Life Inside the Mountain - Phong Nha Ke Bang

Published: June 16th 2013
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Right around 4 am I was rustled awake and took a few seconds to get my bearings - 'Dong Hoi' one of the employees said softly, 'this is Dong Hoi.' I shook Tara awake and we looked around the sleeping town a bit disoriented. The maps in guide books or even on google maps easily provide that false sense of security, looking at it from above it all seems so easy - until you are dropped down into the streets and suddenly it all falls apart - completely unfamiliar from those simple lines on the pages. While the rest of the bus dreamed, huddled up tight in their blankets, their destination of Hoi An a few more restful hours down the high-way, Tara and I gathered our luggage and trudged out into the dark streets – I yearned for a few more hours of blissful slumber. As we looked about the streets memory suggested the simple image of a river, a bridge, a parallel road, the guesthouse right nearby ‘sling on our packs and hike a few kilos to the rising sun’ I had thought, what a laugh – on our computer screen it had seemed so easy, right at our fingertips, and now here we were disoriented in a strange town, not even another person getting off the bus to help us. But within a few moments some lights twinkled in the distance and soon before us were three or four different motorbike taxis, all ready to take us where we needed to go, which they assured us was a good 3 kilometer walk and so we agreed to pay them $2 each seeing as how they were wide awake at 4 in the morning looking to earn an honest wage and we hadn't really the slightest idea where we were and so about one kilometer later we were at our guesthouse where we banged at the door for a bit until the front desk woman woke and rose from her cot – positioned awkwardly in the middle of the walkway and so we stumbled over the top of it as she invited us in. We decided to pay for a half day so we could check in right away and get a few more hours shut eye rather than hanging around the lobby until breakfast time and then taking the journey in a state of severe sleep deprivation.

So we got a bit more rest and rewoke around 9am and headed downstairs to have some noodles for breakfast and secure a motorbike which was a staggering $10 a day here in Dong Hoi - the proprietors attributing the price to the fact that these bikes needed a lot of maintenance do to the wear and tear of the long hauls to the caves and so I nodded my head in agreement though I can't with any great certainty say I bought their pitch, but they had the $10 and we had the bike and their custom map so we headed off. At the petrol station a group of kids came and circled around us to beg for some money and one of the kids crept up real close to the open gas tank and had metal screws in his hand - for what reason I can’t assume – but we capped it off and got out of there and they held their upturned hats in their outstretched hands right to the very finish - persistent young ones to be sure.

It took us all of about five minutes to realize that the map failed not only in its attempt at scale but most certainly at leading anyone anywhere. We followed the river and crossed a bridge just as it had instructed and then we saw a major highway which we met at a t-junction and which according to our map we should turn down and so we followed it about 10 km or so assuming it to be the Ho Chi Minh Trail which of course we were supposed to be following. Failing to find any justification of the fact that we were on the Ho Chi Minh Trail rd or that we were even in the same province as the area’s biggest tourist attraction for that matter - we finally pulled off to ask a woman at a service station and she sure didn’t speak any English but we were fairly certain that she was saying Ho Chi Minh and pointing into the other direction, which we followed for a bit too far and eventually turned around. An exercise in frugality might be to continue on with the details as the next hour and a half or so went something like that as we struggled to figure out how to get to our destination which was Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and Thiên Đường Cave (Paradise Cave) in particular. This cave was discovered as recently as 2005 in the middle of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang, the entrance to which is several thousand yards up a mountain with unbelievably thick vegetation, and though a fine trail exists there now it's damn near impossible to imagine what he had been doing out there when he stumbled across it. At 31 km long the cave extends so far that it runs right through and into Laos - in some sections the ceiling towers over 100 meters tall and the walls 150 meters wide and so in that great and eternal traveler conundrum – see another cave / don’t see another cave – we decided to see one more cave.

After driving for about 35 minutes down a highway we were now fairly sure was the proper Ho Chi Minh Trail rd, we were finally greeted by a mountain with a huge sign advertising our arrival at Phong Nha-Ke Bang Park – no mistake about it, but this is not at all your average park and it was still another 12 or 15 kilometers through the thick of the park before we would reach the cave.

As we began to wind through the mountains of the park I realized that this was perhaps the most heavily forested area I had ever witnessed. It looked as if the most great and green, lush net had been cast over the entire park as far at the eye could see, form fitting, a vast array of trees, snake line vines interweaving the canopies into one enormous oxygen producing organism, its own tremendous ecosystem. And to think that once, so many years ago the tropics of the entire world had looked this way. We drove through villages with a surprising number of bright and beautiful churches, cemeteries across the street in the style of the Vietnamese and Chinese style we had grown accustomed to here, but adorned with crosses at the top. Down to our right we saw a little flat that looked as though it had been plucked directly from a psychedelic dream, motionless turquoise water reflecting the trees and soft green grass, mountains of jungle towering about. I’d have spent hours there but to do so would have meant plugging back through unfamiliar territory in the dark and so we continued on, following a bright blue river right through the center of the park.

When we reached paradise cave and parked our motorbike it was a good few kilometers to the cave including a few thousand yards straight up hill. The heat of the forest was intense but the humidity was the most unbearable aspect and we struggled to suck in the thick air. The entire smell of the jungle, the stick and sweat and thick hanging air all begin mesh together and you become to great extents the sum of it all. About one-hundred meters away we began to hear echoes from above, we followed them through the trees – about thirty more meters and the air temperature began to drop significantly, much like walking through the sweltering streets of Bangkok and allowing yourself to be hassled by a tailor for a moment or two, just to let the cool air from the shop mingle with your skin. By the time we reached the tiny entrance to the cave it actually felt a bit chilly since our clothes were completely soaked and what a feeling to go from about 110 degrees F to what felt like 70 in a matter of a few second. The first few steps into the cave may be the most impressive, as the sheer size from floor to ceiling and wall to wall completely engulfs you, dwarfing in presence. I’m not much for cave vocabulary, types of formation, what caused this to be like this or that to stand like that but what I can tell you is that the first five minutes showed me some of the most impressive stone towers I’ve ever come across and the farther you move in, the more engaging the formations become. Strange faces and forms – some pear back straight in front of your eyes, others in a crevice that just catches in the corner and is gone, your imagination to create millions of different worlds. At one point Tara said she felt like she was on the set of ‘star wars or something’… but she’s never seen Star Wars – but anyway it left you with that type of impression – it doesn’t seem as though it should naturally be here on earth and yet there it sits. By the end of the cave, only about 1.5 km until the basic trail ends your head will already be spinning with puzzle that this continues on for thirty more kilometers. While Vietnam is surely not known first and foremost for its caves, I really have nothing to back that statement up with, and as it turns out just four years ago in another remote section of this same national park a new cave named Son Doon has been discovered where some massive caverns have been measured as large as 140 meters tall by 140 meters wide. Explorers only made it in four kilometers before being turned away by seasonal flood waters. It’s said local people actually have known about this cave for quite some time but being superstitious and also hearing the strange roar from the river deep within the cavern had been too fearful to enter. Researchers have already found giant poisonous centipedes living there. There could well be a seemingly limitless treasure of caves lying dormant below these powerful mountains, which is very good news because.

Well, Paradise Cave is suffering like much of the region has, and it is an issue we have come across before and since, but it colored our time at Paradise Cave so much that I would still recommend it to my fellow traveller, but just barely. The culprit is package tourism Americans, Europeans, Vietnamese, but in particular particularity is the hyper-inflated Chinese tour packages where groups of tour guides with microphones and flags attempt to herd groups of as many as 80 tourists – all clad in the same color hats for easy identification – through destinations all over South East Asia. One moment Tara and I would find ourselves with three or four other travelers, whispering, admiring, breathing in the scene – the next moment shouting, not loud talking but literal shouting as a mob of people came through, shoving us aside, spitting, snapping thousands of pictures, rubbing their hands all over the delicate rock structures, thousands more shutter snaps, shoving, pushing and shouting lots of what can only be described as shouting - the local guides waving their flags frantically, trying to move the group along. At least 12 of these tours passed through as we slowly made our way through the caves. We began to feel as though farmers of an ancient time, looking out over our golden fields and seeing the dark cloud of lotus just over the horizon, about to lay waste to it all. For whatever reason it really shook me psychologically to see it – the implication of just how many people we really are now walking around in a complete daze on the matter, and how tiny all that is beautiful, ancient and treasured are by comparison to our massive numbers. We met a few people who couldn’t take it and simply left. As for Tara and I we hunkered down and usually just waited for the groups to pass which they do remarkably quickly. If this is the future of travel, which it is looking more and more like it is – well then I say that this generation right now is experiencing the end of travel. Capital and unsustainable population growth have brought nearly everything to this point - travel is just one of the earliest casualties – and I know that I am no more deserving of these sights than any of these mega-package tourists are, but I am very saddened that this is how the story of South East Asia and most likely the rest of the world will end. Meanwhile travelers who want to avoid the mass of other travelers will push off into more and more remote regions, spreading more of the contagion that eventually destroys culture around the world, albeit gradually, unwittingly and with only the most noble of intentions.

When we left paradise cave and walked the two kilometers back to the bike we had a decision to make. We could drive back the way we had come – the intelligent option which Tara pushed for – or we could try my idea of driving through the center of the park where we were fairly certain we would eventually find the same entrance we had driven past before. Well since I was driving we took my way and this is where things got weird. We wound down a few downhills so intense that I was quite certain we couldn’t even get back the way from which we had come, and so we now had no choice but to take the 17 km or so on the single-lane road through the park. So lush was the vegetation that it seemed to reach out and grab at you as you rode by. We could only imagine the terrible creatures that lurked off the road, and the sun was hanging just over the tops of the mountains, casting an eerie late afternoon light and lots of deep shadows over everything. A kid in his early twenties with two other boys on the back were the first to pass us. He closed one eye and pointed his hand at us as if it were a gun and pulled the trigger with a wry smile, it made the whole scene seem much more ominous, and there was at least a 50% chance we were lost. Strangely, the tinge of fear being so surrounded and possibly lost had a strange effect on these beautiful hills. The emotions conspired for a truly unique and wild experience – perhaps to leave one’s comfort zone is a good time to live.

So strange was the trip through the forest and so concerned were we that we might be lost that we never unpacked the bag to snap a single picture of the vast green net that had been cast for miles over this remote forest. We breathed a sigh of relief as we passed the mountain with the entrance sign and we started to really roar over the highway, looking below at the late afternoon sun bathing the pastoral fields of grazing cattle with golden light – great tropical mountains at our backs, and so this is the strangely shaped little country below China that our teachers used to make us read and answer questions about. Some kicks.

The next morning we caught a bus to Hue where we could get back onto the Sinh Tourist bus route and continue on to the city of Hoi An. A man sitting in the front seat of our van seemed to speak a little English and so I tried to figure out where is Hue we would be arriving. And as luck would have it he wasn’t just a van employee who knew a few words but the brother of the driver who had been up to visit for the weekend and he was on the way back to work – as an English Teacher. So he moved back next to me and spent the next few hours explaining about how he had learned English and what the school system was like, I told him about the Thai and American school systems. Then as we started passing landmarks not far from the De-Militarized Zone – a no-man’s land where some of the worst destruction of the American War (or Vietnam War as it’s called in America) had taken place. A school which had been the only single building to survive the bombing, a river known as the blood river because of the gruesome contents, long stretches of farmland where people he knew personally had been blown up by unexploded ordinances (bombs or mines that never went off and are thus still active) – some 40,000 Vietnamese have been killed or seriously injured by these explosions of skin slashing metal since the war ended in 1975! – Read that last sentence one more time to focus on the part ‘since the war ended.’ The number in Laos is 20,000 killed or maimed since the end of the war and they weren’t even party to the conflict. It is estimated that there are around 75 million unexploded ordinances around the world – many in the world’s poorest countries, and they can cost as much as $1,000 each to remove - though resourceful locals find far more tedious but labor intensive ways.. When I asked him about the war - he was born in a village which had been bombed for 88 days straight, four years before he came into the world - he thinks that Vietnam has to think about the future, that America is a good friend for Vietnam and that Vietnamese people love the American people. Like so many others we met along the way he was genuinely sincere in his outlook. He gave me his contact information and said he would like to invite us to his home for lunch, dinner, coffee or anything any time that we wanted and said it would be his great pleasure. He jumped off the bus about fifteen minutes before Hue – his first class was beginning at 9:30 am that Monday morning. When luck that we met in 2013 instead of 1973 and maybe there might be a world one day where all people meet the people of the world under circumstance of peace – or at least not through the convergence of package tours in a narrow and photogenic passageway.

Additional photos below
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18th June 2013

Hi Dan! I am a high school friend of your mother's. I have traveled around the world extensively but have not made it to Southeast Asia (other than India, Nepal, and Bangladesh)... yet. I found your blog fascinating and insightful. I agree with your opinion on mass tourism but I am not quite as adventurous as you and Tara. It is nice to see you embracing other cultures. Thank you for sharing your experiences and photographs. Be safe and travel far!

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