My wife likes to let people know that I “hate children”. When I argue that I don’t “hate” them (it’s such a strong word), this Baby Whisperer who I’ve married tries to reassure me that it’s fine and that I should just own it. It’s especially pleasant when she volunteers this information to strangers with children, who are left to secretly wonder if I’m the kind of monster who also hates puppies, cupcakes, rainbows and everything else that is good in this world.
Fortunately for me, N kept her mouth shut when we met an Australian couple with two young kids at the Phong Nha Farmstay. After a couple of exciting forays into the Vietnamese bush (hehe) with this family, we decided to join them on a full-day tour to see two caves in the Phong Nha National Park and although the cost of the tour was pretty steep for us ($100/person; we’re in Vietnam, people!), we decided that spending the day with this family would be more fun than being transported around with a bunch of strangers.
We got up at 6:45am and we were off on our journey an hour later, hopping onto an old American Army jeep and an old Russian motorcycle with Craig (an Australian) and Hung (a Vietnamese local) as our guides. They pointed out wartime scars on the landscape as we headed into the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. During the war, there were no American soldiers on the ground in this part of Vietnam (most of the fighting took place in the south), but they bombed the shit out of it for years, killing civilians and resistance fighters alike. During the day, people hid from bombers in the caves and worked on transporting supplies and building roads and landing strips during the cover of night.
The whole area is still covered with land mines that the Americans dropped during the war. Our guide Hung had deep scars on his arms and face from playing with a land mine when he was a child growing up in this area. He survived, but his four friends weren’t so lucky. Just the day before, two young boys living a few minutes from our Farmstay were killed while trying to pry open a land mine they had found in the mountains. I immediately thought of Bosnia — still deeply scarred from its war over two decades ago — and the chilling skull and crossbones signs we saw there, the international symbol for land mines. You can’t just bounce back from war, and this was a reality I had the luxury of never having to experience firsthand like these people did, and still do.
We wound our way up one mountain road running above lush valleys which fill up during flood season into rushing rivers. The road was perfectly paved now but according to Craig, was still littered with rusty AK-47s and bomb craters until the late 90s when a Frenchman discovered the world’s largest cave, Son Doong (a Vietnamese local had discovered it about a decade earlier but thought nothing of it until a white man came poking around for caves). Son Doong is carefully managed, only allows about 90 visitors per year and costs a whopping $3000 to trek into it, so most tourists opt for the smaller, more accessible caves in the area. In total, cave hunters have found 250 caves in this area, and there are probably plenty more in these limestone hills.
The first cave we visited was Paradise Cave, which is supposedly 1/8th the size of Son Doong and very accessible for everyone with its wooden stairs and walkways. Unfortunately, Iris the five year-old — and the most adventurous member of our group — had woken up feeling sick that morning, so Pip played sherpa and carried her daughter on her back throughout the day, up mountains and over rocky terrain. Hardcore. I’m so not cut out for that shit.
While Nigel and Pip waited outside with Iris, N and I explored the cave with her six year-old brother Monty. Monty almost got abducted by a group of excited young Vietnamese women who all wanted a picture of him because he “looks like a doll”, but the walk through the cave was otherwise pleasant. It was Monty’s first time in a cave and he took it all in quietly in the beginning. By the time we got halfway through the cave and Nigel caught up with us to give Monty a snack of Vegemite (I don’t know how Australians can eat this, much less like it) on a baguette, we were all pointing out the shapes of the rock formations and the animals and things they resembled. I had to admit that this seemingly quiet kid was growing on me fast.
We climbed back into our transport and were off to Nuoc Mooc, a beautiful blue freshwater spring spouting from a deep underwater cave system. They still haven’t been able to measure how deep the cave is, which is pretty crazy. Aren’t they able to measure the depth of oceans nowadays? We walked to a secluded area, where we immediately jumped into the cold water to cool ourselves off. It was perfect. We were at a three-way fork in the river so there were a few currents we had to swim against, but there was a dead spot right in the middle with a patch of sunlight streaming down into the clear turquoise water. If only I had brought along my goggles.
Lunch was spread out under a bamboo canopy on banana leaves, and everyone rolled veggies, rice noodles and all varieties of meat into summer rolls. The usually spunky Iris was passed out on Pip’s lap while the rest of us sat around in a circle and ate in the serenity of the spring. After lunch there was more swimming, and I tried to take as much of it in as I could before we left.
Our final destination was the Dark Cave, where we stripped down to our bathing suits and were outfitted with life vests and helmets with headlamps. We paddled our way to the mouth of the cave, or more like spun around in circles and drunkenly weaved our way there. We split off from the Aussies since Iris was too sick to go on, and followed another group of twenty or so people into the darkness.
The mud was slick and slippery under our feet, and the rock walls we clung onto for balance were razor sharp for some reason. Everyone gingerly picked their way along, some parts so deep that the mud came up to the tops of our thighs. The only light was from our headlamps; we looked down into brown milk chocolate-like mud which covered our legs and looked up into a narrow ravine which tapered off at the top. There was some climbing involved, and some sliding down clay-like slopes into muddy water which covered us in mud from head to toe. The smell and consistency of the mud reminded me of my ceramics classes during summer camp, and I watched as a Dutch guy sculpted a face on the the rock face before swiping off one ear and declaring it Van Gogh.
We walked back towards the entrance of the cave where Nigel, Monty and Iris rested on a canoe, waiting for Pip to return from her swim through the darkness. N and I slipped into the cool water, rinsing ourselves of the mud on our bodies as we swam into the main cavern. It was incredibly dark and I felt minuscule as I followed the bobbing headlamps ahead of me. We stepped out of the water onto jagged rocks which dug painfully into our feet and stood in the darkness as the tour guide explained to us that besides the bats, there are fish, crickets, scorpions and many other animals and insects that call this cave their home.
The bats were nowhere to be seen but evident through their poop which we had to walk through at one point on our way out. We took the long way out with the guide and swam out of the mouth of the cave before climbing back onto our canoes. N and I got the hang of the canoe this time and managed to do a half-decent job of paddling ourselves back to meet back up with our Australians.
The ride home was quiet, all of us exhausted from the full day. I rode shotgun in the jeep with Pip and Iris in the back, and thought about the day. Monty — who was so quiet for the past two days and barely spoke a word to us — had opened up to us and is one of the few kids I’ve spent time with who I don’t feel like running from. Iris was such a trooper, observing all of us quietly throughout the day as she ran a fever and succumbed many times to her nausea. These are the kind of kids who make me not “hate” children, and for once I was glad to have spent the day with these two awesome kids (and of course, their equally awesome parents). And just so you know, I’m the kind of monster who loves puppies, cupcakes AND rainbows.
To find out more about an organization helping to locate and clear land mines in Vietnam (as well as other parts of the world), check out MAG International‘s website here.
For more photos of our time in Phong Nha, check our our Flickr album.