By: Derek Swanson
For a week in early June, I had the opportunity to chaperone the Year 12 trip to one of the most pristine locations in Viet Nam. Leaving the Monday after the Saturday graduation, the students were excited to depart on their last school event together to our primary destination, Hang En Cave, the third largest cave in the world, near the Viet Nam town Phong Nha in Quang Binh province.
Our flight left in the morning, arriving in Hue, in Central Viet Nam. As we were landing in Hue, it was apparent where chemical defoliant was dispersed half a century ago. Soon after we landed, the students and I were met by our tour leader Shi. We boarded a bus and headed north out of Hue toward Quang Tri province, which is where the 17th Parallel, the demarcation line between North and South Viet Nam in the 1960’s and 1970’s, is located, making Quang Tri the southernmost province of the former North Viet Nam.
Chay Lap Homestay was rustic (the water for the bathroom was brown at times, frogs and spiders paid visits, etc.), but in a great location and with amazing views. The host family was friendly, and they served a massive dinner/breakfast everyday.
In the morning on Tuesday, the group set off for a short hike to a cave that was used as a shelter during 1960’s and early 1970’s to manufacture wine for the troops fighting throughout the region. On our way to the cave, we passed through a neighborhood where many of the local people were working on the processing of the peanut crop that had been harvested. Husking of the shells to get to the bitter, unroasted nut is an intensive manual labor effort, which the people would be paid 12.000.000 VND for their effort (~$600). The countryside on the way to the cave was riddled with bomb craters, and the trees throughout the area were all imported from Australia, due to their ability to grow with relatively short roots, due to the application of chemical defoliant in the area years ago. The cave itself was small and narrow, but tall in height and steeped in history. There were carvings and messages that remained through the years. The hike helped to figure out who in the group would have better success during the full day hike out to Hang En the next day. After the hike, the group boarded the bus for a quick journey to the Dark Cave zipline and recreation area.
The Dark Cave area was great. A 60 second zipline run over a valley and river to the far bank, then a quick swim through a river cove to the mouth of the cave. The main part of the cave was large, stretching back several hundred meters, with a river running through; however, the feature of the cave that is the most memorable is the small passage that lead eventually to a room of deep, natural mud. In the pitch black, being able to sit floating suspended in mud with my legs crossed under was incredible. The hike back out of the cave was a muddy mess, but the water of the river rinsed us quickly. Arriving back at the river, kayaks were waiting to paddle to a recreation area of the river, complete with a smaller set of two zip lines into the river, and floating structures. The length of the day and the variety of activities offered made it seem like two completely different days.
Early the next day, it was time to make our way to Hang En cave. Part of the crew that took us had been working with the ABC show Good Morning America the week early as they broadcast live from the cave for their show. A bus delivered us to the head of the trail leading to the cave, in all a 10 km hike to the entrance of the cave; however, my FitBit reported over 30 miles traveled over the two days. Hiking through wilderness, up and down several mountains, and through knee deep rivers was refreshing, as there is a surprising lack of nature in the 9 million person city of Ho Chi Minh City.
A lunch stop half way through was set up and cooked by porters, who hauled a large amount of gear to accommodate our group. From about three kilometers out, the entrance to the cave was visible, making the last part of the trip energizing and a bit easier with the goal in sight.
After a short break in the entrance, the smaller group I was with climbed to the top of a heap of rocks that leads to the main chamber (430 feet high and 495 feet across). Looking down on the campsite was indescribable, as the sounds of the cave ecosystem filled the air. After working our way down the mound of rocks, we crossed an area where the river, warmed by the sun outside, met the cold water welling up from underground. After a full day of hiking in the sun, a swim was quite refreshing. In both the river and the spring were the Dr. Fish, like Owen and Oliver love to have munch on the dead skin of their feet.
After drying off and changing, it was dinner time. A tarp was set up to keep the cave ecosystem from contributing to the meal. Wearing headlamps to see, made for an incredible meal. A campfire, with marshmellows and guitar playing made for a memorable atmosphere. To top everything off, a full moon filled the upper entrance to the cave, nearly 500 feet up, with the silhouette of palm trees and vines against the moonlight, with a thundercloud to the side with bats flying out for their nightly feeding was amongst the memories that I will carry with me forever. As the evening wound down, I settled in to my tent, with the noises of nature surrounding.
Early the next morning, I went with several people to the top of the cave, up the mound leading to upper cave entrance. Looking down from the full expanse of the cave gave it a greater perspective of the space. Breakfast was hurried as there was more hiking to the back entrance of the cave, which was nearly a kilometer following the river to some degree, but again over several naturally formed cave in mounds. After exploring along the way for nearly an hour, it was time to return to the camp, pack up, and head back to the trailhead. The hike back was equally inspiring, with large stone mountain jutting into the sky on all sides. Several water breaks, lunch, and plenty of sweat led the group back to the trailhead where cold drinks were waiting. The bus ride back to the homestay was a quiet one, as everyone was tired and reflecting on the time that they had spent together in the cave.
Back at the homestay, a shower was a necessity. Then we had an evening of music, karaoke, dancing, and fun, as it was the last night of the trip.
Traveling back to Saigon was the objective of Friday. A stop over for lunch in Hue, then off to the airport was straightforward and completed with relative ease. The flight was delayed from Hue to Ho Chi Minh City by several hours, but a cafe had plenty of seats to accommodate.
Rebecca, the boys, and I will return to Viet Nam, with this trip being part of the agenda. It was a trip of a lifetime, and something that I have to share with the rest of the family.
Couple of write ups about the cave: