We almost didn’t come to Phong Na National Park. The trip
would be difficult, physically and logistically. The weather could be
uncooperative. The thing we most wanted to do there, an overnight trek into the
third largest cave in the world, was both expensive and daunting. I’d read
tales of thigh-deep river crossings. Leeches. Rain and mud and impenetrable
jungle. So clearly, we decided to do it. I mean, how many times in our life
would we have the opportunity to sleep
in a cave?!
And you know what? There were in fact several river
crossings (41 each way, to be exact). I did encounter leeches (3 of them). There
was rain. There was mud (oh so much mud). There was jungle like I’d never seen.
Twelve combined hours of trekking, in soaking wet socks. And it was one of the
coolest experiences of my entire life.
The day didn’t begin well. We were running late (as usual).
We scarfed down a frantic breakfast with eight minutes to spare before our pick-up.
Then we waited. And waited. Anxious. Jittery. Doubtful. Maybe we got left
behind. Maybe it’s a sign we shouldn’t go. We haven’t paid anything yet. We
could easily go back to bed right now.
We finally inquired with the hostel staff and, sure enough,
the tour company had forgotten us. They sent a driver over to pick us up. We were
those people strolling into the tour
office a half hour late. Great. Now we missed the safety briefing, and our
group hates us.
After signing our life away we were transported about an
hour into the jungle, which is very newly open to the public. The area played a huge part in the Vietnam war, and has one of the highest concentrations of unexploded bombs in the world. In other words, not the kind of place you want to go roaming around without a licensed guide. Many of the caves
here were only discovered recently, including the largest cave in the world – Hang Son Doong
– which received its first visitors in 2013. For $3,000 each, we
too could have witnessed its splendor! Maybe next time.
After being outfitted with “Vietnamese Chuck Taylors”
(perfect for navigating slippery terrain and quickly draining river water),
gloves and helmets, we were on our way.
A steep and treacherous decent to the
valley below. Our first river crossing. Then another. And another. A picnic
lunch of fresh bread, Laughing Cow cheese wedges, tomato, cucumber, bananas and dragon fruit.
Oreo cookies. A pee stop in the dense foliage, careful to avoid poison ivy.
Walking walking walking. The blessing of beautiful weather. Good conversation.
High spirits. Wet legs and wetter feet. Rivers with such a strong current, we’d
form a human chain to help one another across. Jaw-dropping landscape. A remote
minority village. The village chief. Children. Puppies. Monkeys. A lady bug. Blistered toes. Sore backs. Six
harrowing hours later, we reached the entrance to our destination. And that’s
when the fun really began.
The entrance to the
cave was accessible, of course, by water. Upon reaching the rocky beach inside
and switching on our headlamps, we were met by a wall of boulders we must
tediously climb before catching a glimpse of where we would sleep for the
night. And when we did, it was magic.
Two perfect rows of tents, dwarfed by the magnitude of the cave enveloping them. A sandy beach dipping into powder blue water. INSIDE A CAVE. Unlike anything I have ever seen anywhere else before. After everyone collected their photos, an equally strenuous decent would take us to our home for the night.
While a team of porters prepared dinner, we navigated
the length of the cave to its grand exit, a 400-foot high arch perfectly
framing the lush surrounding landscape. It’s scale impossible to capture on
camera, if not for those teeny, tiny little specs of people on the ground, right in the center of the opening.
Perhaps my favorite part were these incredible little sand
formations, created by water dripping from the cave’s roof far above, eroding
the sand everywhere that isn’t protected by a stick or rock. It’s like a mini,
accelerated version of earth’s erosion! How cool is that?!
The evening progressed with a BBQ feast, seated together on a large
mat while the sliver of daylight above us slipped away. Rice wine flowed and
music played and thousand of swallows chirped overhead while our intimate group
shared their favorite travel tales.
I’d love to say that we enjoyed the deep slumber of hibernating
bears in our cave, but we actually tossed and turned all night on the thin mats
beneath us. Nevertheless, we awoke with the suns rays shining brilliantly into
the cavern, ready to take on the day. Coffee. Breakfast of spring rolls and
banana crepes. Packing up and putting on our cold, wet gear from the day
before. And we traipsed into the water for the first of many times that
Day #2 introduced us to a jungle downpour, and the leeches
that come along with it. They were tinier and much more harmless than I
envisioned, but no less creepy. At lunchtime we crouched on a tarp over
steaming noodles as rainwater poured down our faces and into our bowls. The
final two hours – ascending the vertical path that had brought us in. Fighting
our way uphill through slick mud, clinging to roots and vines, sometimes on our
hands and knees as we painstakingly made our way back to the start. Huffing. Puffing. Sweating. Swearing. Until… SUCCESS!
Ice cold beers at the top never tasted so good. Dry feet
never felt so good. And few experiences of our lives have ever been so good. Cheers!
For a full album of our amazing Hang En adventure, click HERE J