Week 18 – Hue and Phong Nha (part 2)

The week I had with Meghan, Tom, and Patrick was amazing I would never trade in any of those experiences. Yet, in Hoi An, I realized that I was taking this journey down the coast way too fast and I had plenty of time left on my visa. So, I started looking at my guidebook to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything. I looked into multi-day caving/trekking tours in Phong Nha and I decided that it was exactly what I wanted to do. I would be hiking and swimming through caves with only a headlamp. What could be cooler?! I also realized that I wanted to see the Imperial Palace which we skipped in Hue. So, I decided to head back north. The first night in Hue was a bit of a shock because I was back in a bit of a party hostel. I had been staying in guesthouses because they were cheaper with 4 people and had avoided the backpacker crowd for awhile. Now, I was alone again and entered a hostel full of drunk people. The first day in Hue I relaxed because I had been so busy! I also did an interview with a school in Hong Kong. That night, I met two girls in my room that were really nice and we went for a couple of drinks and dinner together.

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Entrance to the Imperial City in Hue

The following day, I woke up and went for a long run around Hue past temples and across beautiful brides. Then, I went to the Imperial Temple with Melanie from the Netherlands. We hired a guide at the beginning and we were in luck because another group of 4 girls were looking for a guide as well so it was really cheap. I was really happy we had a guide because without one we would have been really lost. The Imperial Palace was the place where the old dynasty of Vietnam lived before the French came in and imperialized the Vietnamese.

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Hallway in the Imperial Palace

The palace was divided into parts for women and part for men. It was very beautiful, but many parts where no longer there because they did not survive the war with both France and the US. All of the kings had between 100-200 concubines and all of the concubines also lived at the palace. They had many children with these concubines. One king who was under French rule decided to arm and teach his concubines how to fight. He was hoping to overthrow the french regime with an army of concubines and was almost successful.

That night, I headed back to the train station and took a train back to Dong Hoi and stayed at the Buffalo, which was the hostel where we previously stored out bags. I loved the vibe of this hostel and again everyone was so nice! I met a British girl at the train station named Kim and it ended up we were both going to the hostel so we shared a taxi and then ate dinner together. She was really cool and it was a shame that we only had one night to hang out.

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Tree in the garden of the Imperial Palace

The following morning, I woke up and had a lazy breakfast and then caught the local bus to Phong Nha. There, I was staying at the Easy Tiger and it was a cool hostel that you could only book through email. They had lots of western food, a pool, big bunks, and a huge social area. They even had live music every night. I had a BLT for lunch and then sat by the pool for a couple of hours. I worked on my blog a bit until Nate got back from his trip to Dark Cave. He had bought a motorbike in Hanoi so we hard parted ways for a week, but it was nice to see him and spend a night with him and some Dutch girls that he had been riding with. They were there to see the caves as well, but none were going on my trek. We had dinner that night and played several hours of cards and then I went to bed because I had an early morning the next day.

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Exploring caves in the Tu Lan Cave system

The next 3 days of my trip were some of my favorite in Vietnam. When I had gone south I had researched multi-day tours that went through Phong Nha and realized that I really wanted to do one. They were a bit expensive, but in retrospect it was worth every penny. I booked a 3 day 2 night tour where would hike through the jungle and then explore the Tu Lan Cave System where many of the caves required swimming into the entrance. The best part of this was that the company was the only one that went to these caves therefore there would only be 8 of us there and since they are not touristy caves there would be no lights already set up to illuminate the caves. We would be like explorers only going with with our headlamps.

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We only had headlamps to explore the caves

They picked me up at 8am and then we drove about an hour and a half to get to the cave system. They had a base out there where we could change and store our bags. They gave us one backpack to carry all of the stuff that we needed while hiking and we put the rest of our stuff in a plastic bag that would be carried by porters.  I had to wear long sleeves and long pants at all times to not get cut by the rocks and thorns. Then, we were off! We started hiking across a valley where there were buffalo and cows everywhere and we could see a river headed into the mountains.

Heading off through the valley on the first day

When we reached the river, we had our first experience of going into the water with all of our clothes on. We would experience this a lot in the upcoming days, but the first time where you walk into water with your shoes and all of your clothes on is a bit of a weird experience. Once across the river, we made our way into the jungle.

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Our first river crossing

The trail got much narrower and all of the vegetation got larger. The leaves around us were so large and the trees twisted around in the forest. The mountains were made of limestone, which was very sharp to the touch and I was thankful that they gave us gloves to wear. We began our hike in the jungle by going straight up a mountain, which was no easy task because it had been raining for days and so everything was very slippery. We coined the phrase that someone was “catching a frog” when they fell down. You could tell that the path was not well used because there were many low hanging trees and we had to really scramble and climb over rocks.

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Hiking through the jungle

After hiking for awhile, we came to a hole in the ground and our guide Thang (pronounced tongue) said he had come across that hole that had opened up after one rainy season and decided he was going to go down it. So he tied some string to a tree and just lowered himself down into the cave below. I could not believe that! Never have I come across a hole in the ground and just said, yep lets go down into the hole. He was so small and skinny he could probably fit almost anywhere.

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Some river crossings we had to hold hands so we weren’t swept away

We continued on and it started to rain a bit, but we couldn’t feel much because the trees made a great canopy. We stopped by a river for lunch where they laid down a tarp and set up fresh baguettes, cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, and some snacks and said dig in. After lunch, we made it to our first cave.

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Lunch our first day

This cave was called Rat Cave. In retrospect, it was probably that least interesting cave that we saw and I am pretty sure we did the route in this order on purpose because the caves just kept getting better and better. Rat cave was good though because it was the first real cave that I went into with only a headlamp. Everything is a bit eerier when there are no lights set up. You can really only see what your light is shining on. If you wanted to take a picture you asked a couple of other people to look at the same rock to get a good shot. It is so hard/impossible to get a picture that captures the moment and what we were actually seeing.

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Ready to head into my first cave!

It took my breathe away and it was amazing to think about how long it took to form all of the structures we were seeing. It was a dry cave so we did not have to swim at all and we just walked through the cave and came out on the other side.

Exploring Rat Cave

After Rat Cave, we proceeded to hike awhile longer until we made it to a lake. The background of the lake was a cave that had a waterfall pouring out that created this lake. This was our campsite for the night. The tents were set up on tarps and under a little tarp roof. Off the the side there were a couple of big tables and a makeshift kitchen again under tarps. It had been raining for the rest of the day and would continue to rain constantly until the end of my journey 3 days later.

Our campsite the first night

When we arrived, we quickly changed into swimsuits and took a swim in the lake to wash off all of the grime of the day. The water was refreshing, but the mud to get in was like quicksand. After, we hung out clothes up, not to dry but to maybe let the rain clean the mud off. The tents were quite cozy and we had sleeping bags and mats in them. There was unlimited coffee and tea to keep us warm and we all just chilled and talked around the table until dinner was ready. There were 8 of us in the group, 3 couples and 2 singles. The couples were Huub and Hedwig from the Netherlands who were both doctors, Charlotte and Patrick from the UK who were on a long honeymoon, and Sibbi and Sarah from Germany. The two singles were myself and Jake who was also from the US. Everyone was young and our group got along really well!! Dinner that night was rice with a bunch of traditional Vietnamese food including greens with garlic, tofu, and bbq pork. After dinner, I was beat from the day and went to bed so early.

Dinner the first night

Waking up the next morning looking out at the lake, cave, and waterfall made my heart soar. This was going to be the best day of the trip because we were going to see 3 caves and all of them required swimming. After a breakfast of french toast, we put all of our gear back on including life vests (which Thang pulled really tight like a corset!) We did a little warm up dance and then all jumped in the water to swim to the other side. We were going to begin with the cave that we slept next to called Ken Cave.

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Ready to set off hiking for Day 2

We hiked right up to the entrance and took a couple of pictures before edging our way to the water and began our first swim into a cave! It was so surreal!! We had to go a bit against the current so that we did not get sucked down the waterfall. As we swam we looked back at the entrance of the cave and it was stunning. Swimming further, the cave because dark and again we could only see with our headlamps. We got in and out of the water several time to see different rock formations.

Swimming into our first cave

At then end we got out and walked around in the dry part of the cave. It was very slippery so we had to be careful. I don’t even know how to put into words everything that I saw and the pictures cannot do any of it justice, so I guess you will just have to take my word that it was stunning. Then, we got back in the water and swam out of the cave. I didn’t want to leave so I just turned over on my back and let the current float me out as I looked at the ceiling about me.

Entrance to Ken Cave

We returned back to camp for an early lunch of fresh spring rolls, then we began hiking to another cave which was very close called Tu Lan Cave. Again, we had to swim into this cave. We used our bags to help us float a bit and swam in. We swam about halfway in and then got out and hiked again. On the ground we saw many cool formations by the water including what looked like a  water basin that was formed by drips from the ceiling.

We also saw bones from various animals that had come into the cave to die. The main cavern in this cave was very large and we tried to set ourselves up as lights to get a really cool picture. The exit to this cave was particularly cool because it was very large and you could see the rainforest right outside. We took a lot of pictures here.

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Exit of Tun Lan Cave

Hiking from one cave to the other we had to pass two beautiful waterfalls along the way. The first one was huge! Thang had us sit in the waterfall and take some really cool pictures while we were in there. The following one was a bit smaller and just a series of pools that we had to navigate. At this point, we were so used to being wet in our clothing that we could just walk and play in the waterfalls with no hesitancy.

Our third cave for the day was called Hang Kim Cave. We had to climb over a lot of rocks the reach the entrance of this cave. It was a dry cave to enter, but a wet cave to leave. This cave was full of very big spiders that you could see by the glow of their eyes in the headlamp. There were a couple of tight squeezes in this cave and it was fun to hike around.

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Some tight squeezes in Hang Kim Cave

Then, we were back in the water, but it was a different experience because the current was very strong from the rain and we could not just swim. Therefore, we held onto the way and navigated out way down holding onto the wall. This made it slow going because you were trying not to knock your knees on hidden rocks below the surface. At the end the current was so strong that we had to hold onto a wall on one side of the cave and leap and grab our guides hand on the other edge of the cave and he would help pull us out.

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We had to leap to get pulled out

After the final cave, we made out way to our final camping spot. Again this was near two entrances to caves and right on the bank of the river. I mean you step out of the tent and take one more step you are in the river. Of course it is still raining so we change into dry clothes and they made us a fire to dry out a bit. We sit around talking and we have an amazing dinner. After dinner, we return to the fire. Yet, the benches were not very steady so at one point 2 of the boys and Thang fall backward and roll down the hill. We all were very concerned and then everyone laughed really hard. I still have the image of those 3 pairs of legs just going straight up in the air. The second tent was not as good as the first because the sleeping pads were rock hard!

Our final day, we visited our last two caves. Our first cave was called Hung Ton Cave. It was our final wet cave and it was a bit of a hard one to visit. It was more like an obstacle course in a cave.

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Ready to go our final day!

The current was really strong after having days of rain and so we needed to hang onto the wall most of the time, which was not easy work. In the cave, there were 2 waterfalls that we had to swim and proceed to climb up. The current was strong and by the end of this I was tired and it was hard to walk without slipping.

When we reached the dry part, we walked back into it and Thang showed us what he called cave pearls which are very round shaped rocks that are formed in pools by the drips from the ceiling turning them over and over. There were also lots of bats in these caves and it was cool to see them on the ceiling or flying next to you. You could always tell where the bats lived because under than was lots of poo. To get out of Hung Tong Cave, there was a giant ladder that they had put into the cave. Since the ladder was really tall and a little slippery, they tied a harness to us and a rope to make sure that we didn’t fall.

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Climbing out of Hung Tong Cave

Our final cave was called Secret Cave. I was not sure why it had that name until we were hiking along and Thang points to a small hole in the group and says that we are here. We had to take off our backpacks and life vests in order to fit down into the tiny opening. No one overweight could go into this cave because there were two places that were very tight squeezes. We went down one by one and had to turn and squeeze into the entrance and then climb down rocks into the cave.

This was my favorite cave. It was more compact and all of the rocks were much closer to you. There was a lot of climbing and scrambling, but it was beautiful! There was another bit further ahead that you again had to squeeze through. Thang had to tell a couple of the guys to suck in to get through the hole. Finally, we finished by walked through waist deep water through the rest of the cave. We even saw a water snake! When we finished this last cave I was a bit disappointed because I didn’t want the trip to be over.

From here, we hiked out of the forest and back to the river we initially crossed. You could see the damage to the forest in the region with all of the flooding that they get. This region floods so much that after the rainy season the tour company never knows what they are going to see. Also, the do a lot of work helping the local communities build floating houses so everything is not washed away in the floods.

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Damage from the floods

We then hit the muddiest place that I have ever been. If the mud is not trying to eat my shoes, then I am slipping and sliding. Some of our group just gave up going down a hill that they got on their butt and slid. I took the more squat and try to ski down through the mud. The current was too strong to cross the river so they took us across two at a time. The boats were so small and low to the water that if we made one small movement the boat would start to take on water.

On the other side, we were able to wash off a bit of the mud and go the last bit back the base camp. Unfortunately, right after I washed all the mud off I slipped and face planted on a muddy hill and had mud all up and down my body. When we returned to base camp, we were able to shower and change clothes. Then, they took us to the village for some Pho. Finally, I returned back to the hostel in Phong Nha, took another shower to really get the dirt out of my pores, ate some dinner, and went to bed early. The next morning, I woke up and I face-timed my family back home who were all gathered for Thanksgiving. It was really nice to see everyone!

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Walking back across the valley

These 3 days of hiking, caving, and camping were so amazing!! I think this is definitely a highlight of my trip and I don’t know where else I would have this same experience. My group were all amazing and even though it was raining the whole time it did not dampen my experience. I am so happy I returned up to Phong Nga and Hue! This was also a great way to spend my thanksgiving.

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