A few years ago, a friend lent me a copy of Dorothy Allison’s Cavedweller, which offers a skillful depiction of poverty and domestic violence in the rural south. It’s description of how the darkness and quiet of an underground world contradicts with the stress of life for women in the rural south is particularly intriguing, and relevant to my most recent adventure. While I had briefly visited caves in the southeastern US, it was Allison’s story about how caves call to the human soul that came to mind as I went caving in Vietnam.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park contains the oldest karst mountains in Asia and is riddled with over 300 caves. Here, the largest cave in the world, by volume, Hang Son Doong, is found. (It even has a doline, or skylight, that is so large that it allowed a jungle to grow on the floor of the cave! It also costs US$3,000 and takes six days to visit, which is one reason it wasn’t on today’s to-do list.) Yet, until recently, most of these caves were not widely known or accessible. The park wasn’t created until 2001 and tourism didn’t take off until 2010, when a road was built up to Paradise Cave. Son Doong itself wasn’t discovered until 2009 and wasn’t opened to tourists until 2013. Even now, people are still searching for additional caves and access to most of the park is restricted to organized tours. All of this means that the park and the local villages haven’t turned into massive tourist resorts, but there are enough groups operating here and enough tourists willing to make the trek that it feels relatively busy.
On Monday, we joined a 17-person tour of Paradise Cave, Eight Ladies Cave, and Tra Ang Cave. While this was the largest organized tour of my trip so far, it was quite spectacular. We started the day at Paradise Cave, a massive cave system that extends for 31km. It was discovered by a local Vietnamese man in 2005, then mapped and explored by the British Cave Research Association. Like most tourists, we only explored the first kilometer, through which there is a raised walkway and lights. Every year, the cave floods with water, so regular repairs must be made to the walkway. Unfortunately, a crew was working on part of the walkway near the front of the cave, creating loud noises that echoed off the cave walls. Once we got past the first big cavern, however, things became relatively quiet. We could admire the stalactites and mites, as well as the flowstones and columns. We could also clearly see the deposits of four types of minerals: iron (red), calcium (white), magnesium (black), and copper (green). The size of the cave was impressive, as were the huge formations that take thousands of years to form.
From Paradise, we moved on to the Eight Ladies Cave and War Martyr Memorial for some Vietnamese history. During the American War (i.e., the Vietnam War), the DMZ separated North Vietnam from South Vietnam. In order to bring goods to the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (i.e., the Vietcong), the North Vietnamese Army used the Ho Chi Minh trail, which allowed them to go west through what is now Phong Nha park into Laos, turn south, and enter South Vietnam below the DMZ, thereby avoiding the border between the warring regions. In 1972, a group of eight women and men were walking up the trail into the mountains, carrying goods to bring south. They took shelter in a cave during a US bomb strike. Unfortunately, a rock fell and trapped them in the cave. Despite several attempts to free them, they died from starvation. The cave was named in honor of the fallen individuals and a temple was built at its entrance. As our fabulous guide noted, it’s not clear why it was named lady when there were men and women in the cave.
Our last stop of the day involved lunch and swimming at Tra Ang Cave. We walked just over a kilometer into the jungle to a small river where the tour company had prepared lunch for us. After eating and resting, we donned swimsuits, life jackets, water sandals, helmets, and headlamps, and forded the river to the cave entrance. I struggle to describe the experience of swimming from through an entire cave with nothing but headlamps as guides. It’s truly breathtaking. We swam 600 meters from the mouth of the cave to the back wall, pausing periodically to look at the bats and the various mineral formations. It’s completely different from walking through a cave with walkways and permanent lights. There’s a quiet peace to it that I’ve only felt in very isolated parts of the natural world. When we reached the back wall, our guide asked us all to turn off our lights for a few minutes. Sadly, every 30 seconds or so someone would freak out and turn their headlamp back on, making it difficult to truly adjust to the darkness. But I could have sat there for an hour in the darkness simply soaking in the darkness. It’s a feeling I won’t forget and one I yearn to experience again.
In addition to the natural beauty of the cave systems, I was fascinated by the management of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Not only is the park incredibly new, but it also seems to have a public-private management style. I spoke quite extensively to our tour guide, trying to understand how the system works. Here’s what I gathered: the federal government owns and manages the park land, but tour groups often retain sole access rights to certain parts of the park. For example, Tra Ang cave was only opened to tourists in fall 2016 and Jungle Boss is the only tour group allowed to bring visitors up to the cave. The tour companies have to pay the park a small fee and periodically the rangers will accompany the tour guides to ensure that they are following their contracts. It seems to work, although I wonder if things will get more complicated if more tour groups open shop and more tourists show up.
On Tuesday, we had hoped to explore Phong Nha Cave by boat. Sadly, I woke up with a fever. I assume I either had a bad reaction to antimalarials or my poor immune system picked up something. Regardless, I spent Tuesday in bed. Since we were traveling to Hanoi on Wednesday, I’m sad to say that we didn’t get to explore any additional caves. I can only hope that my decision to rest means that I don’t get sick again.