Vietnam required an online visa process that was lengthy and a little bit confusing. But it worked flawlessly at passport control. We found a line just as it opened up, handed them our paper visa and waltzed on through. And our bags came a few minutes later It’s like a domestic arrival in the U.S. – how lucky can you get?
Since I was here last they opened up a new international terminal and it’s still shiny. We got some bad information and lost a little time trying to find the bus that takes us to the old terminal for our domestic flight to Dong Hoi.
No problem! We wait for ‘The black bus’, joking about the time we made Lily think ‘ocean’ was really pronounced ‘o-kee-an’. She was 12.
The airline wouldn’t let us board without printed versions for everyone, which took some work and a little stress to download and print at the terminal. I always bring a flash drive in my utility bag full of crap, and it turned out to be the only solution.
That headache is long forgotten as we take off in a small Vietnamese Airlines plane for the 90 minute trip to Dong Hoi, the coastal city in mid Vietnam where the country gets most narrow. We are met by the hotel driver for the hour-long trip inland to our next destination: Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Our hotel is called Phong Nha Farmstay and they greet us warmly when we arrive, with an offer of a beer or a cold Vietnamese coffee. Amanda takes the former, and I take the latter.
Vietnamese coffee is an unusual preparation. The beans they use are a high quality ‘robusta’ bean. Robusta are typically considered inferior to the ‘arabica’ that most coffee connoisseurs drink these days. Robusta are the type you used to get in cans of Maxwell House or Folgers.
They are less delicate in flavor, often described as woody or grainy, and have considerably more caffeine. The Vietnamese variety has more flavor – almost chocolaty – and has its’ fans. They make it very strong and blend it with sweet condensed milk. It’s one of the signature moments of Vietnamese travel. I drink mine quickly.
The Farmstay is a fantastic place. I was here before in 2013 and they have made small but significant upgrades in service and the grounds. The 12 room villa overlooks pastures of rice and grass with dozens of water buffalo, ducks and cows.
They have a cute pool, decent food service and arrange tours easily. It’s not cheap by local standards ($50 a night or so), but so comfortable that it’s worth it. Local hostels are very nice and $5 a night per person.
We put our bags down in the air conditioned room and do the usual searching for outlets to plug in. The air conditioning works well and Amanda lies down for ‘a little nap’. It’s 5:30pm, and she and I both know she’s going down for the night, succumbing to jet lag. I try to wake her at 7:00, but she’s down and out. I’m not far behind, after eating a quick dinner with the girls, I pass out at 8pm.
Of course we are up early, but that’s good today! We need to be fed and ready by 8am for our big event. Phong Nha is the name of the oldest cave in an area marbled with caves just beneath the surface of the karst landscape. Many caves have only been publically discovered recently including today’s destination, Paradise Cave which was first mapped in 2010. Paradise cave starts out like any other tourist cave you’ve been too: long boardwalk, lots of people taking flash pictures, colored lights. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing that millions of years of dropping mineral-filled water has made these formations.
But that’s not the point of our trip today. This trip literally starts where the sidewalk ends. Our cheerful guide Luc says ‘Hello! come this way’ in barely understandable, deeply accented English. The boardwalk railing opens up and stairs lead down to the cave floor, which looks like clay mud but is hard as rock.
We put on helmets with lights and walk around the corner as the darkness covers us and and the sounds disappear. Today We are walking almost 9 miles in the pitch black, through a piece of the second longest cave system on the planet. (Mammouth in USA is #1! USA! USA!)
With us are two athletic Swedish sisters in early to mid twenties, each with perfect English and blond braids to the middle of their backs. Emma and Lily seem taken with them, perhaps imagining what they might be like travelling together in a few more years. Emma, 17, is at that wonderful moment in life where all of adulthood opens up in front of her, and the imagination explodes with narrative about the future.
Like most caves in Phong Nha, it’s very wet. In fact for almost 10 months of the year, our destination at km 7 is inaccessible and they turn back at km 4. The rainy season floods the cavern. It’s those same floods that make the trek possible. Most of our trip is on sand, gravel or worn rock from the watery erosion. This cave opened in 2010 and there are a maximum 15 people that do our trek each day for those four months. Probably only a few thousand tourists have done this hike.
You really get to feel what it’s like to be in pitch black. At points he has us walk with our lights off in a very large chamber – we barely get 5 feet without running into each other and giggling. At another point he shut off the light but had us in a single file line holding each others shoulder. We walked a few minutes like that. They seemed like an eternity with complete visual deprivation. I felt like I was floating, almost dreaming. And the silence. We stopped talking in the dark and just listened to nothing, saw nothing, felt nothing. Are nothing? It’s almost existential.
Our headlamps search every surface, finding something with each passing scan. They are stunning – jellyfish, curtain, waterfall, pipe, column, cone and every other possible shape. The rocks were black (magnesium and lead), white (calcium) and our favorite, glittering, sparkling silicone. There is some tough scrambling and lots of water to walk through. A porter carries our lunches and helps with some of the scrambling. I’m carrying our water, camera and a few other things in a drybag.
At km 5 there are two kayaks, which they oddly fill with the bags and a guide. Uh, where are we going to sit? ‘You swim!’ the guide laughs. We swim about 200 feet in frigid but not freezing water, helmets and lights reflecting in the glowing blue-green water. Amanda yelps ‘Don’t worry when I scream, I’m a Florida girl and I can’t take the cold!’ The Swedes chuckle.
The final kilometer is the toughest and we go slowly over incredible formations with deep crevasses, water ponds with fish deposited by the underground river that fills these tunnels the other 8 months of the year. Emma and I remark that it feels epic, like a section of the Lord of the Rings journey.
We are so engrossed in the journey that we don’t even notice the light ahead of us. We’re at the halfway point – an enormous cavern, half the size of a civic center with an enormous opening in the ceiling dripping water into the underground river below that rushes with ferocity. One false step and some bad luck and you could get swept back underground. We eat lunch, sweet tofu, seitan, morning glory with garlic and lots of rice – filling.
It’s a magnificent spot to be, so memorable that it feels just as exciting the second time. We laugh and share travel stories with the Swedes. We have no phones, no calls, no other stimuli – just a family exploring the edges of this planet and loving it. The photos don’t do it justice.
Halfway back, Luc tells us of his brand new discovery – a newly opened secret tunnel. We leave our bags, take off our shoes and walk barefoot along sand and pebbles to a little body of water.
Luc climbs up the banks and his legs go knee deep in grey, clay-like, mud! We follow him, squishing ourselves in clean soft mud that has no rocks or other particles – it’s like walking in wet wet clay. It’s strange – otherworldly. And then we reach a hill that Luc splashes with water and slides down on his but – a mud slide! We don’t have pictures because we had to leave cameras, but it was hilarious and fun. We really got up to speed.
On the way back we all keep talking about how amazing it was. Back at the Farmstay we eat dinner early and again pass out in the evening, this time with no concern. Who cares about jet lag? We just had one of our best day’s ever.