Not until I went to book the bus ticket for Phong Nha from Ha Noi, did I realize that I might miss my early morning flight to Beijing the following day when the tour ended. My flight to Beijing would be at 8.45am from Ha Noi, the tour would finish at 5pm the day before in Phong Nha, the distance between these locations is almost 800km. For a moment I was thinking of canceling the tour and going somewhere instead of spending 3 days sleeping in tents, exploring caves. However, the idea of living in the jungle was so tempting that I made up my mind “just do it”. I paid one-way bus ticket to Phong Nha first, thinking there would be a way to deal with this fucked-up situation later, I was positive.
There was a bad experience with tourist services in Hanoi when I was trying to purchase the bus ticket that I think I should write down, for in the south of Vietnam, we are used to fixed-price bus services. Following the recommendation from Oxalis website, I went to the booking office for my bus ticket where they charged me 471.000vnd (1usd=22.400vnd). I had read several articles and known that price was just around 300.000vnd. I refused to pay that nonsense price and went to check with other booking offices nearby and the price went from 471.000vnd to 350.000vnd, to 320.000vnd, and eventually 300.000vnd in the fourth agency I tried with (those were prices for the same bus, there was no quality guarantee for such price range).
Arriving in Phong Nha at 4am after 10-hour journey, fortunately, the bus dropped me at a hotel where they let me use their sitting room and wifi for free at that early hour. Then I got time to think about how to get back to the capital – Ha Noi on time for my flight. Buses were crossed out definitely, for only fixed schedule transport could guarantee punctuality, which means train and airplane were two options left. Lucky me, there was a train scheduled to arrive in Ha Noi that day at 4.50am. Perfectly! I booked and paid online immediately. Half of the problem solved, because from the village to the train station in Dong Hoi which is 100km I had to figure out a way to transfer, there was no public transport.
The sky was getting brighter but no sign of the sun. I was relieved a bit after managing to book that train ticket. I turned to talk to a traveler sitting across the table. He is Polish and on the way exploring Vietnam for 5 weeks. We got along pretty fast and decided to roam around together looking for breakfast. The breakfast seemed so short since we talked too much instead of eating. It was only my third bite of the bread that the pick-up car arrived sharply at 8am and the tour guide was searching for me among all travelers in the area. I asked the tour guide to wait for me a couple of minutes to finish my breakfast and also finish the talk with the Polish guy. I quickly ended the interesting conversation with the Polish but not my breakfast, then followed the tour guide to the car. Oh shit!!! There were like a whole car of 8 people waiting there already. I felt so bad to make them wait, but surprisingly, the tour guide was patient enough just to sit and wait for me without pushing me to hurry up. How kind and considerate of him! I had a very good impression of the tour guide from the first encounter and through his way of welcoming and introducing about Oxalis and the adventure tour that we were about to take on.
When we arrived at the jungle entrance where Oxalis’s office is located, one of the staffs called out to look for me and gave me her phone to talk with someone on the phone, the sale girl of Oxalis had told her to do so. I was really grateful for their support. I had shared with them my situation, so the girl on the phone was calling to offer me their private car service with 660.000vnd, it was too much so I already turned down, then she called again to tell me that she could help me book a cab with 400.000vnd sending me directly to the train station after the tour finished. Only few hours I would have no access to the outside world for 3 days, so I just held on to whatever was offered to me at that moment. Everything was solved right before the trek set off. My positivity stood by my side again.
The trek kicked off after a quick safety briefing and distributing trekking equipment. Each would get a water-proof bag, a burlap backpack, hiking gloves, thermos bottle, hiking shoes, helmet with a torch.
The weather was still very moody, passing the last month of winter, not to mention it was sprinkling for that whole day. We walked through the lush green pastures where local people left their buffalos to graze and lazily chillax on the greenery carpet. I stroke up a conversation with Sean – the Chinese guy from Shanghai. Unlike many Chinese I had met and talked to, he was definitely an exception. He had, indeed, traveled a lot to see things, to gain experience and knowledge, not just to be here and there. When I mentioned about one-child policy, he replied it was a good thing for Chinese overpopulation but he didn’t really care since he already had three kids, and he paid the fine of around 260.000rmb (=38.000usd).
We shortly approached the first cave by crossing Rao Nan river. The water level was quite low so we simply walked by, making our way up to the hill into Rat Cave. Local people gave it name Rat Cave, for during flooding season, the water level went up to the cave entrance and all rats in the field would hide themselves in there waiting for water to recede. Our tour guide – Dai had given us a head-up that the trek of the first day would be tough and require lots of energy. It didn’t worry me at all, since I had been working out and preparing well for this trip. The caving through 300m Rat Cave was pretty easy, for a moment I was thinking hmm…seriously he called this tough and difficult… We shortly made our way out to the other side of the mountain chain, looking down to La Ken valley where we had a picnic lunch by a river bank.
Around the lunch site, there were lots of poison ivy. Dai warned us not to touch the leaves, especially don’t ever think of using it as toilet paper due to its seem so smooth skin and large size, otherwise we would regret for ever…hmm…a picture would not make me regret though.
The trek began after 30-minute lunch break.
When we reached Lom Com mountain, where hell really began… The total trekking length was 7km crossing through Flat Rock peak and Mango peak, finishing at Tu Lan Valley. Like I did mention from the beginning, there was no sign of the sun, it was sprinkling the whole day, and the worst part was that the trails were completely soaked in heavy mud. The route left the valley quickly and wended its way through rocky slopes, slippery alley and a number of cliffs. The rocks were damn hard and sharp, just a slight impact could leave me with sharp stabbing pain and a huge bruise. I’d got like several bruises on my legs. And I believed half of the trek through these mountains we literally had to crawl or use our both hands to hold tight to the ground, otherwise we would have fell down to the denseness or broken our bones by hitting the rock. My mind was put on alert stage all the time that I didn’t even have time to see the jungle, listen to the sound of nature singing, and I kept asking myself “What am I doing to myself, why do I always have to do this to myself, man?” you know this kind of question would come up some time when you travel alone or take on adventurous journeys. Later on, I found out that the rocks were marble…that explained a lot. Finally, we made our way out of the jungle and enjoyed the easy trek through the valley for 2km where we started to hear the water burbling, smashing somewhere ahead and to see some colorful camps dot the way as well. Horay!!! We made it to the first campsite, finishing the first day trekking in mud and sweat. The waterfall and the pool were the best treatment we needed at that moment. The campsite location was terrific. We finished the afternoon on a relaxing note with rowing and swimming in the cold water.
By the way, my first time got sucked by a leech, I was terrified to find it on my wrist relaxingly feeding itself, immediately I flicked it and it seemed to have sucked enough blood, thus easily let go of my wrist and left a reddish mark where my blood poured out for another 15 minutes. Usually when a leech attached itself to your skin, it would release sort of anesthetic to numb the bit wound, which was the reason why I had no idea when it had started to suck my blood. And due to the anti-clotting enzyme that it secreted from saliva, my blood kept seeping for several minutes after the leech was removed.
Dinner came at the right time when we were so starving after a day full of activities. It was a huge yummy feast cooked by local porters. The night curtain fell down quickly covering the whole valley in darkness and thick white frost. We all gathered around the campfire to warm ourselves and share stories. Interestingly, we had two Indian pilots working for Qatar in the group. Their insight stories about being a pilot and working for Qatar were new to me. Thanks to modern technologies, flying an aircraft these days is a lot easier than in the past, all you need to do is to support the computer with manual acts and the aviation safety has been improved near to its max level where everything is measured, controlled and predicted beforehand. Long time ago, to navigate an aircraft, a pilot had to slide down to a cabin at the bottom of a plane where there was a hole for them to look through with binoculars, and this was how they made sure that the aircraft was on the right track. Working for Qatar had given them chance to earn a fortune as they shared and they were taxed free for what they had earned. However, everything comed with a price, they didn’t have any insurance, the working contract was mostly short-term and could be terminated anytime. Fair enough! Oh, one more thing, they and their family members could travel to all places through Qatar airlines and just have to pay the tax fee of the air ticket. The German couple working for Audi shared with us some stories about their job too. There were very few car designers in Germany like less than 15, for each new Audi model, every designer involved only knew their part and had no idea how a complete car model would look like until everything was put together. Audi has always gained in popularity and been known for its good quality as well as luxury models, however, in 1999 Audi had to withdraw a car model due to its design but not technical errors, the brake system had acted unpredictably. The night went on with few more chitchats and we quickly withdrew to our own tent.
Each of us was provided with two sleeping bags, however the shivers still came through my sleep for the whole night. The morning arrived with a wake-up call from Dai at 8am. I was struggling with the sleep to drag myself out of the tent to breathe in some morning fresh air. Shortly following the breakfast came the exploration into Ken Cave from which the water flew down forming the small waterfall near the campsite. We were supposed to swim into the cave, however, the weather didn’t seem to support our trek much, there had been no sign of the sun for two days and the temperature went a bit low to 12 Celsius degrees.
We decided to avoid going down to the water as much as possible, so there was an option of rowing on a boat. We rowed for only 200m and walked for 300m to explore the cave. Ken Cave is the longest one, 3000m and thereabouts, in Tu Lan Cave system and the only one that we couldn’t go through to the other side, because the water level had risen up covering the path. The cave left us in awe at its size, since the entrance and the walking path was quite narrow with lots of broken or forming calcite stalagmites. The ample room was huge and very spacious, the group decided to switch off the light for a moment and keep quiet to feel the darkness and listen to water dropping.
We then returned to the campsite for lunch with yummy summer rolls – specialty of northern Vietnam. We continued the adventure to Tu Lan cave shortly after the lunch break. To get there, we had to cross the river by boat. When I was already safe on the other side of the river waiting for the others, looking at the small and unstable boat, a thought of it flipping over just came across my mind. And there came the boat carrying the Indian and our tour guide – Dai. While the Indian was trying to put his foot on the edge of the riverbank, suddenly the boat moved offshore which made him stay put for a while to balance the boat, but just few seconds later and here came the most hilarious moment of the day, he lost the balance and flipped the boat over which made both him and Dai fall out into the water. Just minutes ago he was complaining about his dried shoes getting wet because there was water inside the boat. We were all laughing our pants off, witnessing the incident. I know it was so mean but it was also damn funny, especially Dai’s facial expression was like “Da fud…how could it happen, just put your damn foot on the bank and quickly leave the boat…why do you have to flip it over when we are right at the bank”.
Everyone just had a good time, then we continued to explore Tu Lan Cave, there was nothing special in this cave, we just took a short walk and didn’t put any effort to get in there.
Moving to the next cave, we had to trek for 1.5km. The route was much relaxing and easy, often passed through forests of banyan, palm, oak trees, etc. This trek perfectly balanced nature contemplating and physical dimension. We passed through gorges, forested slopes and a number of stream crossings. The path leading to Kim Cave was rocky and 10m increasing in elevation up to the entrance. The exploration into the cave followed by 500m walk and 450m swim. Swimming in the darkness and navigating myself to find the way out of the cave was a fascinating experience, not to mention, the water was super cold, but just for the first few minutes and once we got warmed-up in the water, we didn’t really want to get out of it, since it was much warmer in there.
Shortly after the cave exploration, we moved on to trek through To Mo valley for another 500m and again swam across the river to reach the second campsite which was more spacious and had a bigger pool.
It was an excellent alpine trekking after all, we did have enough time to explore the caves, view magnificent sceneries of the jungle and have fun activities along the way. Dinner came with another huge feast which was even more delicious. I didn’t touch any rice to save space for all good food served on the table. The weather was even colder than the night’s before. We had to gather around the campsite, tried to dry our shoes and clothes for tomorrow. I came to sit and talk with the porters who had taken very good care of us throughout the trip. They were cheerful and friendly guys, they kept asking me lots of questions about my journey, how much I liked it here, and they even taught me some dialects that they were using the whole time to communicate with each other. Most of the time I had thought they spoke Vietnamese, it was just I hadn’t paid enough attention to get the meaning of their conversation, however, lately I realized that they had spoken their dialect which sounded familiar yet completely different. They told me funny stories from other trekking groups like there was a 180kg man that couldn’t get through a cave entrance, or a picky man who didn’t want his shoes to get wet finally ended up tripping down to a river.
The night went on, I came back to join with the group and we started to quote some lines of my and also their favorite movies like Madagascar 2, it was really hilarious “Attention, this is your captain speaking. I have good news and bad news. The good news is that we will be landing immediately. The bad news is we are crash landing. When it comes to air travel, we know that you have no choice whatsoever, but thanks again for choosing Air Penguin.”
I woke up early before the wake-up call, actually even before Dai was awake to arouse our peaceful morning. It was our last day so I didn’t want to waste time sleeping too much. I walked around the campsite, went down to the river to feel the coldness and deeply breathe in fresh air. Last night, we all left our shoes and clothes around the campfire to get them dried, as a result, we found a burnt shoe in the morning. While we were enjoying our breakfast with pancakes and fried rice, Dai happily informed that we would start our first activity of the last day by swimming through the cave in front of the campsite. Holy shit!!! In this weather and this early morning when we had not done enough warm-up exercise…yes, here came the worst thing of the trip.
One by one we dragged ourselves down to the cold water…the first went down uttering a huge OUCH…there came the second with another huge ouch…eventually we were all in the water swimming upstream for 100m passing the waterfall to reach the ample room where there was a 15m ladder climbing up to the entrance of Hung Ton valley.
After the short trek across Hung Ton valley, Secret cave was the last challenge. We were all astonished by the size of the entrance. You literally would never think of it as an entrance to a cave with spacious room inside, it was just small enough to squeeze your way through.
Here we came to the end of a 3 amazing day trip in Tu Lan Cave system. Early afternoon held the returning trip across Rao Nan River, back to the beautiful pasture and to the office where hot shower and clean clothes were waiting for us.