After returning to Hanoi for a few more days, it finally came time to leave the North. My friend Martin and I loaded up on a night bus and headed south towards a village called Son Trach near Phong Nha-ke Bang National Park. Located in the North-central highlands of Vietnam, Phong Nha was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 2003. The national park contains 400 million year old karst mountains and massive cave systems. In fact, the largest cave in the world, Son Doong, is located within the national park. It is more than 3 miles long, 660 ft high, and 450 ft wide. While we heard there had been some bad weather in the area, we decided to risk it. Spoiler… bad idea.
We arrived at about 5am and after some breakfast decided we would rent motorbikes and check out some of the caves. We met up with Colleen who had arrived a few days prior, and the three of us took off around noon. We decided to do the most adventurous cave first since we were unsure about the weather. After a 45 min drive through the beautiful mountain roads and lush jungle we arrived at Hang Toi, ‘The Dark Cave’.
This is one of the few caves that requires a guide, so we waited until 3pm until our group of 20 was ready to go. To prepare you strip down to your bathing suit, put on a harness, a life jacket, and a helmet with a flashlight on top. Then we climbed up a tower on the banks of the Song Con river. From there we connected our harness to a 400 meter zipline and flew over to the other side. Once there we all had to take a plunge into the icy river and swim to the entrance of the cave. There is a wooden walking path at the entrance and within a few hundred meters you realize why it’s called ‘The Dark Cave’. The whole group switched our headlamps on before once again plunging into the subterranean river inside the cave. It was a very eerie experience. The cave was pitch black apart from the 20 head lamps and you couldn’t see the bottom of the river. You could feel the enormity of the cavern surrounding you, and the ceilings must have been 200 ft above us. We followed our guide for another few hundred meters until we pulled up on the banks of the underground river. From there, we were led through a labyrinth of internal trails. At times the walls got tight, and anyone with claustrophobia would have had serious anxiety.
Eventually the mud started to come into play. First it was ankle deep, then midway up the calves, then knee deep, and finally you were wading in mud up to your waist. Finally we made it to the popular mud chamber where thick mud is INCREDIBLE. It looks like you’re chest deep in melted milk chocolate and the consistency to match. Also it’s buoyant and when you put your legs up and recline back, it feels like you’re floating in space. It was an amazing experience and we spent about 15minutes playing in the mud. We then headed back out to the entrance of the cave. That’s when the rain started and the real adventure began…
(Unfortunately I could not bring my phone or camera on the adventure so I don’t have pictures. Unless you had a GoPro, your gear would have been destroyed)
We could see the wind and rain as we approached the exit of the cave. It was a disheartening sight considering we still had a 45min motorbike ride back to the hostel. What made it worse was the trip we had to make back across the river. The three of us were put in the shittiest inflatable kayak and were given 1/2 a paddle each. We then had to fight the wind and the current to get back to the other side. It was a pain in the ass. Finally we made it onto the bikes and headed back. By this time it was dark and raining. Not ideal motorbiking weather. After 30min we arrived at a back road that was turned to 6inches of thick mud. After a grueling 200m drive we arrived at a downed tree that was blocking the road over the river, which was now currently UNDER the river. About 5inches of water was already rushing over the top of the asphalt path and the river was rising every minute. We had two choices, either risk it over the river or turn back and go 90min the other way. We decided to go for it. I know it sounds dramatic, but it was honestly pretty terrifying in the moment. Instead of driving we walked the 200lb bikes across the rushing water and it was BRUTAL! Even with 2 of us dragging one bike, the force of the flowing water was pulling both us and the bike over the side. Luckily we managed to drag both across and carry on. Looking back, it was definitely one of the sketchiest moments of the entire trip. If anyone had slipped or if the water suddenly had picked up we could have been carried over the side into the rushing river in the dark. Not necessarily where you would want to be. BUT we made it, so it’s nothing to dwell on and it was obviously a great idea.
Unfortunately the dark cave was the last we would see. After a night of rain the caves all closed. Colleen took off the next day and Martin and I had one more day and night (or so we thought). With a quick break in the wet weather we took our motorbikes to a local pub aptly named ‘The Pub with Cold Beer’. It was a tough, muddy ride up to the pub but we did run into a giant group of ducks who were enjoying the weather far more than we were. They brought some joy into our lives. The pub was famous for their fresh chicken and you had the option to actually kill your own. We saw a video from a few Canadian guys partaking in the gruesome practice and promptly lost our appetites. Murdering chickens was not in the cards for me. Instead we had a couple of beers and headed back.
That evening the real rain began. It started POURING and did not stop for hours. The next morning we began to worry about our 3pm bus as the water on the roads was already ankle deep. We were supposed to be informed that the 3pm bus was now leaving at noon, but sadly that news never reached us. The woman at reception she said she had ‘tried to find us, but couldn’t’. This was astounding news considering we had not left the building during the flood and she had not left the reception desk in 4hrs. The bus had passed and we were stuck.
The rain continued for hours. Eventually the water in the streets was almost waist deep and the locals drove boats down the main road. It was quite the flood and it took another 24 hrs for the road waters to recede. We managed to catch the 6am bus out and were happy to leave the floods of Phong Nha behind us. It was an interesting and, at times, dangerous stop on this great adventure.