Published: December 8th 2012December 8th 2012
Our next day at the Farmstay was just as exciting, though significantly less life threatening than the day before. We ate breakfast before piling into two vans, each with one tour guide, and set off for Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. You’ll never guess which tour guide was assigned to our van…none other than my fellow survivor Benjamin. As soon as he saw that I was in his group, he became “fearful” that my bad luck would strike again and our van would run off the road or something. Thankfully, no such thing happened. After a short ride through the village, we passed the Hollywood-esque sign for the park positioned on the side of a mountain in large letters. We then drove through a gate highly resembling the one from Jurrassic Park and found that our new surroundings appeared as though they could have been taken straight out of the movie – huge mountains covered by an unruly blanket of green with limestone cliff faces scattered throughout, a vast overgrown sinkhole stretching over the valley below. I was on the edge of my seat expecting a herd of Velociraptors to spring out of the bushes and attack the van at any
moment. All jokes aside, the view was positively breathtaking. Our driver stopped periodically so we could take pictures and learn a bit of the park’s history, including that of its inhabitants, from our guides. One of our guides, Petra, a native of Germany with master’s degrees in both geology and paleontology, possessed extensive knowledge pertaining to how the land around us came to look the way it does today. Much of this information was over my head, but she did say that the sinkhole was probably a result of a massive cave giving way and collapsing into itself a very long time ago. She also told us that somewhat recently ancient tribes had been discovered still living on the park grounds, which was pretty interesting. What had not yet been discovered on the premesis was the presence of Big Foot, though a documentary team had searched the park for him high and low, even interviewing the owner of the Farmstay, over the past year or so. They didn't find anything. True story.
Much of the history we learned related to the American War and its effect on the park (which was not yet a park in those days). Supposedly,
the Vietnamese asigned to the area during the war were very sneaky and used their resources to outsmart the Americans. For example, when tire treads came off of vehicles passing through on the one road running through the park, the Vietnamese soldiers would make shoes out of them with the tread facing down and turned backwards. They would then make straps for these shoes out of tire tubes and leave their tracks throughout the jungle to throw U.S. troops off in regard to their location (since the treads were facing backwards, it looked like a car had driven in the opposite direction). They also built a secret runway, only long enough for planes to take off, and hid it under banana leaves during the day. Tricky. We were told that tigers were found to be living in the area during the war because the men guarding the runway, as well as those keeping watch over the telephone line they’d built as a source of communication, were often snatched up by tigers, disappearing into the jungle. This became a problem because the tigers eventually developed a taste for humans…yikes. There haven’t been any seen recently, though. Staying on the topic of
the war, we were told that every few years or so, teams of Americans continue to come search the park and surrounding villages for the remains of missing persons. An elderly Vietnamese woman living in one of these villages spends her time looking for something else…unexploded bombs. She and her granddaughter use a metal detector to find them, then they dig them up, disarm them, and sell them as scrap metal (or in the Farmstay’s case, as souvineers). The woman has quite a collection going in her front yard.
After admiring the scenery and learning a bit of history, we were taken to a memorial that had been constructed on the side of the park’s main road. This memorial was dedicated to a group of eight Vietnamese civilians who became trapped in a cave by a boulder during an American bombing and were never rescued, though many attempts were made. The cave itself is now home to a temple honoring the deceased, but we were unable to visit the site due to construction. While informing us about Vietnamese methods for honoring the dead, we learned that many Vietnamese people believe in two worlds: the human world and the spirit
world. When a person dies, they can become a good spirit or a bad spirit. Bad spirits are usually those who have died before their time, such as children or those suffering from illnesses. The Vietnamese believe that their loved ones’ graves house their spirits, so many graves are built with miniature steeples or houses on them and are kept very tidy so as not to upset the spirits. Additionally, people will set up alters in their homes, burning incense and laying out offerings of fruit, drinks (even beer), candy, and a number of other things to please the spirit world. They will even burn fake money, referred to as ghost money, or cut outs of lavish and expensive things they think will make their loved ones happy. During this spiritual lesson, we also learned a few superstitions many Vietnamese adhere to. For example, they believe that odd numbers are lucky and even numbers are unlucky, so if you count a set of stairs as you walk up them (or, in our case, order some spring rolls to share), you’ll probably get an odd number. Our guide also asked us if we’d seen any playing cards scattered throughout the sidewalks
of big cities. Many of us answered yes. We were told that when someone loses a card game (in many cases while gambling), they throw the cards that caused them to lose on the ground to rid themselves of bad luck. If you happen to just be having bad luck in general, you can purchase some ghost money, rub it between your hands, and throw it on the ground. When someone picks it up thinking it’s real money, your bad lucks transfers to them. Maybe I should have done this before casually hopping on the back of a motorcycle…We also found out that the reason we’ve been seeing so many pregnant women all over Vietnam is due to it being the Year of the Dragon, meaning women who conceive or give birth during this year will have good luck, and their children will be strong and successful. (Don’t get any ideas, Mom!)
As you might imagine, this was a lot of information to take in – if I wrote everything we learned, this blog would be entirely too long. It was all very intriguing, though, and Scott and I enjoyed discovering more about Vietnamese culture. After our history/cultural lessons, we stopped for one last photo op before heading to our next destination: Paradise Cave. Unfortunately, this was the moment our camera died – despite the fact that we’d reminded ourselves earlier to bring the extra battery, we forgot. Sadness. So, I must admit, whatever pictures I post from the cave have been stolen from the interwebs. In any case, when we arrived at Paradise Cave, one of the largest in the world, we were first transported by 8-seater yellow golf carts to the bottom of a mountain, where we then commenced to walk (or, in my case, wheeze) up the steep slope via a winding ramp until we finally reached the mouth of the cave. They definitely make you work for it. The sweat was definitely worth it, though, because this was by far one of the most astounding and impressive natural creations I’ve ever seen. Though the cave extends much further, we were able to walk along a 1 kilometer long boardwalk, giving us plenty of time to become mesmerized by the surreal world surrounding us. I honestly felt like I was on another planet or on some simulated ride at Disney World. The sheer volume of the cave was amazing, and the formations put Phong Nha Cave to shame. Scott and I agreed that we’re officially spoiled when it comes to cave experiences now, even though we’ve only been inside three! (You’ll hear about the third one soon.)
Eventually we reluctantly left the cave to meet the rest of the group and our guides for lunch at the restaurant on the grounds. The food wasn’t wonderful, but the company was great. We got to know an Aussie couple who also happened to be honeymooning. Once we were finished eating, we loaded back into the vans to drive a short distance to the starting point of the Nouc Mooc Eco Trail. We followed the trail for a bit through the woods, hopping from one large, unstable rock to the next (not my stongsuit, but I managed) until we reached the Son Chay River where we stopped for a brief swim. Scott was all for it, since there was a giant boulder he could jump off of into the water, but I wasn’t really feeling it, so I sat on the bank with some others and relaxed. The water was a bright, vivid blue-green and very beautiful. While hiking back to the vans, our guides pointed out a mysterious spring in the river whose source has remained unknown for many years. Some believe it could possibly lead to the largest cave in the world (based on a bunch of scientific characteristics of the spring that I can’t explain), but no one has been able to successfully investigate this yet.
Our last destination of the day turned out to be quite a surprise. The vans stopped at another point along the river, we and were told to put on our swimsuits if we hadn’t already and leave anything we didn’t want to get wet behind. We were then instructed to grab a life jacket, head lamp and paddle, pair up and hop into one of the inflatable kayaks waiting for us at the river’s edge. So we were kayaking. I could do this. Well, we paddled/spun around in circles for awhile – those kayaks were clearly defective – before reaching yet another cave entrance, where we were told to dock our kayaks, leave them with a random guy, and follow the boardwalk into the mouth of the cave to await further instruction. Unlike the other caves we’d visited, this one was not full of tourists or well lit; in fact, it was quite the opposite – empty and pitch black. We flipped on our headlamps as Petra informed us that we were currently inside a cave known as The Dark Cave. All caves are dark, so I initially thought this name was kind of silly, but Petra eventually told us the story behind its name. Not before telling us to follow her…into the water. The freezing cold water. In the very dark cave. Things were heading in the direction of horror movie far too quickly for me. I tried to hide my childish fear of the dark while Scott laughed hysterically at my spastic swimming as I adjusted to the “refreshing” water and told me to watch out for cave sharks. We swam a ways, avoiding sharp rocks on the way, until Petra directed us out of the water and onto a slippery bank. While we shivered, she gave us a brief history of the cave and how it got its name. Instead of being made of limestone, the cave’s walls were formed long ago by quartz-veined basalt from the earth’s core, which tried to escape to the surface in lava form but failed. This is why the cave is dark greyish-black instead of white. Since the limestone became trapped above the rock-hard basalt, the cave could not continue to expand or create new formations, so it’s one of a kind structure will probably never change. Petra also told us that any animal currently residing in the cave (aside from a few insects and bats that can come and go as they please) is most likely “white and blind.” In other words, it has reproduced and mutated to adjust to its surroundings and no longer has eyes or skin pigmintation. Very interesting. After our cave lesson, Petra told us all to turn off our head lamps so we could experience how dark the cave truly was. Let me tell you, it was dark. I had to resist the urge to reach out and latch onto whoever was standing closest to me. It was, however, pretty awesome. After a minute or so, we turned our lamps back on, eased our way back into the brisk water and swam back to the boardwalk. When we got back into our kayaks and paddled back to shore, we were delighted to find hot soup and rum waiting for us. Finally warm again, we wrapped up in our towels and drove back to the Farmstay just in time for dinner. Definitely a fantastic day.