So, it's been a while since i last updated my blog. Apologies for that. I've been busy having fun around the world. Hope work is treating you all well this fine Monday :) Anyway, prepare yourselves, as this one's a biggy.....Simon vs the world's largest cave, Hang Son Doong!
So, last time i updated the blog, i was faced with a big decision. Take the offer of the last place on the tour into the cave, or forget about it and go about my business. After thinking about all eventual possibilities and outcomes for 24 hours, I decided that a trip to the cave was well worth the money and the hassle of having to change around my dates and plans, so I hit the internet straight away. Why did i decide to go for it? Because it's the largest cave in the world and hardly anyone has been inside!!! That's why! National Geographic do a good job of telling the caves back story.......it's 40 minutes long, so you might want to come back to this a bit later.
First off, I was due to fly to Tokyo in 72 hours. Could I change my flights? Luckily, I had purchased my trusty unlimited date changes option with my STA travel ticket and within 24 hours, I had a response via e-mail to say that all was good with my request and all i had to do now was confirm everything, and give them the go-ahead to make the changes. Boom. Flights done.
Next on the list was my VISA. I had a 30 day single entry visa for Vietnam and it was about to run out. All the travel agencies could get it extended for me in 7 days, but it would cost $45. Alas, I didn't have 7 days, I only had 3, as I wanted to head north and acclimatise ASAP. Not a problem I was told, for $80, they could get it done in 48 hours. $80!!!!! Not a chance, so it was time to do some leg work. After a quick Google, I headed off to the Vietnamese Immigration office with my passport. According to the internet, all I had to do was fill in form N14 with my details and signature.......alas, it wasn't actually that easy. To get your visa extended in 2 business days, you need to fill in form N14, plus have a letter from someone to say why you need the visa extension (Oxalis kindly obliged), then you need to get a sponsor to say you've been staying consecutively in one Vietnamese residence for at least 4 days (thanks to the hostel who signed the form and lent me their log book!). Lastly, all you need to do is get the police chief to sign and stamp the form. This was the hard part.
On my first visit to the police station, at around 4pm, I had the pleasure of being rudely gestured at by an 'officer' who wouldn't even talk to me at reception. He just told me to come back tomorrow. He got very irate when I tried talking to him and even more so when I bypassed him to have a chat with some of his more seemingly helpful colleagues. Angry doesn't begin to describe the rage I had.....but I left the station signature-less and with my freedom in tact. So, back I went the next morning. This time at 10am. After a little broken English was spoken (the police normally insist you bring someone from your hostel with you who speaks Vietnamese), the kid on reception (he must have been no older than 17, clearly some high ranking guys nephew), checked everything then told me to sit and wait. He didn't call anyone, nor speak to anyone else, but instead just sat behind his desk playing with his pen. 10 minutes go by, then a female police officer walks in the entrance. Within a few minutes, i've been called over and am being seen to. She starts taking the new boy through my form as she checks over everything, pointing out to him what he should be looking for, what to sign and where to stamp. Everything seemed to be going well at this point, but she clearly didn't have enough stripes on her shoulders for everything to be over with. So, when she was done, she gave my passport and all the paperwork back to the junior kid who runs it up the stairs to where, I guess, the offices of the big boss are. He's gone about 20 seconds before he re-emerges with everything. Come back at 12 he says. But the ladies at the hostel have already told me that 12 o'clock is their lunch time, they all go home for 2 hours!!!! But I play along as I can't really argue and come back at 12. Upon my return, the kid is still at reception, but shakes his head and tells me to come back tomorrow. Wise to their games (they wanted a bribe, I wasn't paying), I pulled out my 1st trump card. This was me speaking very fast, very loudly, with lots of finger pointing and demanding to speak to someone senior. I'm taken though to the room next door which has loads of officers in. I had to wait a few minutes whilst they wrote down some words in Vietnamese onto a sheet of A4 paper, and made this local guy hold it up to his chest whilst standing in front of the prison cells. He was clearly in a little trouble, and it seemed to me that the deal was, he'd be let go if the police could have their fun, so they all snapped pictures of him on their mobiles holding this sign. I didn't have a clue what it said, but it clearly wasn't nice judging by his face. They then shouted at him and he scurried off. Next, it was my turn. A guy in a white shirt and not a uniform seemed to be the one running things and via the power of Google translate, told me to come back tomorrow and not bother them again. I said thank you in Vietnamese and smiled lots, then asked if I could type something into Google translate. He turned his laptop towards me and I proceed to type the following BS;
Thanks for your kind words. I've been asked to join an expedition into the worlds largest cave up in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park and need to urgently extend my visa. Your government have requested that I attend this historic event and need to see my completed passport VISA details in 48 hours.
As I typed, he read the translation out loud to everyone in the room. As soon as the word government was translated and read out, the tone changed completely. Lot's of smiles, big nods, a closer look at the letter from Oxalis etc. Getting everything sorted today shouldn't be an issue, and all I had to do now was return at 3pm i was told! So, off I went again to bide my time, but even more wise to their tricks now, I showed up at 2:40pm. Sure enough, there was the police chief signing all the bits of paper for the locals. I waited my turn, and when it came, he looked over everything ready to sign it. Purposely, I'd left one part of the form blank, the date. Was it today's date I needed, or the date my VISA ran out I asked? It didn't matter, I didn't have a black pen to complete the form he said!!!! Screw that I thought and legged it over the road, nicked a black pen from the bank and came running back. I filled in the date and got everything signed and stamped!!!! Yeah!!! At 5 minutes to 3, the chief was out of the building and off on his scooter. Had I rocked up at 3, I'd have had to wait till Monday at the earliest to even get my Passport. The word corrupt doesn't even come close to the operation these guys are running. All I had to do now was go back to the immigration office and submit the form with my passport. This part was so much easier, and after a 3 minute chat with the immigration lady on the desk, I was told to come back on Friday afternoon to pick up my passport. This may seem like a lot of hassle to go through and you're right, it was. But it only cost me $10 to do it this way. Every penny counts! Now confident that I'd have my VISA extended and ready to pick up on the Friday afternoon, plus with all my flight changes confirmed, it was time to plan on heading back up the country. I managed to get the last sleeper bunk on the Friday night train, which meant i'd make it into Dong Hoi on the Saturday evening. Friday came and my VISA was ready. So, it was time for me to head north and leave Ho Chi Minh City, or as I like to say, SiGone :)
Dong Hoi is the state capital of the Quang Binh province. It's also home to the thinnest part of Vietnam. There's only 40km between the coast and Laos. Needless to say, it was a very key area during the Vietnam war and currently holds the unenviable record for the most bombed place on earth. Unexploded ordinance are everywhere and are often found during construction digs. Due to this, Dong Hoi is a very new town in terms of buildings and architecture. There aren't many old building in the area, and all that really remains of the former town are the steeple of an old church and two bridges into the old citadel.
Even though the town itself is small, there are plenty of opulent buildings to serve the needs of the local government. Most of them seem deserted and you can easily jump the fence or walk into the compounds and take a look around. It's worth it too, as there are a few old planes stashed in some of the car parks as war trophy's!
Whilst walking around, i came across a large group of guys engrossed in a game of Co' tu'o'ng, which translates to 'Chess General'. They didn't even notice i was there as they were all so engrossed in the game going on, so i just poked my head into a gap to see what how much money was being gambled.
A couple of the guys did try and chat with me, but with the language barrier making it difficult to communicate, they decided to use the universal language of offering to share some of their drugs with me instead! I think it was opium, but can't be sure, and after politely declining their drugs, offered to take a picture of them instead. Here you go Crime Watch!!!
Getting back to the main story, the plan for the expedition was that i'd get picked up by Oxalis on the Wednesday, so this would give me 4 days to relax and sort my things out. Being a quite town, even though it's a state capital, there's not really a lot to do in Dong Hoi, so chill out i did. I received an email from Oxalis on the Monday morning though, warning me that they were tracking an incoming weather front from the east and we might have to set off a day earlier than planned, so they picked me up on the Tuesday morning, and that's when I headed to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
The national park is massive. Not only is it a UNESCO world heritage site, it is of course now famous for being home to a very large network of caves, including the world's largest. Many of these caves have been explored and mapped by UK caving experts, including Howard and Deb Limbert. Both life long cavers, they've been in Vietnam for over 8 years now. They've helped to explore many caves during their career and quite a few of those are in the national park. Being a day ahead of schedule, i checked into one of the cheaper hotel options available for my first night and was then taken to meet some of the team and other tourists coming on the trip. Just for the record, I have no caving experience, nor a massive desire to become a full time caver, but being on the first ever tourist expedition into the world's largest cave seemed like too much of a good thing to pass up :)
Oxalis runs tours into most of the caves in the area and is operated by a local man Mr Chau who grew up in the village. Deb and Howard, work with Oxalis as technical consultants, looking after training of the locals and acting as guides and technical advisers for most of the trips, whilst taking some time to continue exploring other areas of the park to see what else they can find. That evening, I was introduced to 4 of my fellow cavers, Ben (AUZ), Jake (USA), Mike (CAN) and Siv (NOR). We were just waiting on one more person to arrive, but with 2 nights to go before we headed off, we passed the time with some beers accompanied by some live Irish music at Easy Tiger, Ben's new back packer hostel in town. This was a great evening as Dong Hoi is like a ghost town and sooooo boring when it came to night life! Even though Phong Nha is a small little village, there was a much nicer atmosphere here and Easy Tiger even had a pool table! Word on the street, is that they now have an ATM in town too, which is really handy as you'll need to take a load of cash otherwise.
As a novice caver (it turns out that Wookey Hole sort of counts!), I was advised to visit Thiên Đường Cave, AKA, Paradise cave the next day, to get a feeling for what was to come. This would be a great chance to check out my new wide angle lens (18mm f2.8) that i'd hurriedly purchased in HCMC. So, the next morning, Oxalis arranged for a bike to come and pick me up and take me off to visit Paradise cave. Discovered in 2005 by a local man, then fully explored and mapped by the British Cave Research Association, including Deb and Howard, Paradise cave is now one of the largest tourist attractions in the area.
30 minutes on the back of a moped later and i'd finally arrived at the welcome area for paradise cave. First off, you need to buy your entry ticket, then you've got the choice buying a ticket for a a golf buggy to dive you to the entrance steps or walk it. I opted to walk (10 > 15 minutes) as this saved a bit of money and gave me a good excuse to buy an ice cream. I like ice cream.....a bit too much! So, once you've arrived at the entrance steps, you've then got to climb the 520 steps to the cave entrance. This is a big climb. Be prepared! Once you've got to the top and had your second ice cream and a bottle of water, it's then time to enter the cave! Paradise cave is about 7km long. The first 1km is designed for mass tourism, so it's got staircases, walkways and a mass of LED lighting. When you reach the end of the first kilometre, only approved tour groups are allowed to go in further. It's these further 6km that you need head torches and trousers for, as you're scrambling over rocks etc. Good fun by all accounts, but i decided to pass on this excursion as i was in for something much bigger! It took me a good 2 hours to get from the welcome area to the end of the first kilometre, and by then, I had a much better idea of camera settings and things to expect in general when inside a cave.
So, back I went to Phong Nha village and moved hotels to the Saigon Phong Nha (included in the price of the tour, as are the transport connections to and from Dong Hoi), and prepared for the evening briefing. Denis (RUS), the final member of the team had arrived as planned, so we sat down and had a good old fashioned power point presentation, followed by dinner. Normally, we'd have started with a day in the local cave to do some rope training and to check out all the kit etc, but there was a weather front moving in and we had to set off straight for Hang En cave the following morning, as too much rain might have made a few of the river crossings impassable. The key thing we were told during the briefing for the trip was to pack light. Here's what i took and what i think you'll need;
• Water/Splash proof walking trousers (you'll get wet anyway)
• Sweat breathing t-shirts
• Good thick walking socks
• Good walking boots (make sure they're worn in!!! This isn't the time for new shoes!)
• Gloves (optional/provided if needed, but highly recommended)
• A head torch for camp....handy to have in addition to the torch provided
• A camera (make sure you know how to use it....get a proper lesson before you go in!)
• Lots of spare batteries. I took 2 spares, 3 should be plenty, but if you're snap happy, then 4.
• A tripod. This is a must! Bring your own, no more than 2 tiers needed and make sure it's light but firm. Try and avoid ones with a pedestal option, shake is a big issue with these tripods in low light.
• A water/dust proof bag for your camera. It'll get dirty. Very dirty in fact and condensation will strike, so bring a cleaning brush and plenty of lint free wipes for the lens. If you plan on changing lens', mind you keep the sensor clear, it's not the best environment to clean it!
• A blow up pillow for extra comfort, but your provided ground mat had one built in.
• Snacks....they're on offer, but you may want your own extra chocolate etc
• Sun Glasses
• A Hat
• Sun Cream (this cave has Dolines!) and bug spray for the jungle trek
• Swimming trunks....you may get lucky and find pools depending on the rain levels
• A towel
• Evening entertainment, cards, books, music etc.
Seriously, you only need to carry a very little amount of kit with you. If you only need stuff for camp in the evenings, then give it to the porters to pack, that's what they're there for, but you really don't need much at all apart from clothes and a camera. With all this in mind, I gave one small bag for the porters to carry and took the rest myself. Size wise, I was carrying about 10L of kit and it weighed about 4kg, if that.
So, the day had finally arrived, the 1st August 2013. I was up early to get some breakfast and we were told to be ready for a 9am pick-up. We were taken from the hotel to Oxalis HQ up the road. This was where we checked over a few final things before heading off into the jungle. As this was the first official trip to the cave (a few film crews like the BBC and NatGeo have been inside, previous to us), we were joined by a few VIP's like Mr Hai, the head of the national park. Normally, you need paperwork galore just to even get past the barrier into the park (think back to my VISA nightmare in HCMC!), but with Mr Hai in the car, it only took a few seconds of chit chat and we were waived through. There are a lot of people in the area that really want this tour to do well, as the alternative option is to cut down a load of trees and build a road into the middle of the jungle, and then proceed to build a cable car system into the cave via one of the dolines! This would completely ruin the cave, local area and the national park too. The Vietnamese have been told they'll lose their UNESCO status for the park if they proceed with that plan, and rightly so! The current agreement as I understand it, is that around 80 tourists a year will be allowed onto the tour with Oxalis. Oxalis won the tender process to run the expeditions. This trip is no simple walk in the park, it's a full on expedition, and i'm glad it's Howard and Deb running the tours and training up the locals with Oxalis. They really know what they're doing and there's no messing about. There's some serious trekking, climbing and abseiling to be done. Not to mention the rock scrambling and river walks both above and below ground. If something was to happen, you're days away from the nearest hospital, and safety is high on the list with these guys.
The famous Ho Chi Minh trail is now the main road that runs through the park. As we worked our way through the jungle towards the start of the trekking trail, Ben gave us a great little history talk of the area. He's lived in the area with his wife Bich for quite a few years now and loves learning about the history of the place. One story that stuck was about the American bombing campaign. They use to bomb the side of the cliffs by the trail so that rocks would fall onto the road, in the attempt to make it impassable for the Viet Cong. However, a very organised resistance had teams of people living along the trail ready to clear the debris as soon as the planes had left. Many Vietnamese died whilst driving supplies along the trail until a local girl spotted an unusual tree in the forest. The Americans had come up with a bomb design that had no explosives, but was shaped to look like a tree. Inside the bomb case was a microphone and radio transmitter. As soon as the Americans heard trucks moving on the radio, the planes would arrive to bomb the trail 10 to 15 minutes later. This little girl worked all this out and told the powers that be. They recorded the noise of trucks in an underground garage one day, then played it back next to the fake tree. Sure enough, within 10 minutes, bombs were being dropped blindly all along the trail, but there were no trucks there. As soon as the planes left, that's when the trucks made their move. Genius! Alas, some of these workers who took shelter in a little grotto cave along the trail, became trapped inside during one bomb run and eventually died. It was only recently with the help of heavy machinery that their bodies have been recovered and given a proper burial. There's now a memorial being built, and 8 ladies cave is now a stop for many of the organised tours in the area.
We soon arrived at the start of the trail and met up with the rest of the team, who'd gone ahead with all the kit in a massive truck.....we were in an A/C 4x4 :)
|The start of the jungle trail, off the Ho Chi Minh road|
06 Tourists (including myself)
03 Guides (Howard, Deb and Tin)
02 National Park guys
01 Mr Khanh....the man who originally discovered the cave!
|Fresh meat for the expedition|
|Iron Men porters!|
Having all met at the start of the trail, everyone geared up and we set off into the jungle. We'd been warned that there were loads of leaches along the whole trail to the cave, so make sure you have some thick socks and pull them up over your trousers to help keep them out! The porters led the way. It's a very basic track to follow and not really marked at all, so local knowledge really plays a big part here. It's a 10 minute flat walk into the forest before you hit a step slope that heads down towards the river bed. If the sun's out, then it's going to be hot, although you do have the luxury of tree cover. Rest breaks are taken as often as needed by the group, but it's always good to have a pace to stick with and designated stops to keep on track. On the way down, we bumped into a few of the folks from the village we'd been told about. They were on their way into town for supplies i think. We gave them a wave and exchanged smiles before continuing on down. Once you hit the river at the bottom of the hill, this is where your feet start to get wet. There's no point trying to keep them dry, they're going to get a lot wetter as the day goes on!
We continued the trek through the jungle and across the rivers, eventually stopping for lunch. As the porters are so fast, by the time you hit the lunch spot, the fire is already burning and water is boiling. Drinking water comes from a pump filter system, so you're never short as there are plenty of streams and rivers all along the route and in the caves too. You best get use to sitting on the floor to eat and rest, unless you're quick and manage to grab one of the few rocks at seat level. With all my bounding energy and excitment, i did try to build a bench using my little Letherman multi tool saw, much to the amusement of everyone. It sort of worked, until i fell back and landed upside down in the bushes. It was a rushed job though, so not my finest work. After lunch, it's time to carry on deeper into the jungle. It's here that we came across the last remaining village in the national park. It's a small area of land with a few families living in very basic huts on stilts. The monsoon waters can get so high, that last year, all of their homes were washed away, and they're still rebuilding their new homes one year later with fresh timber. Various organisations are trying to get them to leave the park and move out, but they're steadfast in their desire to stay.
We took a short break here and had a brief chat with the locals whist trying to entertain the curious kids, but then it was time to head on again. At this point, the rivers start to get wider and deeper, so it became much clearer now why we needed to head of a day ahead ahead of schedule. Walking along the river bank in the early afternoon, we came across a heard of wild buffalo drinking from the river, and it's at this point that i started to feel that we're getting more and more isolated. It's late afternoon when we reach out first camp site, which is inside Hang En cave. Again, the porters are already way ahead of us, the fire is going, dinner is on and our individual tents have already been set up and are waiting for us! I've only got 2 batteries for my camera with me, so wanting to conserve power for the best stuff, this was the first time i pull my main camera out. It's a Sony NEX-7 for those wondering.
|The beach area inside Hang En cave - Camp 1|
|Camp 1 all set up|
|Our tents facing one of the many cave openings|
The next morning, we were up for breakfast and on our way around 8am. For caves, especially ones with dolines, or light from the entrance/exit, it's best to work to sunrise/set hours to make the most of the light. We headed off in dryish shoes and fresh socks, only for them to get wet again within 5 minutes. The main river runs though Hang En cave, so again, wet feet time. There's a really low part of the roof here which makes for some great camera shots, but the best is still to come. We cross the river and climb up the rock. It's when we get to the top of this climb that we start to see our first wow factor moment, the exit of Hang En cave.
|Hang En cave exit|
|A tree trunk 80m above ground level carried in by flood waters|
|This is me. If you look closely, behind my left should on the beach area you will see some of the porters!|
|The porters carrying their heavy loads|
|Assisted rope climb. The photo's a little blurry.|
|Waiting at the top of the climb|
|Ho Khanh - Discovered Hang Son Doong Cave in 1990|
|Ho Khanh and me! AKA, team AWESOME!|
|Most of the team, getting ready to enter the cave|
|Rigging up with safety gear|
|Looking back up at the cave entrance after the decent|
To get there, we have to work our way deep into the first section of the cave. About 10 minutes in, we're in complete darkness with only our head torches showing us anything at all. You can hear the roar of the river that runs though the cave echoing all around you, with the odd wing flap of bats now and again that fly around as you disturb their sleep with your light. The most annoying part though is the flies. In this part of the cave, your head torch will attract a lot of them. It's not too bad, just keep moving and you'll be fine. There are some large rocks to climb over, including the 'rocking horse' rock that you need to straddle and shimmy over. Rocks in this part of the cave can be extremely sharp, so again, careful where you put your hand and keep those gloves on! As we head on, further into the cave, the roar of the river grows louder and louder, and it's here where we have to cross it for the first time.
A bright orange rope has been rigged in place for us to hold onto, so make sure you do hold onto it! When it was my turn to cross, I had my backpack on with my camera over my shoulder and the group tripod in my right hand. I entered the fast moving water and started to make my way across to the other side, about 15m away. Just as I hit the middle of the river crossing, the rock i'd stepped on decided to move with my weight, and down I went. Luckily, i was holding firmly onto the rope with my left hand. Combining that grip with my ninja skills and cheetah like reaction speeds, i was able to keep my head above the water level and used the tripod to elevate my camera out of the water, keeping it dry. The force of the water was immense and my back pack, now semi submerged in the river, combined with my ballooning air tight trousers which were acting like floats (comical at all other times), did not help my overall balance. The river level was only waist deep, but the speed of it was extremely fast and very strong. Luckily, i stayed composed and managed to regain my footing enabling me to stand upright again, to the relief the onlooking group over on the other side of the river bank!!! This all happened in the space of about 10 seconds and was over very quickly. Just make sure that you've got a dry bag for your kit and use it when crossing rivers. I'd have been gutted if i'd damaged my camera.
We walked on a little more, then it was time to cross the river again. This time i went across even more cautiously than before, and made sure my feet were well balanced before shifting my weight onto them. The best tip i can give for these river crossings is to wait a minute till after the person in front of you has crossed. They'll kick up a load of dirt when crossing which will cloud the water. This makes it hard to see good footing areas if you follow them, so wait a minute and the fast flowing water will clear the sand and you'll have much better visibility for your crossing. With the river crossings done and out of the way we carried on a bit further in and it was here, a kilometre or so before the first doline in a place named 'Hope and Vision' that we started to see a small shaft of light. This small shaft turned into the amazing view that is, 'The Hand of Dog'. A good spot to rest and a great place for photos. Due to the low light available, a tripod, fast lens and some very patient models are required if you want to get any decent photos. It was here for the first time on the trip that I shouted the word hold, and continually shouted it for 30 seconds whilst my camera shutter was open, to make sure the guys didn't move an inch. Great team effort :)
|Ben, Siv and Jake looking out towards the Hand of Dog|
|Myself and Ben looking out towards the Hand of Dog|
|Approaching camp site 2 (bottom right) near doline 1|
The view from camp 2 was amazing, especially at sunset with the light hitting the clouds inside the cave, so I snapped some more pictures before dinner.
|Sunset lighting hitting the clouds inside the cave by doline 1|
|Clouds inside the cave by doline 1|
|Sunset from inside the cave by doline 1|
Up early again and off around 8. Day 3 is billed as the wow factor day. You get to visit both dolines and see all the amazing views for the first time. So off we scurried and headed the half kilometre to doline 1. It was only 500m meters away from camp 2 as the crow flies, but takes a good hour to get to the main cental area with all the climbing that's needed. Being that there's a doline (a doline is basically a roof cave in/sink hole) here, it's no surprise then to hear that there was lots of rubble too. This is all the rubble from the cave in that created the doline in the first place. There's a lot of loose rock about, so it's one at a time on the way up to make sure you don't hit anyone below. The higher we climb, the trickier it gets. Then, we hit what seems to be a vertical rock face, so there's a rope assisted climb here too. Hang on tight...i stepped on a loose rock (again!) and went flying! I was literally walking sideways across the rock face for 5 meters before i managed to slow the momentum of the rope and regained my footing. Just remember the safety line rule. Don't let go!!!
|Looking up to the sky from the climb up|
|Me and Ben at the top of the doline rubble|
As we entered doline 1, the scenery changed from rocky to leafy. There were plants and green foliage everywhere. This was another great place to take photos. You're either lucky or not in this place when it comes to the weather. We hit it for the first time when it was slightly cloudy and raining. It wasn't raining hard, but it's a weird experience to be in a cave and then suddenly rained on! We stayed here for quite a while taking photos, posing and checking out the views.
|Looking back to the tunnel exit near camp 2|
|Me, standing on Dinosaurs looking up to the sky|
|Jake and Siv on another part of Dinosaurs|
|The view from Gours of Dinosaurs in doline 1|
|Me, standing by the rock pools in Gours, looking into doline 1|
|Gearing up after lunch in Gours|
|Leaving Gours and heading into the Rat Run|
It wasn't long before we were in total darkness again scrambling over rocks in the second section of the cave known as the Rat Run, but the darkness didn't last for long as we started to see light further up ahead.
|The view from the Rat Run looking ahead to doline 2|
|Me, looking up at doline 2 before entering the Garden of Edam|
|Walking though the Garden of Edam|
|Mr Hai looking down into camp 3 from the Garden of Edam|
|Denis looking into doline 2|
The plan on day 4 was to make it to the back of the cave, also known as the 'Great Wall of Vietnam'. It turns out that luck was on our side. When Oxalis has been in the cave the week before to bring in supplies (compostable toilets etc), they'd discovered that the normally muddy back way in, known as Passchendaele had turned into a 20m deep lake. This was probably due to the recent rains, so they were able to plan ahead and bring along a rubber dinghy! Instead of having to traipse through 500m of knee deep mud, we were going to row across the lake instead! So, we were split into teams of 2. Ben and Mike went first being the early birds of the group, then it was Jake and Siv next, followed lastly by Denis and myself. Howard took us both down to the waters edge, through an area known as 'The Sublime to the Ridiculous'. This part of the cave is probably the easiest to walk in, but by far the most isolated. We turned off our head torches for a bit, to get a true feeling for the darkness and isolation we were in. However, this part of the cave is where some of the best sights are to be found. There are gigantic stalagmites, massive cave pearls (some of the biggest ever found in the world) and even new species to be discovered, hence it being called sublime. As we were waiting for Jake, Siv and Tin to return from the wall, we found Deb wondering around the shallows of the lake with a fishing net. The biology department at the university of Hanoi had requested that they try and catch a new species of fish that had been spotted on a previous visit. It was a small (4cm long) albino fish that had not been seen before, and they wanted one as they'd like to study it. So after about 10 minute of trying, Deb came up trumps and was able to land one in her net. It must have been the happiest fish alive, as it was soon introduced to a bottle of pure alcohol which was to be it's new home!
In the distance, we could see a faint glimmer of light emerging. It was reflecting and bouncing of the water, growing brighter and lighting up our cavernous surroundings. It was the boat returning back to base. Whilst we waited for the second group to return, we could hear massive echoes of water droplets hitting the flat and silent lake. All this added to the mystery of the cave and it's certainly not a place for those who feel claustrophobic, or are easily scared by the dark or little cricket like creatures jumping around everywhere! With the second group safely back on dry land, it was time for us to put on our life vests and row out into the darkness. Howard was at the front leading the way, i was in the middle purely as a passenger and Denis was at the back with the second ore.
We rowed back and made it to dry land without too much of an issue and then tried to get some decent photos with Deb and the stalagmites along with some of the cave pearls too. There really is no light down here and a flash doesn't even get close to helping light your frame. You really have to shoot with a slow shutter setting and bring numerous flash guns or lighting with you. We improvised with head torches positioned in some key areas, but didn't have too much time to play around. You need to work fast down here as there's so much ground to cover throughout the day, so knowing how to use your camera properly and having the right gear will really help you out time wise.
|Deb infront of some massive stalagmites near Passchendaele|
|Howard holding a Cave Pearl. These are some of the largest ever discovered|
|Doline 2 from deep inside the third section of the cave|
|Howard leading the way back through the Garden of Edam|
|Doline 2 at the entrance to the Garden of Edam|
|Sunny day in Doline 2|
|Walking back along the Rat Run towards Gours, the clouds move in quickly from Doline 2|
|Mr Hai and Me, walking back to doline 1|
|Doline 1 and Dinosaurs taken from the Rat Run|
|Indiana Ben, looking towards Dinosaurs from the Rat Run|
|Doline 1 lighting up Dinosaurs|
|The view from Gours looking into doline 1, part of the group circled in red to the right|
|Mike sitting near the Oxbow. Lens is slightly misted.|
|Resting outside the Oxbow, on the way back to camp 2|
|Howard and Ben resting near the climb upto doline 1|
|The view of camp 2 on the way back from the Oxbow|
|Card shark porters!|
Today was our last day in the cave. We were heading back for Hang En cave. Howard had checked the satellite phone to make sure we were good to leave, as we were unsure of the river levels outside, but with no message from Oxalis base camp, we knew we were good to continue as planned. So off we headed, back out of the cave. We pretty much left by the same route that we came in. I was walking back with Jake and Siv, with Deb leading the way. On the way in a few days previously, we'd taken some great pictures at the view point for the 'Hand of Dog'. This time, Deb treated the 3 of us to the view from the look out point. We were in complete darkness at this point, so were surprised to be told there was still more to see. We got to the bottom of a steep rock climb, dumped our bags and up we went. The higher we went, the better the view. I can't say how high we were as it's tough to judge the distances in the dark with only your head torch for reference, but it took a good 5 to 10 minutes to work our way up. When we got there, we sat looking at the amazing view of some stalagmites, rear lit by the light from doline 1.
|The view from the look out point in the first section of the cave|
|View from the look out point|
|Jake and Siv lighting up a stalagmite with light from the cave entrance in the distance|
|Deb checking the rope for the climb back up to the entrance|
|Ben and Mike looking down into the cave from the entrance|
|Tin in the cove area near the cave entrance|
|Mr Hangh, Howard, Mr Hai and Deb. Lens was slightly misty|
|Indiana Dunne! Conqueror of Hang Son Doong!|
|The back end/exit of Hang En Cave|
|Hang En exit beach|
|Ben at Hang En exit|
|Me at Hang En exit|
|Ben walking in the river by the Hang En beach area|
We all got into position, took the weight, then went for it. It was a very even match to start with and lasted for quite a while too as we were all digging our feet into the sand. Alas, even though they're a small bunch, they're mighty strong and the porters won the first round. We all took a breather whilst they celebrated their win, only for me to spot a few big knots in the rope on the porters side. Cue massive appeal to the ref! After a lot of tourist team chants of 'cheat, cheat, cheat', the first match was deemed null and void, so we were back in with a chance to take the lead. We re-grouped to discuss tactics and decided to mix things up a little. We kept our anchorman Mike at the back, and moved Jake and Ben to the front to show off a little more size to try and psychology scare the opposition. We finished the team talk with a big american style 'Go Tigers!' which did the trick and suitably confused the opposition into thinking we were well organised and knew exactly what we were doing. So, we all took up our positions, dug our feet into the sand and took up the slack on the rope. Mr Hai counted us in again and off me went. There was lot's of shouting, but no one was cheering for us, it was everyone vs the tourists. Again, it was quite a hard fought match, but they beat us fair and square this time. We'd decided on a best of 3 competition, so we had to win the next one. We changed things up again a little but to no avail. We'd been well and truly beaten. The porters jumped around celebrating whilst we looked on exhausted.
After getting out breath back, Howard then showed us a new game to play. The Japanese film crew that had previously been on the trip had played it with the porters and it seemed like good fun. It was a 1 on 1 game. You weren't allowed to move your feet and you had to hold your opponents right hand with your right hand and not let go. The aim of the game is to unbalance your opponent so that they move their feet or topple over. Howard got us to have a go against some of the porters who clearly had experience. A low centre of gravity is key to winning this game.
|Siv giving one of the porters a run for his money|
This was our last day of the trip (The whole trip is 7 days if you include the training trip we had to skip due to the weather) and a big party was planned for that evening, so everyone was keen to get back to freshen up for the evenings festivities. Everyone, but me that was. I was out for the count, fast asleep in my tent by the time most of the group had set off. I was woken up last (Deb knew i was last to sleep partying with a few of the crew) so had to get my stuff together quickly. I had a coffee, got ready to go and set off with the mother of all hangovers. Deb, Tin and myself were the last to leave Hang En, along with a few of the porters who were carrying the remainder of the kit. As i was the last tourist in the cave, i was asked to witness the forms required by the National Park, to say that we'd left the place as we'd found it. I think Mr Hai was more than impressed with the effort made. Oxalis had certainly done a great job to ensure that no trace of our trip could be seen, and even had composting toilets for us to use along the way. Their environmental green credentials are to be admired.
It was time to leave, and what better way to start your trek then with wet feet! Straight into the river we went, but we knew the end was near. Deb knew i had a stonking hangover, so offered to slow the pace a little, but i was fine marching on and was keen to go for it, knowing what was to come. It wasn't too long before we'd caught up with some of the group and by the time we'd gone back up river, through the village and reached the lunch spot by the bottom of '**** Hill', it was time for a big rest and lots of food to give us energy for the coming climb. This was a well needed break. Even though we didn't have far to go now, the hill in front of us is probably the worst part of the trip. It really takes it out of you and is the last thing you want to climb at the end of a weeks expedition, hence the name, '**** Hill'. But, it's got to be done, so we went for it. Deb, Tin and myself having been last to set off from the cave, waited for the rest of the group to head off before making our ascent. This was probably a good call, as 10 minutes in, it really started taking it's toll on my hungover body. Luckily, Tin was on hand as always with some Coke to give me a sugar rush and a rehydration tablet. This did the trick straight away and i was back on my feet marching ahead. Again, we caught up with a few of the groups ahead as we neared the end of the trail and were back into ant formation. Ben and myself decided to have a little fun with the porters at the front of the group who we knew would be finished and waiting. Just before we got to the end of the trail, we swapped bags with 2 of the porters. These guys had started the week with approximately 60Kg each, some of them were now down to 20Kg. It's some feat in itself carrying this amount of weight across such variable terrain. So we swapped our measly little backpacks for their enormous bags for the final 10 meters. As we emerged from the jungle and out onto the road, we got a big laugh as our attempt at convincing everyone we'd carried the bags up the hill was easily spotted. The panting and sweating was real though!
We all sat on the road at the end of the trail, catching our breath and congratulating each other that we'd made it in and out of the cave in one peace. Hang Son Doong had been officially conquered by the first group of tourists! There were cold beers and soft drinks waiting for us all. I went for a can of coke, the thought of beer made me sick......literally! I had some M'n'M's left over from the trip too (feel free to bring your own comfort food), but hadn't needed the extra sugar rush as we were well catered for, so shared them out amongst the group. Transport consisted of a mini bus and a dumper truck. We crammed as many people in the bus as we could whilst the remainder of the group went back in the truck with the gear. So, back down the Ho Chi Minh trail we went. Along the way, Howard pointed out a steep hill in the distance and explained that it was the back of the cave. The great wall of Vietnam as it's known, is actually closer to get too, but it's an even more challenging trek to reach and harder still to enter and exit from. It's only to be used in emergencies really. It was mad to see how far we'd walked though, as we could sort of make out the shape of the cave in the distance. So, back to Phong Nha we went and soon enough we were back at Oxalis HQ.
We arrived to big smiles from the rest of the team and quickly noticed all the hard work that had taken place whilst we'd been away. A stage had been erected, the red carpet had been laid and very large banner had been hung which had all of our names on, congratulating us all on being the first tourists to have conquered Hang Son Doong! There was a party planned for that evening with lots of VIP's due to attend, so we were told to rest up before the evening fun began. We had another drink here again as we waited for the rest of the group to arrive, then it was time to return all the borrowed kit before heading back to the Siagon Phong Nha for a hot shower.
Showers are something i know very well . Alas, the shower back at the hotel, although well needed and refreshing, only gets a 4/10 on the Simon Shower Scale. The big loss of points here for the Siagon Phong Nha on their shower comes down to the water pressure. Bear in mind, we're in a very remote village here, it was certainly better than nothing, but after a week in a cave, i was quite keen to have my extra layer of dirt skin removed by a power hose! But, showered i was, and in to bed i climbed for a power nap! We were getting picked up around 5 to go back for the party, so i managed to get a few hours rest in, before having another shower to wake myself up!
As we were driven back, the normally quiet road (going from 2 days experience), was busy and heavy with cars. A lot of guests had already arrived, the live music was under way and the drinks were flowing.
A few of us had already managed to download our photos onto laptops, so were busy looking at each others pictures, but that didn't last too long as everyone wanted to chat with us and hear our tales. Everyone was in a great mood, and excited about what was still to come. The music died down and the speeches started. The Oxalis team had put a lot of effort into putting on a great show for all, so speeches were given in both Vietnamese and English. There were local and national newspaper reporters in attendance, as well as a TV crew. The Oxalis team had managed to edit together some of the video Howard had filmed on his GoPro, so we were able to show the guests what we'd seen and experienced at the start of the award ceremony.
One by one, the 6 of us were called up onto the stage by Mr Chau, then the guest of honour, Deputy Chairman of the Quang Binh People’s Committee, Tran Tien Dung, was invited to come up and present us with our awards.
|Ben, Me, Mike, Denis, Siv, Jake, Mr Dung, Team Oxalis!|
|Mr Dung and Mr Chau presenting us with our awards|
We called up the porters to grab some more photos with the whole team, as they played such a massive part in the trip too. After that, we headed back to our seats.
Denis had asked to give a little speech to the crowd, to express his thanks and amazement at the tour. This was translated by the Oxalis team for the locals, then we were all invited to tuck into the massive spread that had been laid on. There was even a hog roast! I mingled with the crowd, met a few of the VIP's and generally just had a laugh with the gang.
|The legendary porters!|
The next day was check out time. I still had some time before i had to head back to Bangkok for my onward flight to Tokyo, so i decided to stay in the area for another night. Ben had been telling us all about his farm stay, run by himself with his wife Bich and her family. It had only been built a few years previously and has already got a great reputation. It's even got working internet! So, Ben reserved me a bed in the dorm and sent his guy to pick me up from Siagon Phong Nha
The Phong Nha farm stay is a bit out of town......believe it or not, on a farm! It combines a mix of western and Vietnamese, so it was great to get some comfort food with a cold Huda beer. After my month in Cambodia and Laos, i'd soon realised after arriving in Vietnam that i'd been spoilt when it came to booze. The beer in Vietnam is terrible!!! Huda is by far the best beer and being a regional brewery, i'd only just sampled it before going into the cave. It was great to have a cold beer with some decent food and internet, so that i could catch up with everyone to let them know i was still alive! Mike and Denis had also decided to stay here, so we all worked busily away on our laptops to get our photos ready to show to everyone. It was also just a great place to chill out before having to head off back into Hanoi. Ben had arranged for the guitarists from the Oxalis party the previous night to come and play at the farm stay that evening, so we were again treated to some great live music.
I had a train to catch the following evening, but Ben insisted we sample a pub lunch the following day before we leave. So, sure enough, the next day, Mike and myself along with a few others jumped into the back of Ben's truck and he drove us up to the 'pub'. I was a little unsure what to expect as we were driving into the middle of nowhere. After about 20 minutes in the truck and having driven through a stream, we'd arrived at the pub. From the outside, it looks like any other house in Vietnam, and it is. There's nothing different about this place except a small sign above one of the doors that says 'The pub with cold beer'. If i remember correctly, the story goes that when Ben first moved to the area, he couldn't find anywhere that sold cold beer. So one day, he jumped on his bike and drove around looking for somewhere that might have a fridge. Soon enough, he came across this place, and the rest as they say is history. Unbeknown to us, Ben had called ahead to place our lunch order. Roast chicken with rice, morning glory and a peanut sauce. Everything was grown on the farm and freshly prepared. The chicken was fantastic and, you guessed it, went down great with some cold beers! There were hammocks out the front, and being quite high up, the views were great. This was the perfect end to my time in Phong Nha, a place i'd passed without a second thought on my way south down Vietnam, but by far the best place i'd been to in the whole country, not just because of the cave. If you're heading to Vietnam soon, be sure to come to this part of the country before it gets too busy, you'll have a blast.
Alas, the time had come to head off back up north. After stocking up on a few snacks for my 15 hour train trip, i said my goodbyes and was collected by the driver from Oxalis for the trip back into Dong Hoi train station. After 6 weeks in Vietnam, it was time to head onto my next destination, Japan. I caught a flight from Hanoi back to Bangkok, where i managed to send a parcel of odds and sods back to HQ in England, before boarding my next flight to Tokyo in search of my next adventure. And boy, what an adventure i had! Sayonara......for now!