Following the Castaway tour and the rock-climbing I thought that I had tried the best Vietnam had to offer (at least for a while), but boy, oh boy, was I wrong.
Today we went on the National Park Tour in Phong Nha just a couple of hours after arriving with the night bus at 4am, and it held much more in store than what we had expected. First, our guide, Ken (as in Barbie and Ken or Heineken), took us to the Eight-lady-Cave and the temple next door – which had a tragically beautiful story. This was the first of three surprises we would get on this tour. We walked a stretch up the Ho Chi Minh Road, which had played a significant role during the Vietnamese-American War as it allowed the North to transport weapons and other essentials to the South which, consequently, made it a prime target for US bombing. One day during the war some vietnamese volunteers were working around this very spot when the bombs started to drop, and four women and four men managed to seek refuge inside the cave, but one of the bombs hit too close causing big boulders to crash down and block the entrance. The villagers ingeniously tried to save the eight volunteers by sending food and drink into the cave via a plastic tube, but their efforts were to no avail when all eight died not long after. Years later the entrance was reopened and the bones of the dead was placed in the temple constructed right next to the Eight-Lady-Cave – and today their sandals are still on display. This temple is significant for other reasons as well; close to the cave grows a banana tree which produces eight bananas and in the area they found eight gecko eggs, and the name of the cave originates from when eight ladies happened to discover the cave (when you discover a new cave in Vietnam you are allowed to give it its name). So, people come to this temple to pray and lay clothes and fake money at the alter, which they later burn in the “tower” just outside, and make a wish.
Next up was the Paradise cave, the longest in all of Asia being 31.4km long. This cave was discovered one day by a jungle-man who felt a sudden breeze in the middle of a burning hot day in 2005 – and later this very same man discovered the largest cave in the world as well (he is now rich and famous in the Phong Nha village). We had to walk up 524 steps of stairs to finally reach the mouth of the enormous cave. The majority of the rocks and mountain in Phong Nha area are limestone, so the rainwater and the calcium of the stone creates huge and stunning drypsten/ stalagmites sculptures. We got to see 1km of the dry cave and as shockingly beautiful the stalagmites and column-stones were, our favourite part was definitely this pool of absolute still water in this soft inviting bed of limestone which perfectly reflected the roof in a clear cut image.
Then came the lunch. By now we were all starving – especially since our hostel kinda pulled a scam on us, cheating us out of a free breakfast and so forcing us to buy the cheapest on the menu. This was the second surprise of the day; the sheer visual beauty of the food laid out on banana leaves was almost worth every dong we payed alone. The rice paper we were given to wrap the rice, noodles, meat, eggs and veg with reminded me of the delicious Korean barbecues we enjoyed in Seoul only a week ago.
With our hunger satisfied, we ventured into the Dark Cave (a river cave). This necessitated swimwear, lifejackets, helmets and a very bad (but funny) instruction video. You arrive at the opening of the cave by zip-lining 400m – this we had looked forward to all day. It was wild and it was fun, and I wish we had the opportunity to try it again, not to mention the unbelievable view of the surrounding luscious mountains. Then a quick swim to the entrance and we were all walking on line into the dark. The lights on our helmets allowed us to look around at the immense space surrounding us. We climbed and pushed through narrow paths between great rocks, watching out for anything we could bump our head into and soon the ground and the walls started to get increasingly slippery with mud! It didn’t take long for Niamh to get a brown butt. The time had come for the long anticipated mud bath. It was a wonderful sensation feeling the clay-like mud between your toes and even more so to float in the thick chocolatey mud. However, when you first lose your grip of the ground and let yourself float it is hard to find your feet again – hence, I accidentally splashed Niamh with mud in da face and she became blind for a time. On the way out of the cave we had to slide down a short stretch of mud but there were a huge bump on the path making for some painfully sounding thuds (though not painful at all, don’t worry) and flying body parts. This totally beat the rock-climbing and has been one of the best experiences as of yet – it was exhilarating, wonderful and stomach-achingly hilarious. Pictures might follow..
Finally, the third surprise of the day. We kayaked from the cave and into this amazing clear lake where we were allowed to swim and short rides of zip-lining ending in a splash.