The town of Phong Nha is smaller than its name. From the deserted stretch of the road where the bus deposited me before rumbling away, I could see one end of the town to my left. On my right was the other end. It was just that one street, with a clutch of hostels and restaurants on both sides. On that blazing September afternoon, the only ones on the road beside me was a pair of hungry looking dogs.
I came to Phong Nha (pronounced Phom-Nya) because I wanted to see the caves. The Phong Nha Ke Bahn national park in northern Vietnam is home to the world’s largest cave systems. I wanted to do some serious caving there, but the size of my wallet did not match my enthusiasm, which pretty much ruled out the world’s largest Cave – Hang Son Doon. It costs upwards of USD 3000 to go there. For that kind of money one can probably fly around the world a few times. But there were other caves, the ones which did not cost in four figures, or even three figures.
The most popular is the Paradise cave, known for its amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations. Its a fair way into the jungle, so I rented a scooter and took off.
These parts are anyway sparsely populated, and after I left the town – which was within thirty seconds – the road wound into deep country. After crossing a few villages and a stream, I was in the jungle. You have these low and craggy limestone hills jutting out of thick forest, covered in a deep green and primal looking wilderness. The last few kilometres are absolutely wild, with a river gushing besides the road and tall cliffs on both sides. You can hear crickets when you kill the engine. Quite ominous.
To reach the cave entrance one has to buy a ticket and hike up for about half an hour. They don’t really tell you about this part, and I was painfully reminded of how unfit I had become at every turn. The entrance to the cave does not betray its size. You go in through a a tiny hole in the cliff wall, and immediately feel the temperature dropping. It was like stepping through a waterfall. You descend a wet wooden staircase, with water dripping all around you. You still can’t see much as your eyes adjust to the dim lighting inside. After a few turns, the huge planetarium-like cavern comes into view. Gigantic twisted stalactites hold up a crooked ceiling, water dripping alongs their veins and pooling at their feet – fifty feet below. Old and warped, they belong to a different era, frozen skeletons of primal monsters, held in place by some ancient spell.
The lighting is quite dramatic, casting shadows, highlighting cracks and crevasses, instead of flooding the whole place. As you reach the bottom, you start to appreciate its size. You could fit an entire opera house in here. And this wasn’t even one of the biggest caves.
After the main cavern, the cave extended in a tunnel, to more stunning limestone formations. The touristy bit extends to a kilometre, after which the wooden walkway and the lights run out. You could book a special tour and foray another 6 KM inside, but that tour was closed. At the end of the walkway there are a couple of benches. I sat there listening to the dripping of the water all around. Impossible to imagine that these gigantic hollows were sculpted by nothing more than this dripping water.
The next day I took a boat to the Phong Nha Cave. This is very close to the town and hence quite touristy. I went and bought a ticket and sat on the boat. The river ride to the entrance was pretty uninteresting – I had had my fill of muddy rivers in Vietnam by now – but thankfully it was short. The cave entrance was a fierce, almost man-made slash in a sheer wall abutting the river. We rode in through the opening, and switched to smaller boats. These were tiny canoes, so unstable that they would wobble every time someone sneezed, and so narrow, that if you are someone who needs extension seat-belts in aeroplanes, your butt probably would not fit.
The river ran right through the cave, and the canoes drove us in. We passed an overhang that was so low that we had to bend our heads. This cave was smaller, but the river added an ethereal, almost Jules Verne-ish air to the place. The only sounds were of the oars breaking the surface, and water dripping on water. It was cold, damp and misty. The white lights glowed like ghostly orbs shimmering in the mist. The pitch black water played with the reflections.
The ride lasted about twenty minutes, and the boats deposited us on a sandy bank close to the entrance, to explore the interior on foot.
I wandered inside for a while, came out and had a weird lunch from the locals consisting of ice-cream, boiled eggs and cup noodles, and took the boat back to the town.