Early morning ride
I really did not want to be up and ready by 7 am. Sometimes, there is an urge to not disturb the perfect harmony between my laziness and the warmth and coziness of bed, perfectly crushed by unbearable ever-persistent phone-alarm, which cannot be snoozed for more than 10 minutes.
At sharp 7 am, I was picked up by the tour bus, I had signed up for a one-day Tu-Luan cave excursion. There are caves in Phong Nha which are open to the public but most of the other caves are not accessible without a guide. It was drizzling, and clouds were hovering over the hills, so close as if you could touch them. We had a light breakfast at a riverside café and then we started on an hour-long drive for the cave.
Our Tour Guide
We were 11 members, Dhat and Qhua were our tour guides and they kept us busy with their curiosity to know the world and to show us the best of Phong Nha. We were on the HCMC trail, passing through the DMZ that separated the North and South Vietnam during the war. The trail passes through the Phong Nha National park, which houses primeval rainforest and eventually leads to Laos. Dhat told us that this part of the trail took three years to build and was meant to be a runway, however, only one flight ever took off, to bomb the American Naval ships at the nearest port.
The bus dropped us at the office of the tour operator. We were given shoes and safety gear and we were off to the cave after a brief session. The trek had started.
It was raining throughout our walk to the cave. We were drenched, and our shoes were heavy with thick layers of mud. There were paddy fields and grazing lands as far as sky could cover and an eye could see. Everything was shrouded by the fine droplets from the mist. The nexus of babbling brooks crisscrossed the farmland in pretty patterns. It was quiet, and the only noise was from gushing winds, purling water in the ravines and droplets falling on the paddy. It was music to the soul.
After 25 minutes or so, we crossed a river, water levels reaching up to my belly, drifting in its direction. It was fun. After crossing two more streams and completely soaked, we started climbing up the hill, a steep 50-meter climb covered with mud and flora. We all sledded and slipped and somehow managed to reach the entrance of the cave. It was a gigantic dark chamber and we were standing in its mouth.
It is called the Rat Cave. We marched in and it was a different world altogether. The cave formation goes back 350 million years in time. The impeccable stalagmite and stalactites were unbelievable. It seemed like someone had taken the water out of an ocean and I was seeing the imprints left behind. There were formations resembling corals colored by algae and moss. The guide showed us cave pearls – an exotic phenomenon. Calcite deposits start clinging to a sand grain and are shaped by the water dripping from the ceiling of the cave, giving it a perfectly round shape over centuries.
I was seeing the artistic mastery of nature which was left untouched for millions of years. I was beyond ecstatic. We were the only explorers in the cave. At that time, the guide asked us to turn off our helmet lights. It is difficult to define that darkness that ensued. How hard I tried to see, I saw nothing. It was dark beyond the darkest I had ever seen. There was silence. We could hear each other breathing, we could hear the wind gushing into the cave and droplets trickling down from the ceiling. It was one of the most humbling experiences. This is what sapiens must have heard and seen when there was no fire. This is how the blind see the world. It takes seconds to become aware of the privileges that we have.
After Rat cave, we moved out and started for another cave which has an underground river. We were back in the rain and mist. We walked through mud, crossed a river and climbed another steep 80-meter of forest thicket, holding on to rocks, stems and roots, and protecting ourselves from leeches. The guide had warned us to not touch the poison ivy which we encountered only once. After the steep climb and then climbing down, the view opened to a valley covered with hills on four sides. It was pristine, untouched and serene. We crossed the valley and said hello to buffaloes which were left by the natives to graze. “They will return in a few days to take them back”, the guide told.
We climbed up to the mouth of the second cave. There was a narrow ladder which we needed to take to reach the cave. Beautiful icicle-like structures were hanging from the ceiling, bulky stalagmites were hanging from the ceiling and almost touching the ground. The cave formations are always work in progress, the continuous dripping of water and the depositing of calcite make them grow 0.3mm every year.
The cave has a waterfall which is formed by the river while getting out of the cave. We put on our life vests and started to swim. For a beginner like me, who still could not swim to save her life, I could manage with a life vest.
Once we reached near the waterfall, we diverted and swam another some 100 meters to reach the camp where lunch was arranged for us.
The tour itinerary is to swim one more channel to get out of the lake, however, our group was a tardy one. We were behind schedule, which meant no swimming.
After a heavy lunch, while listening to the travel stories of other members of the group, we headed back. We were back at the office at 5:30 pm. They had arranged for showers.
We were dropped at our respective hotels. I had dozed off thinking about those beautiful, untouched caves and marveling at the fact that I was able to swim.
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When I had gone to Phong Nha, there was only one agency, Oxalis Adventure tours, allowed to undertake guided tours. If you are searching for a guided tour, you could contact them. I had written to their email id and had done the full payment in advance.