Son Doong Day 4 – The most glorious bath ever taken

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._DSC8071

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._DSC8090

 

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._DSC8094

 

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.

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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.

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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._DSC8124

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.

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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.

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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!

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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. Continue reading

Son Doong Day 1 – Through the jungle to Hang En

After a series of plane rides from Seoul to Hanoi and finally to Dong Hoi I was picked up by Oxalis for my trip into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave.  From Dong Hoi it was about an hour ride to Phong Nha; the home of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a remote jungle wonderland filled with more amazement than I could possibly have imagined.

Waking up the next day we took our last showers and made sure everyone’s pack was set for the 7 day trip deep into the rain forest.  45 minutes later we were pulling off the newly paved road; we only passed a solitary motor bike and 1 other van on this secluded highway.

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The crew (From L-R) Thanh – Vietnamese Tour Guide, Julian, Alex, Kate, Chris, Deb – British Tour Guide, Sheena, Toby, Mr. Khanh – discovered Son Doong, Howard – British Tour Guide, Carla, Me

On the trip Howard, our guide and one of the crew that discovered Son Doong, told stories from his previous expeditions.  Perhaps the most amusing was an 80 person bike tour he put together for Russians.  Alcohol had been banned but that didn’t stop 7 or  8 of them from speeding down the jungle valley and careening off the road!  They ended their excursion in Saigon and were finally allowed booze; too bad 4 of them ended up in jail and another half dozen wallets were stolen!

Before long we saw our porters mixed with a few jungle folk along the side of the road.  One last gear check and into the jungle we went!  The hike began on a narrow path with a steep hill to our left.  A few uphills were interspersed along the way as we gazed in awe at nature’s beauty surrounding us.  Within minutes mother nature had swallowed us whole.

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Trekking through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park Ranger Mr. Phuoc

Our first water break came at our last peak of today’s path.  All 11 of us (Sheena, Carla, Katie, Chris, Alex, Julian, Toby, Howard, Deb, Myself & Thanh – an English speaking Vietnamese guide) let the porters and Phong Nha people stroll onward while we relaxed int eh shade and began to get to know each other.

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Trekking through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Trekking through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Moments later we were moving onward along the steep downhill.  This was our first balancing act as the slippery slope required sure footing to reach the bottom.  Little did we know that this short journey would be a piece of cake compared to the next few days!

Taking one more water break, we eventually reached the bottom and our first of many river crossings.  Wading in just above our ankles was refreshing and everyone splashed around cooling off in this 35°C, feels like 42°C heat.  The now leisurely hike included multiple water breaks in between a dozen river crossings over pleasantly flat terrain.  Unfortunately Gortex doesn’t let water out either which meant I was sloshing around for the rest of the day.  Good thing I prepared with wool socks!

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Approaching a minority village in the middle of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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A minority village in the middle of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

By midday we reached a remote Phong Nha village.  Well, actually its a family of 32 with a few buildings and a school.  They invited us into their home to enjoy some midday shade and tea as our guides translated their tribal language and taught us about their farming lifestyle and local culture.  We were even promised a song on the journey back!

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A minority village in the middle of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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A minority village in the middle of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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A minority village in the middle of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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A minority village in the middle of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Their farmland was quickly devoured by the jungle as our journey restarted.  Still relatively flat yet full of rivers the trek managed to grow wearisome as we dreamed of lunch surrounded by the vibrant jungle mountains.  Along the trail Howard pointed to the ridge in the distance.  “That’s tiger territory.”  He said informing us that they find the same tracks of the brilliant feline with an injured paw so they know its flying solo.

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MOOOOOOOO!

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Trekking through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

2 more breaks and it was our first mealtime!  Our chefs had sliced veggies and laid out quite a spread for our “make our own hot dog lunch.”  The individually wrapped precooked franks were actually labeled as “baguettes” but with a little cucumber, tomato, cheese and chili sauce it made a delicious jungle picnic.

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om nom nom nom nom

The last leg of our first day was quickly approaching.  Around the next bend Howard mentioned the faraway mountain with an obvious rock face.  Underneath that overhang was the entrance to Hang En where we would spend our first evening.  The trail began sporting tall grasses in between wading back and forth across the river.

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Trekking through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Trekking through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Trekking through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

While it was actually a few kilometers we seemed to arrive moments later and began donning our cave gear.  Helmets were strapped on with headlamps attached while everyone put on bright orange gloves to protect against the jagged rocks.  We quickly crossed the last river which brought us to our first series of bouldering.  After a few dozen rocks the cave suddenly expanded into a vast cavern.

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The entrance to Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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The entrance to Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

On our right far below us lay a sandy floor surrounded by glorious pools.  To the left the boulders continued climbing upwards eventually ending in a massive exit to the dense jungle above.  We climbed 3/4 of the way up for a photo op while our porters finished setting up the tents and prepped dinner.

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Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Campsite 1 in Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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A second entrance to Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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A second entrance to Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Campsite 1 in Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Soaking in the breathtaking view of this massive scene it was hard to believe that this monstrosity wasn’t even the main event!  Tomorrow we would enter Son Doong, the world’s largest cave which was so remote we had to spend the night in Hang En’s beautiful foyer.  We headed back down and reached the bottom to unpack and enjoy a leisurely evening of swimming in the clear blue waters and getting to know each other over our first tastes of rice wine.