Our next stop was Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, an area of outstanding natural beauty and one of important conservation value. A Unesco World Heritage site, Phong Nha boasts natural attractions both above and below ground: karst mountains swathed in pristine rainforest sweep the sky while extensive subterranean cave systems wait to be explored beneath them. In fact, Phong Nha is home to the world’s largest cave – Son Doong, only discovered in 2009 – and the longest underground river. As we arrived in the small village of Son Trach (the only town in the park apart from a number of minority villages), we were excited to do some exploring ourselves.
The area used to be strictly controlled by the Vietnamese military (I believe there’s still a fair amount of unexploded ordinance about) and although it’s much more relaxed now it is still necessary to do a tour with a licensed operator – you can’t really wander off into the hills for a hike alone (as romantic as this sounds). Therefore one of our priorities was to book something for the next day; we booked a day including both Paradise Cave and Dark Cave (amongst other places) which was expensive but we hoped it would be worth it. That afternoon was spent exploring Son Trach which really didn’t take too much exploring – it’s really just one street of guesthouses which gives way to a more local village with buffalos ambling their docile way along. However, you can get to the river and walk along its muddy banks, your feet sinking slightly into the mud and leaving a trail of footprints behind you. To the right, green carpeted limestone mountains loom over the vivid blue river, reflected in the gently rippled water. Bright blue boats bob up and down, a splash of colour in a mystical landscape of green, grey and silver. On one of the boats, a small group of children were playing and shouted out to us as we walked past. To the left, villagers go about their daily lives in wooden houses on stilts, washing blowing on lines in the wind. The interface between right and left is saddening – the muddy shoreline is choked with rubbish, plastic, polystyrene, as far as you can see. Snarled around weeds, sucked into the mud and dancing in a slight breeze, it’s everywhere and it’s sickening. All through Vietnam, we’d noticed that there was a rubbish problem – there are practically no bins anywhere – but in a National Park and one that contains protected animals such as tigers, elephants and saola, you’d really think that regulations would be much stricter or more effort would be made to clear it up. But people here just don’t care and it’s not really fair to say it’s their fault – they are probably unaware of the negative consequences of dropping litter and the environmental pollution that ensues (affecting not just protected animals and plants but people who, at the end of the day, are part of the same ecosystem even if we often feel disconnected from it). It’s only education that is going to make a difference here and unfortunately that is going to take time. We walked back to the village, feeling rather saddened as the light faded from the sky. The evening was spent eating Vietnamese pancakes stuffed with beanspouts and pork – banh khoai – with a peanut dipping sauce, sat round a crackling fire in the company of two Australian couples, huddled against the surprising cold of the Vietnamese North.
The next day saw us driving off into the depths of the national park, jagged karst mountains rising up from a clingy shawl of emerald forest, a faint mist skimming their peaks. Our first stop was ‘Eight Ladies’ cave. This is the site where eight young volunteers clearing a road sheltered during an American bombing raid. Unfortunately, they were trapped in the cave when a bomb caused it to collapse and their comrades were unable to save them. Now a temple stands here to honour their memories, a fire stoked by men in official uniforms and slowly smoking incense twirling into the area. We stood here in silence for a while, breathing in the heady smell of the incense and listening to the quiet chant of prayer before getting back onto our bus.
We then drove to Paradise Cave, a reportedly beautiful cave that extends into the darknesss for over thirty kilometres. Incredibly expensive six-day treks take you on a subterranean jungle adventure through this system – definitely one for the future if I one day have the money! That day we would only be venturing in about a kilometre. Descending into the darkness as your eyes adjust, you become aware not only of how huge the cave is but how jaw-droppingly beautiful it is. When you think of caves, you often think of dark, damp places but this was not the case with Paradise Cave, a place that actually lives up to the hyperbole of the guidebooks. It is like an underground cathedral, glittering stalagtites hanging like monstrous chandeliers from the ceiling and stalagmite towers rising from the depths. The wooden boardwalk is lit with lots of little lights that twinkle in the darkness, giving the feeling of some kind of magical underground fairy grotto. Beautiful limestone formations, intricate like geological christmas trees, rise up on either side and patches of rose coloured stone shimmer in the light. It is enchanting and unlike anywhere I have ever been. Definitely worth the money so far (also pleased to see rubbish bins outside and signs asking visitors to put their litter in the bins – progress!).
We stopped for lunch outside Dark Cave – a huge banana leaf platter of roll-your-own fresh spring rolls, rice, herbs, vegetables, omlette: delicious! To get to Dark Cave, we had to first zipline 400m across bright blue water, then swim to the entrance of the cave. Then we walked, barefoot, into the cave itself, our headtorches lighting our way in the blackness (true to its name, Dark Cave was incredibly dark!). We went down a passageway that got narrower and narrower and muddier and muddier until we emerged into a tiny cavern that was essentially a mud bath. It was like swimming in chocolate, wallowing around like a hippo, absolutely covered in mud. It was unexpectedly buoyant too; the mud was so thick that you could lie back and your feet would just pop back up again! It reminded me a bit of those nightmares where you try to run but you can’t, but it was real and happening and amazing. The experience was surreal and hilarious – picture it: half naked, laughing your head off in a tiny cave of people you’ve never met but who are your best friends in this almost drunken state of muddiness. All in all a good time (10/10, would recommend to a friend, which we did repeatedly). After attempting to get all of the mud off in a pool at the entrance of the cave (our guide sent me back in again as I hadn’t done a good enougg job), we kayaked back to the other side of the river where we got to go on another zipline before immersing our feet in a tea bath with a glass of Dalat red (not good wine).
That evening we drank beers and shared stories with Irish, Swiss, Dutch, Danish, Austrian…the spectrum of nationalities you meet while travelling, some of whom we’d met further down south in Vietnam and who we kept bumping into for the rest of the time in Phong Nha. This is one of the things I love best about travelling – it’s really funny. You’ll meet someone in Vietnam, for example, then continue to see them in Laos or Cambodia in a variety of random places. It brings a degree of familiarity to a strange place, a feeling of having a friend in a place where everyone is a stranger.