Sitting at a corner in Oxalis Home, I’m nervous but excited, waiting for the briefing for our Hang Va expedition. It will be the first dangerous and physically demanding adventure I have ever done. Seven of us including myself, our photographer Bao, Jessie (an American woman), two Spanish pilots (Carlos and Victor), and two Dutch high school graduates (Sebastian and Daniel), gather around a table, listening closely to our tour guide Ken. There will be jungle, streams, sharp rocks, caves, snakes, leeches and more.
Hang Va is a cave located in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, and was discovered by Ho Khanh (who also found Son Doong) in 2000. Khanh later took two members of the British Cave Research Association (BCRA), Howard and Deb Limbert, to the cave so it could be explored.
Stay Away from Poison Ivy
After a 45-minute drive, our minivan drops us off somewhere in the national park. With helmets and gloves on, we form a single path as we follow Ken into the jungle.
As the path is flat and easy, we all chat. Ngoc, the national park ranger who is with the group, says: “We have found wild boars, saola and douc langurs in this area.”
Jagged rocks start appearing. We step slowly and carefully, avoiding the sharp edges as we head up a mountain. At some sections, my right hand grips a rock while the other hand searches for something firm to pull my body upward. Sometimes I have to stride over or crawl under dead trees blocking the way. I start breathing heavily and my heart begins to pound. It’s surprising that Carlos is still able to sing. The way down is easier but more slippery.
We have a 15-minute break at a dried-up stream before heading on to Nuoc Nut Cave. Ngoc shows me how to recognise poison ivy and tells me to stay away from it.
At the gate of Nuoc Nut we have lunch. The meal includes banh uot cuon thit heo (steamed rice pancakes with pork), bread and cheese, fruit and several packs of biscuits. Eight of us including Ken sit on a plastic sheet, sharing our meal and stories while the sound of rushing water plays in the background.
With headlamps installed on our helmets, we follow Ken, climbing down through giant rocks stacked on top of each other, making our way to the bottom of the entrance of Nuoc Nut. Then we follow the underground river into the cave.
“Follow me in a single line,” says Ken, his voice echoing inside the cave. “Watch out for the rock formations.”
It’s dark inside. The water is cold and up to my waist. Ken occasionally sings a song. Perhaps, he just wants to break up the creepy and cold atmosphere of the cave.
It’s completely dark. Taking photos is a long process of setting up lights and requires patience. Although Ken always tell the models for our photos to stand still for only 20 seconds, it always takes at least 15 minutes to get an acceptable shot.
Nuoc Nut is huge and in places the ceiling is 50 metres high. Flowstones, stalactites and stalagmites glitter, catching the light rays from our headlamps. Hundreds of different colours intertwine with one another on the ceiling and walls, creating an abstract painting. Ken tells us to keep silent as bats are hanging upside down in the niches within the rocks.
At a flat section covered with pebbles of different sizes, we put life vests on to pass through two deep water sections to head to the cave’s end. The closer we get, the quieter the cave becomes.
There’s a calm pond at the end. The water is limpid. Ken asks us to turn off the lights and be quiet to experience the darkness. I look towards my hands and then at other people standing around me, but I can’t see a thing. It feels like I’m wearing a blindfold. The cave suddenly becomes colder.
“You’ll Get Wet Again!”
We reach the camp that is located at the entrance of the next cave, Hang Va, at around 4pm. The sun is still high in the sky and we are looking for places to dry our wet clothes. I ask Ken where I can take a shower.
“You were soaked in water for a whole day, and you still want to take a shower?” he laughs. “The porters have to get clean water from a stream in the jungle and there’s only enough for cooking, drinking and washing your hands and face.”
Dinner is served when the sun is low in the sky. I’m not sure if it’s because we are all tired or hungry, or the chef is particularly skilled, but everything tastes delicious. There is plenty of food, too.
Night in the jungle is fun. It’s a symphony of frogs, crickets and leaves swinging in the air. We sit at the dining table, chitchatting and playing cards, as none of us wants to go to bed early. Rice wine is also served but only a limited amount to warm us up. My thighs start getting sore.
It gets colder as the evening goes on. We finally say goodnight to one another at around 9.30pm.
The whoops of douc langurs wake me up. The jungle dew is as plentiful as if it had rained in the night. Following the smell of cooking, I find myself hanging around at the makeshift kitchen, watching the chef prepare our breakfast. A porter is hanging the harnesses. Everything seems ready.
I am planning to change into a dry outfit. It’s not because I love being clean, I simply don’t like wearing wet clothes and don’t want to get a cold.
“Leave your dry clothes for the way back to the town. You’ll get wet again,” says Ngoc.
The entrance to Hang Va is next to the camp but the way down is steep and slippery. As I start the descent, I understand the purpose of the harness and ropes attached to my body.
Hang Va is narrower than Nuoc Nut Cave — I have to squeeze myself between the rocks in some sections; yet, the underground river flows stronger and is warmer. Or maybe the outfit I’m wearing is just colder.
The water is a pristine turquoise, reflecting the curling lines and different blocks of colour on the rough ceilings and walls. It’s stunning and yet creepy, like an abstract painting. The sound of the water hitting against the rocks at the back is in tune with the sound of water dripping down from above, breaking the river surface. Carlos is humming Besame Mucho.
At the end of the water passage, we use the harness and ropes again. It’s not high, steep or rough; simply there are million-year-old rock formations underneath, which we are not allowed to step on.
We follow a path created out of metal steps that are placed precisely to avoid damaging the formations, and head to the end of the cave. I open my eyes wide to define what I am looking at and if what I am seeing is real. There are about 10 rimstone pools with numerous stalagmites formed by floating calcite rafts. It may not be classically beautiful, but I cannot stop staring at them.
Ken points at a grey rock wall and says: “The other side of that is Son Doong.” The theory is that millions of years ago, Hang Va and Son Doong, the largest cave in the world, were once connected.
Back at our camp, we take a two-hour break for lunch and pack things up before heading back to the main road to go back into town. My thighs ache more than the day before.
The way back is steep and slippery with a lot of sharp rocks breaking onto our path. However, it’s easier as we get used to it. Sebastian leans his hand on a rotten tree branch before making a stride forward. He falls over and cuts his elbow deep enough for it to bleed.
We wash off the dirt on our shoes and clothes at a stream section where there is a bridge above. I throw a leech back into the stream after catching it on my finger.
Taking a sip of cold beer while leaning my back against the bridge supports, I think of all the other trips I’ve done in Vietnam. Compared to this one they are mundane and boring. As I wonder what I will do in the future, I decide I’m going to return to Phong Nha, but next time I will take the four-day trip to Tu Lan.
The expedition is the toughest of all the tours available in the area, but already I can’t wait.
There are direct flights to Dong Hoi in Quang Binh from both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Visit vietjetair.com and jetstar.com for flight schedules. The journey to Phong Nha from the airport takes 45 minutes to an hour. The standard transfer cost is VND500,000.
Oxalis runs three Hang Va tours a week from two to eight people, priced at VND8 million per tour. Visit oxalis.com.vn for more info. Oxalis also runs tours and expeditions to Hang En, Tu Lan, Hang Tien and Son Doong.
Photos by Bao Zoan / March 2017