It’s maybe the fifth day of Tet when we arrive in Dong Hoi. The city’s absolutely empty and almost everything is locked and bolted. It seems we’ve watched too much “Walking Dead” on Vietnamese cable because we expect hordes of zombies to come running from behind every corner. But there’s no one, not even zombies. We came here to see the caves in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, but when asking about transportation the lady at the station mercilessly keeps repeating : “No bus.” It’s too expensive to rent a taxi, so we’re forced to spend the night in town.
The few backpackers here are easily located in a hostel recommended by Lonely Planet. But instead we choose from among a dozen or so of cheaper guesthouses and have the whole building to ourselves. We’re not thrilled, but agree to buy a tour of the caves from the popular hostel. Luckily, there are only 9 people (us included) and the bigger half are Vietnamese. They are enjoying a holiday outing. It turns out we’re in luck, because with the Vietnamese we’re served a different kind of lunch. We think the foreigners do not receive similar treatment but our group’s table is served with grilled fish, shrimp, three kinds of meat, soup, vegetables and lots of rice (duh!). We eat together copying the techniques and following the advice of the Vietnamese. Every time we clear our plates the hosts are quick to fill them up again.
On the way to the caves Marcin predicts that I will enjoy them very much. It’s surprising because I thought the whole trip is for him, a birthday present. Come on! Caves are boring, dark and lifeless (though I admit I have not seen any famous examples before). Or maybe the photos of the caves in brochures are ugly and unappealing? Anyway, the first cave we visit is Phong Nha, the namesake of the park. It’s a 55 kilometers long affair but only a fraction is available for sightseeing. We take a boat to the cave and cruise along an emerald river surrounded by rice paddies and karst rocks on both sides. On our way, we meet a bunch of little nuddies navigating their own boat. When we finally reach the cave’s mouth, the motor’s cut off and we’re steered inside. Suddenly I begin taking photos faster than a Japanese tourist. At the same time, I’m much inclined to make noises like an eleven-year-old girl who’s about to go on a very big ride. The cave is imposing, cosmic, psychedelic and magical. All that’s missing (but we hear it in our heads) is the monotonic voice of Werner Herzog narrating the epic scenery.
To enter the Paradise Cave, our second destination, we have to climb innumerable steps, surrounded by jungle. At the entrance there is another staircase, this one leading down. The cave’s much more spacious and its vastness is stunning. We’ve heard it’s the longest dry cave in the world but again, only a kilometer or so is available for tourists. There is no water but we think this cave is more beautiful than Phong Kha and feel a bit like in a cathedral, wondering what a concert would sound like here.
Upon return, we feel very tired but very, very happy. If we had a few thousand dollars to spare, we’d go to another cave in the park, which may be the biggest in the world. So big, you could fit a whole battleship in there. There’s a tropical forest inside, “flying foxes” and huge pearls. Sounds like a mad dream. The point is, even if you weren’t impressed with the photos we took, there’s still an opportunity for you to convert. When it comes to caves, I believe.