In Ninh Binh I learned that troi oy! is how you say oh my gosh! in Vietnamese. As in, troi oy! there are a lot of big caves in Phong Nha Ke-Bang! It's the Himalayas of caves, in the oldest karst mountains in the world, and declared home of the world's largest cave in 2009. National Geographic did a feature on Hang Son Doong in their Jan 2011 edition, and the photos are out of this world. Hang Son Doong is only accessible for scientific research, at least at the moment, but they are looking at offering 1 week exclusive cave adventure tours in the near future, starting at several thousand dollars a pop. Time to get your ticket now and beat the rush.
Still under exploration with massive caves being continually discovered, the Phong Nha area is an 'emerging tourist destination', which means right now the prices are higher and the options are fewer. That being the case, my cave adventure tour to Tu Lan and Kim caves (latter cave discovered in 2012), clocked in at a relatively high but still manageable $70.
My two other cave visits, consisting of getting caught up in crowds of loud Vietnamese guides and tourists on boardwalks and off tour boats, didn't compare with the adventure version of swimming through two caves in my clothes, helmeted, head-lamped and life-jacketed, trying to avoid the waterfalls. Our guide only mentioned these in response to direct questions yelled out as we tried not to rush past, carried away by the current – “which side?” “…left…, yeah left. Waterfall on right”. One of the girls on the trip didn't know how to swim and got yanked back by her life jacket just as she was about to head over one of the falls. After that one of the guides pulled her along, through the first cave, the river that we swam through to get to the second cave, through the second cave, and all the way back again. Right up until we turned around I hadn't believed him when the guide said we were taking the same route back. It was already 3pm, and navigating through the water was hard enough when we were going in the same direction as the current. Luckily grip-able side walls stood between me and the watery dark abyss, and I picked my way against the rushing water not exactly with ease, but surprisingly less difficulty than anticipated.
The caves were big and impressively dark, filled with bats diving towards our head lamps, attracted by the bugs drawn to the light. We saw rare cave pearls (round white stones), spider eyes glinting out of the darkness from every rock face, assorted stalactites and lagmites. Getting there and back we swam through brown rivers and walked down and back up steep and slippery wooden boards, passing jungle where tigers have been spotted in recent times.
Paradise Cave was a different experience altogether. Although part of the Phong-Nha Ke-Bang National Park UNESCO World Heritage site, a designation that prohibits construction, the private owner of the cave decided to build a boardwalk with viewing platforms through the first 0.6km of the cave, notifying the UN office in Geneva by an email timed to be seen after the official public opening, when it was too late to do anything about it. While Paradise Cave is certainly a sight to be seen, the question is, by whom? The spotlights and convenient platforms show off the cave's stunning formations to best advantage and enable access by all kinds of people who would never have ventured a trip – the disadvantage is that most of those people shouldn't have made it.
After millions of years of small drips of water forming stalactites (and mites) at a rate of 0.13 millimetres per year, touching by oily hands distorts the growth of the formations. And despite signs throughout the length of the boardwalk and the occasional guard hoarking over the side of the fence, I saw people touching the stalagmites within reach, climbing over the fences to stand next to them, with garbage littered off the sides of at least one platform. That and crowds following microphoned guides, annoyingly just behind me the entire way, distracted from the sense of stillness and wonder that would otherwise be expected with a cave visit this spectacular.
Many of the formations looked like sea life from the bottom of the ocean – wavy thin fronds of seaweed hanging from the ceiling, tall coral statues, sculptures of piled cupped jelly-fish shapes, all with a light sand-coloured soil at their feet. There were giant frozen water fountains and all kinds of drippy stone shapes. It was a breathtaking sight, and I hope it will survive the passage of as many tourists as it has seen years.
As part of the trip to Paradise Cave, I toured through some of the park, hearing about some of the history of the area, visiting a re-furbished part of the Ho Chi Minh trail where countless lives were lost in the making, many of them students who were conscripted and given a ration of food and water for 2 days, the length of time they were expected to survive the bombings and the physical exertion of hacking their way through the jungle. The Phong Nha cave was critical in connecting supply routes between the north and south, reportedly with a bridge being hidden inside and brought out at night to move goods. It was bombed repeatedly by the Americans when they realised what was going on, but they were unsuccessful in blocking the entrance.
On my last day in the area I biked to the more garishly-lit Phong Nha cave on a 10km ride filled with kids running out on the road to meet me, holding out their hands for a drive-by handshake or slap, which I wasn't coordinated enough to do and keep from steering into them at the same time. Troi oy! 20kms of non-stop “Hel-lo! Hel-LO!” is a few too many to keep me in a friendly mood at the end of a hot and sweaty day. The echoes started to fade as it became darker and I lost my way on some bumpy dirt trails in between rice fields. There was no jungle or yawning mountain caverns in the vicinity, but if I hadn't spotted the bright lights standing out in the distance from the backpacker lodge, I think the landscape might have swallowed me up all the same.
*These two photos courtesy of R. Anand