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Published: April 13th 2014
The whole point of heading north to Huế was to eventually make our way to Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park and one of Asia's largest cave systems. Our homestay was in Cu Nam, a rural village surrounded by rice paddies, about 180km north of Huế near the Laotian border. Cu Nam is off the beaten path and the tourist industry is pretty undeveloped so the people we met were extra-friendly and curious.
The following morning we were picked up early for the 90 minute drive to the caves and met our fellow trekkers which included an experienced caver and photographer from Calgary named Joseph. Just our luck as Matt doesn't have a tripod and knew that the low light situation in the caves would make photography challenging. Luckily Joseph most generously gave us permission to use some of his photos here.
Our group was small, in addition to Matt, myself and Joseph, it was made up of two young men, one from Spain and one from England, a young Italian woman, two guides and two porters. I was a little anxious as Matt and I were the oldest of the bunch by at least a decade and the tour was
The people here have cool leashes for their cows that consist of a long pole with a leash on the end. The pole is hinged on a pivot stake and a counterweight is placed on the opposite end of the pole. As the cow pulls away from the stake she has to exert force to lift the counterweight.
touted as physically challenging. We packed an extra set of clothes and towels as we'd be swimming in the clothes we were wearing. The Hung Ton and Hung Kim caves in the Tu Lan cave system are linked by a river. The only way to traverse parts of them is by swimming.
Approaching the park the group was awed by the famous limestone karsts. They rose up out of the fields like jewels, the white limestone and deep green vegetation almost glittering. On either side of the dirt road, women tilled and weeded fields of peanuts and corn and manipulated water buffalo pulling ploughs. The people that live in this area are from one of the hill tribes. Our guide told us that the majority of the physical labour in their society is undertaken by women. Men hunt in the jungle for meat and women are responsible for all the agricultural work as well as the housework and child rearing. Once again I was struck by the strength of Vietnamese women. They are so tiny but you see them everywhere working alongside men in every kind of physical job, shoveling and hammering and laying bricks. It is not unusual
Ready to Go!
The tour guides were very conscientious and were adamant that we wear gloves to protect the rock formations from our oily skin.
to see women in their 80's pushing carts of vegetables through streets or balancing a a bamboo yoke and baskets of goods for sale. Many elderly women walk with a permanent stoop from years of bending over to weed rice paddies.
Our tour was lead by two young men from the area who knew the caves well. One of them, along with a tourist, discovered the Hung Kim cave in 2012. Just before starting off on foot we were reminded to take only what was absolutely necessary as everything would get wet. There were only enough dry bags for camera equipment and the porters would be weighed down with those and with the makings for lunch. Anything else we carried we'd have to swim with. Matt and I left our knapsacks of dry clothes and brought his camera and a small drybag.
It was an hour hike through farmland, across a river, over a saddle between hills under which the river continued, and through a jungle valley before we saw the mouth of the cave encircled by jungle vines, tree ferns, bushes and epiphytes. One at a time we climbed a wooden ladder up to the cave and
then all hung around the ledge admiring the smooth curved walls and pillars and pointedly ignoring the dark tunnel leading inward. The guides gave us headlamps, told us we must walk in single file and refrain from touching anything and then took off into the darkness.
It is difficult to describe the otherworldly beauty of this cave. Once I got over the fact that I was walking in complete and utter darkness I began to appreciate where I was. Our headlamps cast beams of lights going in every direction as we looked around so the effect was to see the cave in pieces. The temperature was a surprise, I had been expecting it to be cool, but it was very comfortable. Our guides told us the temperature remains pretty much static and because they stay dry even in the rainy season, and there is access to fresh water, people have lived in these caves on and off over many years and human remains are still found in some.
My headlamp highlighted impossibly high ceilings with enormous stalactites swooping down at us. Stalagmites that looked like tree trunks soared upward. It was like walking in a forest of redwoods
except the formations were marbled in pale colours and the limestone looked warm and smooth, almost alive.
I was lost in my own thoughts when the guide gathered us together and explained that he would be tying a safety rope around us for the ladder descent into the cave. In front of us, lit by our collective headlamps, was the top of a wooden ladder leaning against a ledge. It was secured by ropes and lead down into pitch black. After about five rungs it simply disappeared. I was the second one down after the Spanish fellow. The guide tied the rope around my waist with a bowline knot and off I went, feeling my way. After a few steps down all I could see were the headlamps clustered above me and the rung in front of me. I called down to the fellow on the bottom and he talked me down to where he was. After placing both boots on the ground I heard it: Chirping, lots of chirping. Actually, a cacophony
of chirping. As I turned my head instinctively toward the sound the light from my headlamp swung over thousands of bats and disturbed some so they
begun to fly around the cave. There were too many to focus on and every time I turned my head another part of me was left in darkness. I did hear swooshing sounds and felt the air from their wings when they passed right by my face. I thought to myself: This would be a much better situation if I could just see them.
We stopped several times to admire columns up to several meters in diameter actively building themselves from ceiling and ground with only a few centimeters remaining between. Their delicate points seemed to stretch toward one another. Water traveled down the stalactite drop by drop carrying dissolved limestone that was deposited onto the stalagmite one miniscule amount at a time. It will take thousands of years for the gap to close, maybe millions, and for the two to meet and form a column, but we watched entranced. It felt like it could happen at any moment. The guide also called our attention to a nest of cave pearls, formed when layers of calcium carbonate coat a kernel of sand or bone or something else. They are polished by running water and the constant jostling, like rocks
on a beach, until they become shiny and glossy. Extremely fragile, they may crumble if touched or exposed to air.
After walking for a while we came to the first water crossing. Of course I volunteered to be first in. It was eerie swimming in the dark water with only the sound of the splashes I made as company. The headlamp was strong but the beam barely made a dent in the vast darkness of the cave. It did light up the hundreds of flying insects that were disturbed every time we got in the water. The English man swallowed a few during his swim. I could hear him choking and spitting behind me and all the other guys laughing and telling him that it was almost lunch time and could he just hang on
We swam breaststroke to keep our heads up so we could see where we were going. The drag from our clothes and boots made the swims slow going and we were told not to kick to avoid damage to anything below the surface we could not see. The river had to be crossed in three places and in between we hiked and dripped.
After about an hour the first bit of ambient light allowed us to turn off our headlamps.
We exited into an enclosed valley where the porters were setting up lunch. It was like something out of a film. The river we had been swimming in became a small waterfall that spilled over boulders and into a small picturesque lake. The water was sky blue and the sand beach was surrounded by plants and trees. The porters had dug a pit and built a fire to prepare lunch which we ate sitting on a logs and listening to birds.
After we ate we proceeded to the next cave to explore for another couple of hours. Half way through Matt stopped me to point out a spider just centimeters away from me on a pillar. It was larger than my hand and jumped to avoid the light. Yes, jumped. That's one thing I've noticed about spiders in Viet Nam, they jump, just to make them extra creepy. One of the guides told us to keep our distance because he didn't recognize it and it may be poisonous. I thought to myself: I would feel a lot better about this situation
if I couldn't see it.
By the time we hiked out the sun was getting low in the sky and we quietly sloshed back to the van and dry clothes. Every one of us in the group agreed that this was the best tour we'd taken in Viet Nam so far.
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