Day 42: Phong Nha
Both Flo and I wake up with slightly swollen egos and an adrenaline buzz. That unexplored fork in the path from yesterday’s excursion is but a loaded needle to us, another hit, a toke from the ol’ thrill pipe. We are explorers. The fork must be explored.
Now that we are professional cavers, packing is a whiz; waterproof bag, swimsuits, headlamps, snacks, water. We know where the trail is. We know the perfect tree behind which to hide our motorbikes.
In typical Flo and Dayna fashion, we arrive at the trailhead just before noon, two hours later than planned. What is time these days, anyways?
We stomp down the rocky path in record time until reaching The Fork, and mosey down the right prong. This is the day we find the third largest cave in the world; Hang En.
Compared to the left fork, this trail is somehow more stunning. The dense foliage is low enough for us to sweep our eyes over the sunlit jungle that tumbles off forever until joining edges with the azure ceiling somewhere in the infinite beyond. We walk and the canopy rises, shading us under cool leaves. Trees droop from the weight of stiff vines that hang above our heads and drape to our feet like arthritic curtains. The din of unseen insects drown out our footsteps as our shoes slurp across the muddy forest floor. The path sidles us up against a mountain slashed with crevices big enough to live in and deep and dark enough to shit your pants in. Roots gnarl around grey boulders at the base of the bluff and a rock cliff defying dimension peeks from behind a solid wall of creepers aching to reach the ground.
This is obviously some sort of movie set. And we, well, we are Indiana Jones and his capuchin, we are Tarzan and Jane, we are George and Ursula.
When the blue sky lifts it’s mossy skirt and the muddy ground turns to sand, we know we’re close. Straight ahead, sand morphs into that phony coloured river and on its shore, a couple Vietnamese dudes sit, staring. I toss them a smile and we veer a hard right, following the river farther into the trees and away from accusing eyes. Little rocks turn into bigger rocks, piling up along the rivers edge, which widens and flows straight into…the mountain. Karst rock overhangs the water, which runs deep into the bowels of the mountain until the blue green aqua turns to inky nothing in the void. The cave entrance is split into two by a craggy pillar and above, the sheer cliff shoots for the sky.
We have reached Hang En. Possibly.
Spit flies from our mouths as we sputter excitement and tumble down the rock pile to touch the cool cavey water. It’s deep.
Too deep to walk through, and it flows out in front of us until disappearing from daylights reach.
Our headlamps go on, our clothes off, and everything is shoved into the waterproof bag. We look ahead. Then at each other. Phock yeah. We high five and jump into the water. It’s cold, and our arms paddle straight forward for ten minutes down the flooded hallway, until our headlights expose a magnificent karst cathedral surrounding us. To the left, the ceiling drops, creating a sideways slit of an opening through which the underground river continues. Claustrophobia sits on my chest. I turn to Flo.
“Are you scared?”
“Not at all.”
I feel only slightly better.
I keep my head forward as I swim, but Flo looks back, just before rounding the corner from the last beam of daylight. The silhouette of a man stands at the cave opening, looking after us.
“Just keep going,” Flo says.
But I’m focused forward, and he realizes that I don’t notice the camo-clad Viet watching us disappear into the darkness. He doesn’t mention it.
We paddle through the hair-skimming ceiling, and the cave opens up again to the size of a small stadium. The last glimmer of day has vanished. Here, darkness is not a lack of light. Here, Darkness is an entity, a pulsing creature creeping ubiquitously around us, blackened from Fear and oiled by bat guano. In this underground vortex, dwellers of the Underworld capture the souls of stupid tourists and use them as diapers for their newborns.
Our headlamps peer down the tunnel, cutting through the steam that rises off the water with every breath we expel. Flo’s wading leg hits mine and I feel a kick of comfort. But if our lights go out, it would be blacker than Satan’s soul in here. The Darkness would chew on our flesh for breakfast. Panic swells in my chest at the thought. That, and the unknown that lies ahead, and the unknown that lies below us as we wade through water with no apparent bottom. The legitimate danger of the situation rattles around in my head–what if our headlamps went out, or dropped in the water? And from what we can see in our little beams of light, this tunnel has no end. We don’t know how long we’ve been swimming for now. I’m not even tired though; it must be the adrenaline we just shot up.
Our breathing is almost in sync and I’m positive the gothic gilled cave creatures below can smell my fear from both ends of this beautiful, Hellish pit.
“Okay,” Flo’s voice crackles above our concentrated breaths. “This is getting to be too dangerous. I say we swim for one more minute, and if we can’t see anything, we go back.”
Something recognizable as relief tinges my mood. I nod.
Of course, if this really is Hang En Cave, then it’s the third largest on Earth, and so naturally, we come across nothing but more pitch black tunnel a minute later. We turn around and our arms pinwheel like mad. Familiar stalactites, ones that we passed however long ago, reappear. Then the massive vaulted room, and the low opening. We both know that on the other side, daylight has room to exist. That Creature of Darkness cannot dwell in complete comfort over there. This thought propels us forward and when we first see the faint sparkle of sun shrapnel against the back wall of the cave we shriek with excitement. Well, I do, at least. A minute later the cave opening appears, tiny in the distance, but all my fear is stripped away and left behind to clothe the buttocks’ of Darkness’ spawn, and I swim forward, feeling brave enough to touch the cave walls that moments ago I was convinced were covered in slimy gremlins waiting to pull me into the abyss.
Ahead, the mouth of the cave frames four Vietnamese guys sitting on a rock, glaring in our direction.
We paddle to the rocks on the far left in a feeble attempt to avoid them. They approach us, speaking sternly in broken English. What we are doing is no good, they say. They can take us to the police. The guy in camouflage and military boots crosses his arms. All four shake their heads to the beat of my lame dumb-tourist excuses.
“So sorry!” I chirp. “We didn’t know we weren’t allowed here, we just wanted to go for a hike. We’re going now though. Thanks!”
Dripping in our swimsuits, we fumble for our shoes and clothes and stumble past them to make our escape. One dude motions to the guy in military gear.
“He will walk you out. You cannot be unaccompanied.”
A tour group stands with their feet in the water on the other side of the river, watching.
“Oh, that’s okay. We made our way in alright and we’ll just make our way out on our own. Thank-you though!”
We walk fast. They say nothing. Five minutes later, Camo-Man appears on the path behind us and tramples by without a word.
We’d just been laughing about the situation; how we trekked through the jungle to find a cave and swim through a pitchblack underground river for forty-five minutes only to be reprimanded by Vietnamese park rangers. But as soon as that camo-clad man stomped by, both of us remembered what they’d said–‘we can take you to the police.’ If they decide not to be so lax about our little trespassing incident, we’d have a hefty fine to pay.
For the rest of the hike we barely speak, lost in a spiral of downward thoughts about the kind of trouble we might face once we reach the road.
Would they be waiting there for us? Did they call the police? Do they have the fleet out searching for us in hopes of arrest, to make an example to other ‘brave’ tourists? Will we be thrown into Vietnamese prison and fed plain rice for the rest of our days?
Our minimal conversation consists mainly of conspiracies of what awaits us at the road and what to do. We’re expecting different things, and our solutions are butting heads.
Near the end of the trail, where a thick line of forest separates us from the road, we wait, listening. Male voices are heard nearby.
The police? Vietnamese Mafia? Another tour group?
Partly not wanting to shell out a bunch of cash, and partly not wanting our adventure to end, we take a hard right across the slanted rock and into the tall grass. A big flat stone sits perfectly nestled under a tree, hidden from view from the trail.
It’s late in the afternoon. We sit, whittling our hiking sticks and telling stories. We eat our rations of oranges and then hear voices coming from the jungle behind us. The tour group!
They laugh and chatter, taking photos on the hill not thirty feet away.
Finally they move on and go to the road. A vehicle engine idles–the bus that will shuttle them back to town. Music blares and they hang on the road for twenty minutes while we sit in our little hiding spot in the bush. Then doors slam and the music fades into the distance. Still, we wait. Five minutes later, a single motorbike starts up and drives away. Sounds like we’re out of the woods!
Flo and I pick our way silently back to the path and then hear a fleet of rumbling motorbikes come to a stop close by. Shit! We look at each other.
“We can’t stay in here forever.”
So we pull our helmets from beneath the palm leaves hiding them and walk out to the road. Turning left, a group of bikers are parked on the shoulder at the exact point where our motorcycles sit hidden just twenty feet from the street. Their headlights turn on and they rip on the gas, pulling a collective U-ey and driving in the opposite direction.
Foreigners! The coast is clear! Our eyes meet, smiling, but we don’t dare jinx anything. Pulling the motorcycles from the bush, we ride away, only safe once we reach the city.
The moment we arrive in front of the hotel, I feel big inside, like we just got away with illegally trekking to the third biggest cave in the world, or something.
We find a place with huge comfy benches and stuff our faces with pizza.