So last weekend I took the opportunity to go trekking and caving in Central Vietnam. Another volunteer, Mohamed, went with me. Vietnam is well known for having the world’s largest cave: Son Doong. It has becoming a hotbed for caving enthusiast and the general person that wants a bit of adventure. I would be the latter. I have gone spelunking once in Belize. That experience developed a curiosity for me to explore a bit more.
So I started doing research. Go big or go home right? There is on company that runs all the tours into the caves: Oxalis. I am like I will totally go do Son Doong. I looked up pictures and was like how amazing would that be. Then I got on the website. Well to go exploring Son Doong, which takes 5 days, is $3000.00 USD. What? Per person! It is also booked for the whole year so there is only a waiting list. So then I was like are there caves on sale to see or maybe discounted caves:) Well Vietnam is not short on caves. Their website has several cave “adventures”. I read through them all and then chatted with them. They recommended 2 day Tu Lan cave adventure. There is a chart that rates the difficulty level of caving. It is a scale from 1-5. One being easy and 5 being the hardest. This adventure was rated a 2. I was slightly disappointed. But they had only a couple spots left and it would be the last weekend before the rainy season hits and the caves shut down for the year. So it was either go or not. I decided to go.
So they said to bring certain things like long shirt, long pants, bug repellent… I have learned that if the experts tell you to bring something you do that. So I was prepared. Mohamed and I flew to a city called Dong Hoi. From there it is 40 km drive to the city (if you count a single street as a city) of Phong Nha. Many of the caves are within a national park but these would be outside of that park. Mo and I had to stay the night before and after the trek because there is only one flight a day to Dong Hoi. We stayed at the property of the tour company. It sat on the Son River. Breathe taking. Picture limestone mountains jutting out of the ground into the sky. Fishing boats going up and down the river.
The next day we head to base camp. They said it was 7 km away. This is where the language barriers happen. I heard 7. It was actually 70 km away. There were 8 of us in the group. Once you arrive they tell you to only bring 3 kg of stuff in a plastic bag. That is swimwear, flip flops, toiletries…etc. They had porters that would carry that stuff to the campsite. We got our safety review and were ready. Well there was a couple that did not think like I did. They showed up in shorts and t-shirts. They had read a review that it was really hot and you did not need long sleeves or pants. I asked if they read why they needed those items. No they said. Oh they have super poison ivy in this jungle. No joke. Super Poison Ivy. An hour into the trek they were asking for long sleeves! But I digress.
So they lure you into a false sense of ease. The first 2 km of the 12 km trek is basically on a road that was recently built to shoot the new King Kong movie. Well this is going to be easy. Then we come to the first river. Oh did I mention swimming is involved? Well the first river was not deep. We then hit the first valley of the jungle. The grass was over my head. But still not that bad. We get to our first “hill”. They call it Baby Mountain. Why we asked. Because we have to do “Mama” later. So I have been mountain trekking in Vietnam. It way typical mountains. Trails, paths (muddy paths), and rocks. Well this is limestone mountains. It is pure rock. The rain carves the rocks and many have sharp edges. There is no path. The path is the rocks. So we get over Baby. Then we head to Mama. Well the tour guide Dai (pronounced Die!) said it was time to get started. I look up. It was vertical rock climbing. “Dai”…”This was not on the website.” No one said I had to rock climb! So glad I brought the right shoes this time!
We made it over Mama. On the way down to the campsite Dai jumped and screamed! I was directly behind him. I look down and there is a huge snake at my feet moving away. “Hey Dai, what kind of snake was just on my feet.” What I could not hear you. “Cobra? Did you say Cobra? That was not on the website.”
So we get to the campsite. We are literally camping in the middle of a jungle. There is no electricity. No running water. It was out of a movie. One side of the camp is a lagoon and above the lagoon you see a giant opening. It was our first cave. It is really easy to describe the scary stuff or funny stuff. But the beauty that
Mother Nature is capable of just cannot be put into words. But I knew this is exactly what I signed on for.
At this point they make you wear a swimming vest. Which I was not all too happy about. We climbed up more rocks to the cave entrance. It was a couple hundred feet high and basically it was a lake. 30 feed deep. We had to swim a football length to get to the other side and into the internal chambers. The best memory will be floating on my back watching the cave entrance shrink, watching the bats overhead and looking at the rock formations. Who knew I would ever be doing something like that!
I wish you all the opportunity to experience nature like this. Still natural. In a few years I don’t think it will still be this way.
In the end I went through 1 jungle, over 2 mountains, swam/crawled/rock climbed 4 caves and crossed 5 rivers. It was so hard. That was just the level 2. Son Doong is a level 5. I may have to reconsider being on that wait list…but more than likely not! Go big or go home. I wonder what is not on that website!