Grimy and ready for a bath, we arrived at Son Doong Camp 2 after frolicking beneath the Great Wall of Vietnam in the muddy Passchendaele Trench. We were greeted with our porter’s friendly smiles. Most of them refused a hug and instead adroitly maneuvering a cup of tea into my hand convincing me to chow down on a scrumptious lunch. We cleaned off (barely) and ate up before setting off again. Ahead of us were two dolines and hundreds of meters of cave between the jungles; with any luck we’d arrive in time to take a detour to our first scrub since the river crossing near the cave’s entrance.
Our bittersweet departure meant that we would soon be leaving this enchanted fantasy world. A world of awe inspiring natural beauty just around each bend. Beauty shrouded in a seemingly endless blackness that melts away as we approach. Son Doong captivated us on the way in and was sure to follow through on its promise to amaze as we climbed back into the Garden of Edam.
Immediately the heat began beating down on us; a gentle reminder that deep inside Vietnam’s Phong Nha Quang Binh National Park Queen ruled with a merciless red-hot fist. With every step, with every boulder, every precipice we surpassed Mother Nature continued to crank up the heat. Just past noon we happily took a shady break in the jungle but quickly moved on; we were even more excited to descend the far side of this mini-mountain in search of cooler temperatures. Resting at the edge of the shade we pondered abandoning our lives awaiting us back home and simply turning back into the wonderland.
A cold rinse in the cave’s river was enough to motivate my legs so the dreams quickly dispersed and off we went venturing back into the refreshing darkness. The descent grew trickier as the trail fell lower; we took a different path with massive razor sharp boulders lining the trail. No, not lining the trail. They were the trail! These multi-meter jagged edges were common throughout Son Doong but never before in such prevalence. One thing was certain, this passage made me incredibly thankful for Oxalis’s bright orange Kevlar-like gloves. I paused to don the glowing gauntlets and by happenschance turned around catching a truly magical sight.
Rain began to fall in the doline behind us! Floating hundreds of meters down amusingly similar to snow in the 40+ degree Celsius forest I couldn’t help but crack a smile! Slowly the flurry transformed into a downpour and I decided to snap one quick photo before turning back around. I thought it would be best to continue onward before the already slick rocks became even more perilous. The maze of boulders beneath me made for slow going but luckily the rest of my party wasn’t far ahead. Before I knew it I approached a sheer cliff where a few of my companions lingered.
Dozens of meters below we could make out the faint sound of hear a stream in the pitch black. We weren’t heading all the way to that tumultuous waterway but our 10 meter journey required a safety rope. Deb began tying a bowline around us before guiding each of us one by one along the last few meters of this descent. One at a time we half climbed-half swung from razors edge to the safety ropes. Mr. Ky awaited us below as the river grew into a thunderous echo throughout the chamber! After a quick horizontal stint we finally began to emerge from a small tunnel; our campsite directly in front of us and the doline to the left illuminated the end of today’s journey.
If trekking teaches you anything its certainly that just because something is within your sight that doesn’t make it “close.” Another hour or so of bouldering brought us back to the world’s best campsite. We dropped our packs and grabbed some soap, tonight we could gloriously clean off 3 days of filth. Mud, BO and grime combined with other unpleasantries Son Doong threw at us turning each of us into a foul aromatic concoction! Miraculously the journey to this narrow waterway brought us past yet another marvel; a chamber who’s walls were lined with million year old fossils! In awe of these creatures frozen for eternity we eventually surrendered to the thought of being clean and sought out that refreshing water.
Swimming into the chilly creek was another reminder how deep we were. The water felt great but it was enough to prickle your goose bumps. I should point out that our bathtub was narrower than an airplane aisle; we had to go in single-file for a scrub; oh and it was deep. Who knows how deep but within seconds none of us could stand and we began bracing our backs and legs on opposite walls. Getting out proved even more difficult that returning as the first bathers stayed near the edge and we swam under or somehow gallivanted over each other.
I ventured further for a blind swim as the rocky walls gave way to an expansive chamber. Without light to guide me I decided it best to keep my journey to a minimum. There was no way of telling how big it truly was but swimming back to the small gap with light and playful sounds of new friends was an entirely unique experience for my senses. Practically no sound came from the river or cave down here and there was definitely a complete lack of light. I imagined myself being in a sensory deprivation tank in a psych experiment before freaking myself out and heading for shore.
After some extensive scrubbing we were all sufficiently “not dirty.” No one was clean. We were still in the jungle after all and bathed while wearing some of the dirtiest clothes I’ve ever had the misfortune of donning. Oh well, it’ll have to do until tomorrow night when we can have a proper swim in Hang En! We ventured back to our campsite with the world’s best bathroom view.
By the time we arrived the fried chicken and array of Vietnamese delicacies complimenting Howard’s chips were ready. Everyone enjoyed the rest of the rice wine with this meal since a few porters promised to rush ahead and get another shipment from a friend meeting him on the road (they do this all the time and love their rice wine even more than we do!) After eating the meal a few of the Vietnamese joined us for a game of Tien Len and somehow our faces were all covered in charcoal as punishment for losing again! So much for that bath.
When the rice wine ran out talk about how porters like to arm wrestle began rustling around the table. Trying our luck amongst the foreigners a few matches gave clear results. The most obvious was that I wasn’t going to win. Toby, Chris & Julian all fought hard but Julian came out as our champion in a finals match between Julian and Toby that the porters were placing bets on!
Moments later a heavily tattooed porter showed up; the one who had recently spent a few years in Taiwan but more importantly had schlepped over 70kg all day! Julian stood half a head taller and clearly had broader shoulders. But this guy was a muscle man for a living. He was clearly in better shape than any of us and was the porter’s favorite.
Thanh walked over to referee announcing a best of 3 matches. First and last would be lefty! A murmur went through the crowd as most of the contestants groaned. All but Toby who hid his left handed dominance in our preliminary matches. He suddenly became a surprise favorite and the bets started to bring our campsite to a dull roar when Thanh gathered everyone’s attention for the first match: Julian vs. our tattooed trekker.
Equally matched for the first few minutes it appeared we would be spectating all night. A few grew restless when suddenly our tattooed friend took a slight lead. Julian shifted slightly and lost ground before straining to recover the advantage. Back and forth it went as Julian clearly was exerting all his might. The porter was working hard but cracked a broad smile, clearly enjoying the spotlight when Julian dug into his reserves and took a quick lead. As the porter moved to counter Julian suddenly overpowered him and in an instant it was all over. Julian won the lefty match and they switched to righty. The second match was barely a contest as Julian’s dominant arm easily overpowered the porter and claimed the glory!
As the night wore on more matches popped up. I knew I wouldn’t stand a chance against any of the typical porters and I’d already lost to each foreigner so I sought out Mr. Huy. He taught me Tien Len the night before and was about as wiry as me. I couldn’t find him right away so I did what any sensible wimp would do and began shouting “bring me your weakest man!” Laughing hysterically Thanh quickly appeared with Mr. Huy as my foreign companions stifled guffaws and began cheering for me.
Our match began similar to Julian’s championship round with both of us struggling to take a lead. Now, I’ve never been much of a muscle man and can’t even recall the last time I arm wrestled. Hell, I may never have arm wrestled before this night. Sure I’m in great cardio shape and can hike a mountain (or 5) but that does nothing for my upper body. My endurance was minimal and I felt Mr. Huy wearing down on me. Glancing upwards I noticed that he too was exerting quite the effort; he caught me looking and I powered into it momentarily gaining a lead. Unfortunately I let out a laugh in triumph and slipped back to center.
It seemed like hours passing as my shoulder and arms ached; I had already lost 3 matches today and refused to accept another defeat. Digging into my reserve I pushed to no avail when suddenly Thanh called the match a draw! After a quick rest we went back for round 2 with the same result. Satisfied with “not losing,” as had been my fate with my white brethren, I viewed this as a victory!
With all the fun and games dwindling down everyone slowly made their way to the tents while I enjoyed one last evening stare into Son Doong’s abyss. Sounds of the jungle were resilient and echoed from high above. I couldn’t help but wonder what night brought into the heart of this wild land? Countless beasts no doubt prowled above in silence as other communal animals squawked warnings with the occasional hoot and howl. This cacophony bounced off stone walls for hundreds of meters eventually reaching my ears as a soothing jungle lullaby. My view was drawn toward Watch out for Dinosaur’s eyehole in the ceiling high up above. The outlining jungle acted as eyelashes to protect its of iris clouds hiding a dark gray pupil dispersing any stellar and lunar light.