Breakfast at 7am for an 8am departure Bich had told us. At 6:30am the iPhone alarm beckoned and we wearily packed our bags.
On the porch outside the farmstay, again with glorious views of rice paddies and mountains, we ate our breakfast, Beef Pho for me, noodles for brekkie. We ate with the others going on the trek, Liz, Warwick and co., others seemed nervous like us, which calmed me. Enigma blasted from the farmstay speakers, yes, this was going to be epic.
At 8ish we left, (“ish”, not a German 8am apparently), seven of us in a minivan ready to embark on a 14km trek through one of the world’s largest caves, a cave 60km in total. Epic music filled the van, windows open, wind rushing in, and we raced from the village through Phong Nha town, onwards to the national park and Paradise Cave.
The cave was about 40km away, through a national park gate where entrance is restricted. At the newly opened tourist attraction we met our guide, a smiley young Vietnamese guy called Dong, he spoke only a little broken English.
To reach the cave entrance you board a yellow electronic vehicle, it’s very Jurassic Park, so, of course, we hummed the theme tune. After the ride you’re fronted with 500 steps surrounded in luscious rainforest foliage. The heavens opened and we climbed them in the rain, to the guide’s hut where we’d be kitted out.
The kit consisted of a headlamp, and rugged jacket and trousers. Shoes were also available, though of course we had our own walking boots. Most of the available Vietnamese shoe sizes were too small for everyone.
Kitted out, headlamps tested, dressed and ready to go, we set off. The diminutive entrance to the cave is an opening at the foot of ten or so steps. This is the entrance everyone takes, and leads to the first 1km which has boardwalks and lights for visitors.
We ambled down the slippery steps and turned the corner. Wow, we were standing in an enormous underground cavern that expanded beneath us. Larger than a concert hall, but with equally good acoustics. There was a slight haze from the moisture in the air, and we descended another 100 or so steps to its base.
Paradise cave is simply magnificent, more enormous and wonderful than any cave I have ever seen. The stalagmites are great deformed columns that reach to the ceiling, the stalactites, equally big, hang down, deadly looking spikes hovering above. The lighting is serene, and subtly highlights the natural colours of the million year old limestone formations. From eerie and gothic bulging statues to towering frozen waterfalls, we strolled through the first kilometre, passing tour groups, proudly dressed in caving gear.
The boardwalk ends with a circular viewing platform and that’s where most tourists stop. Our guide reaches over the fence, opens a small hidden gate and we climb down a ladder to the cave floor. Now the adventure begins, and we climbed our first of many slippery stone slopes, Matt not quite getting his footing right and falling (or rolling) quite impressively. We waved goodbye to the lights, clicked on our headlamps and turned into the darkness.
In such cold black our headlamps were surprisingly powerful. We lit up the large cavern and looked around, standing somewhere less than 100 people have ever been, wary not to stand on something precious. My fears of small cramped places were blown away, these were huge towering caverns, as enormous as a few storey buildings, but seen only by a privileged few.
A few caverns in, we gathered together and one by one turned off our headlamps. The cavern rapidly shrank, and with all the lights off the space felt tiny. Pitch black, I waved my hand in front of my face, until I hit my nose. Nope, I can see absolutely nothing. My eyes played tricks on me, trying to make sense of the darkness and filling in gaps with what I’d seen before. It was silent too, no wind, no birds or animals or motors or water rushing by, silence, but for the breathing of other people. We stood for minutes, but it felt like hours, not wanting to be the first to turn their light back on, but not moving either.
Click, the light returned and we continued, each talking about how we’d felt in the darkness. We realised how dependent we were on the batteries in our lamps. Especially as our guide’s torch died and we watched him replace the batteries with his spares, only a couple of kilometres in.
We climbed limestone mounds, tiptoed across frozen limestone lakes, and marvelled at huge limestone organs, with hollow musical tubes. All around us small sapling stalagmites grew from the floor. Occasionally a giant formation lay on the ground, having grown too large and come crashing down, many thousands of years ago. Amongst the limestone were layers of thick brown clay, perfectly smooth and untouched for years.
The caves were cool, but without any wind, no breeze at all, and hiking was hot and sweaty (and somewhat smelly).
4km in we stopped for a rest, against many towering layers of limestone, like a natural amphitheatre, or a solid stone waterfall. We climbed to the top, where a sparkling diamond like formation stunned us, like glistening water overflowing from the peak. I set up the tripod and tried out some long exposure shots.
Dong stopped amidst a large cavern and pointed to the ceiling, “highest point” he said. A drip was falling from the roof, creating a small stalagmite beneath us, we watched the water fall, glistening in the light of our headlamps, falling for an eternity. Drip… … drip… … drip.
Something small was moving on the ground ahead of us. A bug, a colourless spiny sub-species of grasshopper with enormous antennae. It lives its entire life in pitch black. How did it get here? How does it survive down here? We marvelled at this peculiar creature, and watched as it scurried away.
At 6km we came to an underground river and a kayak, a rather unstable kayak prone to the occasional capsize. Two at a time we climbed in, and one of our Vietnamese guides rowed us through the cave to the other side.
When the first group left, those of us still at the clay walled stony port turned off our headlamps. We watched as the light from the boat slowly drifted away, moving into the distance the light grew dim, occasionally flashing between some rocks, until it was gone, and we were in darkness. Just the sound of the water and the boat knocking into rocks. We stayed in the darkness until the boat returned, light slowly returning to us, our carriage arriving from the depths of nowhere.
We were the penultimate two to go by kayak, and it was a shaky ordeal. The water was shallow, and the formations made using oars difficult. We ducked as a low ceiling narrowly passed us. I put on the fluorescent orange lifejacket, and hoped we’d make it across without a problem. And we did, arriving at a similar clay port where those waiting were sculpting many small clay figures on the river bank. Half way through a red and white coloured moth landed on my hand, “what are you doing here?” I asked, perplexed that my new friend could be in here.
As we continued through a few more caverns, passing the “lowest point” in the cave, a low ceiling we ducked and clambered through (nothing too strenuous). We were nearing the end of the route, the midpoint of the hike and our spot to have some lunch.
A narrow entryway to a cavern was met with a delightful cool breeze, and from the hallway we could see the slightest light coming in. As we edged closer the light grew stronger, and the sound of a river eked into the cave.
And then we saw the light source and the area it shone down upon, and what a site to behold. A giant, luscious sinkhole with sunlight and rainwater pouring in, trees towering above, roots wrapped around the walls, above a raging underground river in a cavern large enough to house a twenty storey building. Between the sinkhole and the river, a layer of definitive white cloud. Phenomenal and beautiful. Despite my trying, it was impossible to capture the enormity and wonder of this place in a photo.
There was one last obstacle before lunch, crossing the raging river via a string of rocks to reach a stoney plateau. The guides stood on the sides and helped us cross, pointing out where to stand.
I was last to go, in my heavy duty walking boots I balanced precariously on a wet slippery rock, the river roaring beneath me. Dong pointed to where I should step, I stepped, I missed, I slipped and I plunged into the raging river, up to my waist. The hand of our guide was all that stopped me from falling further and being taken by the river, he pulled me up and I was sopping. Water dripped from my combats and there was a squelch with every step. I was shaken, furious and relieved.
In my wet state I didn’t really relax in the 30 minute mid-hike break, where we ate our pork and rice and stared up into the centre of the sinkhole. Once again we watched the water drops fall for an eternity before smashing on a rock.
The return route was the reverse, going back the same way. Back over the river, leaving the sinkhole, through wondrous tall caverns, through the lowest point, on the kayak, to the tallest point, and 6km, to the publicly accessible lit part of the cave. We marvelled as we discovered more stunning formations, crystal towers buried beneath mountains of rock, tucked away from prying eyes. At the final beautiful formation we stood for a group photo, everyone standing very still as I timed a long exposure shot.
We returned to the light of the lit caverns, emerging from the darkness, muddy and sweaty. Tourists on the boardwalk looked astonished, we proudly smiled and walked on by. Our incredible trek complete, one of the most amazing things we’ve ever done or ever will do.
On the way home we stopped for a quick swim, in the gorgeous turquoise waters of an emergent underground river, amongst a kaleidoscope of butterflies. Yeah, it was that picturesque.
Back in the minibus, discussing which Sigur Ros album was best, through the remainder of the limestone hills, over the river and back to the farmstay; where the music was already playing and the party had started.
Over a cave group dinner everyone planned what to do next; some were going on to Hue, others wanted to do an overnight trek through the jungle. Inside, live music beckoned, a Thai woman covering classics in her own unique style. With our beer we closed out the evening with the rambunctious Dave, and tales of his prior career as a nude life model. Meanwhile Matt was borrowing clothes for a two day trek, in bandana and khaki jacket he morphed into Rambo.
Bugs flitted about and the remnants of a storm passed by, the occasional fork of lightning. We called it a night.