Location: Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam
Today I checked out Phong Nha’s caving system, the one that so many travelers rave about. And you know what? It lives up to all the hype.
The entrance to the cave that we wanted to visit, The Dark Cave, is about a twenty minute motorbike ride away from Phong Nha. Between myself and four others, we had two bikes (one was in the autoshop, something to be expected often when traveling via a used Honda Win). We rented a third bike and followed the dusty signs through the countryside, over the river, into the mountains, and to the caving adventure center. Once there, we paid and signed all the legal forms necessary for a combination kayaking, ziplining, and caving excursion. There was a minor setback where we all had to redo our safety regulation forms because apparently the proper answer to “Health Status?” does not include the following: “fit as fuck,” “ready to rock and roll,” or any version of “healthier than Superman/Pop Eye/UFC Champions.”
But once we’d passed that minor inconvenience and were given lockers, we stripped down to our bathing suits, and suited up in full gear: a life jacket and a helmet with a headlight, which we were warned repeatedly not to lose or break lest we want to pay the $50 fee.
The ziplining and kayaking were pretty standard; of course, adventure activities involving gear are always a little more thrilling in Southeast Asia because you’re just not sure what the safety regulations are. But all went smoothly and I found myself dumping my life jacket into a pile with the rest of the group, and following the tour guide into a huge, totally dark, muddy cavern. As we explored further into the cave, the mud under my toes became deeper, soon engulfing my bare feet. As I followed the six people in front of me, I thought it incredible that nobody had been stabbed by something yet on this trek, a discarded earring or fallen pin. I hoped I wouldn’t be the one to break the trend.
Soon my ankles were completely coated in mud the color, texture, and consistency of a half-melted Hershey’s Kiss. Strangely, though, it didn’t smell of anything but cold, damp air. The path narrowed, and soon it was like I was exploring a thin passageway that had been dug out. Everything was mud: the ceiling dripped thick globs of it, the round rock walls I balanced against as I slipped and stumbled onward were coated in a chunky layer of it, and every step landed me deeper into the muck. Soon it was up to my knees, then past them. And then I was just trudging through a chilly, waist-high mud pool quite similar to the fudge river flowing through Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
The guide told us all to lay down in the mud. When I submerged my body up to my neck, I floated back to the surface. The mud was so thick my legs kept flipping back up from under me and I would on top of the mud again on my back. It was slimy and gross and absolutely delightful. I felt like a kid again, reliving all the triumphant joy of a six-year-old splashing around in puddles in the rain and running to her horrified parents covered in dirt. I was definitely wearing that same grin on my face.
Then the guide asked us all to turn off our headlamps. Everyone lay in the dark, engulfed in the stillness, deep within the anals of the Earth. After a minute, I heard a light splash and the rough slap of someone or something climbing. Then my friend Baby’s voice in the darkness, coming from the center of us all.
“Somebody, turn on your light!” Another friend of mine obliged and to the horror of everyone, there was Baby hunched over on a muddy rock above the rest of us, snarling and clawing at the air. A girl screamed. The headlight was snapped off then back on and now Baby was on all fours like a dog and he howled into the room. This time, everyone laughed and Baby continued his charade, mimicking Golem.
Next, we squelched back to the main area of the cave, where the guide ordered everyone into the icy, black underground lake water. I dragged my feet across the rough pebbles, submerging myself to wash off all the mud (which, by the way, was totally unsuccessful). We then put our life jackets on and swam to the end of the completely-dark lake. I didn’t even want to think of what might be in the water as I doggy-paddled in my vest. I couldn’t touch the ground, but every once in a while I’d feel something slimy brush against me, like seaweed (I hoped). Here again the guide asked everyone to turn off their lights. And we floated in the dark, listening to our own breathing and the slow drip of water hitting water.
Overall, it was awesome and I don’t know if there could be an excursion like it in a Western country. I imagine the health risks involved in that kind of environment, with the mud and the darkness and the tripping over myself through the rocky passages, just wouldn’t fly. So if you’re in Vietnam, definitely don’t miss it! It’s a once in a lifetime chance to get a hands-on experience with Willy Wonka’s fudge river (you know, minus the whole getting sucked up into a factory tube thing).
Rented Motorbike: $4 per day
Dark Cave Tour: $20
Don’t wear any valuables or a super cute bathing suit. Whatever you wear will be forever mud-stained.
- Go with the flow, even if you’re getting all dirty and it’s a little frightening. The thrill is worth the general grossness.