Ahhhh I’m so behind, so let’s take a few posts and catch up…
On the 11th, after a long night bus from Hanoi, I arrived at Easy Tiger hostel in Phong Nha National Park. I’d been looking for somewhere to go to that was a bit remote, but given that I’ve not planned this part of the trip particularly well, I’m having to just do highlights. A guy I met in Vientiane, Alastair, recommended the Phong Nha Farmstay as a good place to go as it’s halfway down the country, in the National Park and they do tours. Plus it’s a lovely place to stay. They were booked up but suggested I try Easy Tiger.
Designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site to protect it’s amazing cave system, under it’s geological categorisation, but also has amazing bio-diversity and as the British caving Association and local explorers attempt to study and uncover more caves they are also finding more new species. The area is also home to the world’s largest cave, which was ‘discovered’ only 5 years ago in 2009.
I hardly slept on the bus, so had a long nap and a bit of a rest while watching the new Jonathan Creek episodes. Then I got up for a wander around the village – it’s not big, I took a leisurely pace and had finished within about 20 minutes. I passed houses, loads of locals looked both bemused and entertained to see a red faced white girl wandering past. One handed me her child and laughed saying ‘100 thousand!’ The child didn’t seem too entertained, but people walked out into the street to laugh with her. I walked over a rice paddy and heard the unmistakable sound of a school playground. Following the noise I came upon the primary school, to be met by loads of children running up, waving and shouting ‘Hello!’ somehow they all managed to get in time with one another so for a little while it got a bit Midwich Cuckoos, but then I headed back to the hostel.
The lady at the hostel wrote a note in Vietnamese for me explaining that I was a teacher and could I visit and they let me in. The chairs are tiny, as always, they don’t seem to have any tables, but otherwise, just like any other primary classroom.
The teacher, Thanh Huyen, was very helpful despite our language barriers and let me look around. The parents seemed quite surprised to see me there when they came to pick up their kids.
Yesterday was the big trip to Paradise Cave, Highway 20 and Dark Cave.
Highway 20 is so called because on the 15th November 1972 the Americans carpet bombed this area of Vietnam as it is the narrowest part of the country and they were attempting to cut off supply streams and movement options for the Northern Vietnamese. 8 people were sheltering in the cave known as 8 Lady Cave and were trapped by a falling rock and died of starvation 9 days later, the local villagers powerless to help them. The majority of those killed in the cave were 20 years old.
The highway, crossing over the border to Laos was built and maintained by local Vietnamese, many of whom were too young to be in the army, so around 5 years old, so our guide Chrissie (Joss Stone look-alike) told us. They were given enough supplies to last them as long as they were expected to survive in the area. how long was that? 2 days. 15 year olds, working on a road because they couldn’t join the army were expected to live for 2 days. If they found someone dead on the road then they would collect their supplies and keep moving on.
Offerings to spirits
8 Lady Cave where 8 people were entombed by a falling rock after a bombing raid.
The names of those killed in the cave and those who were manning the anti-aircraft posts.
The smoke of offerings burnt to send to the spirit world.
Chrissie, our guide
We took some time to look around and the other guide spotted a couple of monkeys scampering across the mountain. Luckily my camera has a pretty good zoom so this is what I saw through the viewfinder.
As ‘Joss Stone’ kept on talking, briefing us on the history of the area, I spotted a tornado of butterflies across the road.
Soon it was time to move onto Paradise Cave (Thiên Đường Cave) 31km long cave which gets is a bit of a walk up the hill to get there. We could only go through the first 1km, on a raised wooden walkway, but that was enough for me. There are amazing examples of stalagmites and stalactites, as well as helictites, which I’d never heard of before.
But the main part of the day was reserved for Dark Cave, so-called because it is formed from basalt instead of limestone. We were to kayak to the entrance, then walk through mud filled passages, swim through a pool in the cave to reach the main part.
I was sharing a kayak with Gill, who has a bad shoulder, and neither of us has kayaked before. So essentially I was doing most of the paddling and just as we set off, a random Vietnamese girl jumped in the back with no paddle. We eventually made it to the cave in a beautifully choreographed movement of circles, back paddling and attempting to follow the others (who all looked very professional) in a straight line. There were some locals fishing who were pissing themselves with laughter and beckoning us towards them. I really would have been good at kayaking if I could have been, but, unfortunately I have to admit, I was crap.
As I’ve not tested out the waterproof case for my camera and it would have been pointless in the mud, I have no pictures of my own, but have found some on Google.
The mud was thick and slippery, making farty type squelchy sounds as we walked. I am not a particularly physical or active person and I always worry about my knee dislocating (it has 15 times before) so this was a struggle for me. There was one section where you had to go up a steep mud bank, which I didn’t manage, but behind it was just a mud pool where a bit of a mud fight broke out. The others in our group were not quite this covered but this is a good illustration:
Next we clambered back through the muddy tunnels, slightly easier this time because I knew roughly where I was going (albeit backwards) and I just sucked it up and slid around on my bum a bit.
Then we reached the shore of the cave pool, headed straight in, pretty cold, but I adjusted to it, and swam across about 70m before reaching a pebbly bank and then swimming again through a narrow passageway and under a big rock. We had a bit of a talk about this cave then swam back, me at the front, this time without the lights on our helmets on. It’s quite a strange experience, swimming in the dark with a teardrop shaped beacon of light signalling the outside world to you. The water, by the way, is definitely colder second time in.
We headed back towards the boats and Gill and I had the brilliant idea of swimming back to the jetty instead of taking the kayak. I was really pleased I did this as I didn’t take the opportunity to swim in the River Kwai (no-one else was and I didn’t want to feel like an idiot in my swimming costume) or in the River Ping, near Chiang Mai.
It was a long and exhausting day, but in a good way, and my legs have not yet recovered from the mud and the steps, but I think that when I get back home I will start to try messing about in boats a bit more.