of them in the pond and according to Ruth and Dave, they were still growing. Trust me on this that the photos I had taken do not do justice to the sheer beauty of the place. It was a surreal scene.
We spent some time, taking in the unreal sight before us. It was a creation beyond my imagination and it was so exquisite that it looked impossible. Such was nature’s work, thoroughly beyond us.
We made our way out of the cave in the same line-up, using ropes and slowly climbing out. Eventually we got out from a different way, a tiny hole in the ground. I was truly amazed at how the locals managed to find these hidden caves out here in the jungle.
We trekked our way out and it was all the way up boulders in the thick jungle. The coach was waiting for us at the main road. We had lunch along the way before getting back to Oxalis in town for our debrief. At this point of time, reality set in and it dawned on me I had another expedition to go on the next morning.
For the moment, it was back to Phong Nha Mountain House, a hot shower and a good night sleep on a nice soft bed.
I must be crazy. 😉