If I had to describe my experience in Phong Nha in one word, I would definitely have to go with ‘muddy’…
So apparently it is rainy season in Vietnam, a fact that I must have overlooked during my research process… The main draw t0 Phong Nha are the nearby caves in the Phong Nha-Ke National Park. But due to all the recent flooding, many of the caves had been closed to visitors because the water level had risen too high.
The first day was raining pretty hard so I hid out in a near by cafe – reading, writing and praying for a break in the rain so I would get to do some exploring.
Some of the caves reopened my second day but I was still holding out for the Hang Toi aka “Dark Cave” which is supposedly the best one to experience, but the water levels were still too high for that one. I decided to take advantage of the free bicycles from the hostel and explore the surrounding area a little. What started out as a nice leisurely bike ride turned into quite the adventure.
There was a near by pub “Pub with the Cold Beer” about 7 miles away. I am not a huge biker but I was led to believe this ride would be a breeze. Well due to all the rain the majority of my ride consisted of ankle deep mud pits and flooded out roads. I had to get off and walk my bike more than I actually rode it. At least the points where the river had overflowed and taken over the road gave me a chance to clean some of the mud off of myself. If I wasn’t trekking through mud and water, I was battling super rocky and unpaved roads on a rinky dinky little bicycle barely fit to handle sidewalks. I was genuinely shocked and relieved the chain didn’t snap right off.
I did have to stop and laugh at myself along the way. Here I am in the middle of some small rural town in Vietnam, that had just been recently flooded by a typhoon, riding around on this rickety little bicycle that is about to collapse beneath me as I trek it through the mud, a river and rocky broken up roads, while dodging cows, dogs, chickens and little children chasing after me – all just for the heck of it (and a cold beer).
I was determined to get to this pub though. Finally, I had made it dripping sweat, covered in mud and my feet soaking wet from the river. The beer was cold though and it tasted like success. It was a cool little zone over there – hammocks everywhere, a volleyball court and great food. I recuperated there for a while and then set out on my way back. The way back seemed way easier, but isn’t that always the case. When you know what lies ahead, it makes for an easier journey.
One more day of waiting out the rain and relaxing at the hostel either by the fire pits they had set up, the pool or in the hammocks – reading, journaling and having some good ol’ quality me-time. Sometimes I find myself feeling guilty for “lazy” days – but then I remind myself that one of the reasons I came out here was for time for reflections and self growth. I need to honor that and respect that you don’t always need to be active to be productive.
Eric and his friend Martin showed up the next day and the Dark Cave was finally open. They took the night bus in and arrived at 4 am and were not able to check into their rooms until noon. So with little to no sleep, these boys were real troopers for the day.
We rented motorbikes, Eric was kind enough to let me just jump on the back of his. The ride up was beautiful – a thick, dense and luscious jungle surrounded us on all sides. When we arrived we had just missed the tour before us so we had to wait around until 3pm for the next tour. The weather was looking a little ominous – we were hoping the rain would hold out.
First you have to zip line across the river, which was really fun. Then you have to swim into the cave, the water was pretty darn cold and it wasn’t a particularly warm day either- that part was not so fun. They you get into the cave and it is completely dark – hence the name. You need to wear headlamps because they don’t fill the cave with artificial lights. Exploring the cave was a very unique and cool experience – almost a little eery.
There was more swimming involved inside the cave and that water was even colder and less enjoyable. Then you start trekking through this ooey gooey muddy path. First it’s just ankle deep, then you’re sinking in up to you knees, then you’re struggling along as it’s up to your thighs and then eventually you are in a mud bath that is up to your shoulders. The consistency reminded me of a pool of melted chocolate. I wish it was – I would have gladly eaten myself to death in there. It did remind me of some bizarre outtake from Willy Wonka.
The mud felt like nothing I’ve ever experienced. You could float in it. It effortlessly held you up. It didn’t even feel like you were floating, it felt like you were weightless, bobbing up and down and rolling around. It was an insane and ridiculously cool feeling. It literally made me giddy – I couldn’t stop laughing.
Then our guide had us all turn off our head lamps so it was completely pitch black, absolutely no light. I don’t think my eyes have ever experience that kind of darkness. You were suspended in this mud, weightless and unable to really feel your body and not able to see anything at all. It was an unreal and out of this world experience. I took a moment to breath in that feeling. I could have stayed there for hours just suspended in a what seemed like a different reality. Also it’s supposed to be excellent for your skin. I did feel pretty radiant afterwards.
After the mud came more swimming in what now felt like what I assume the temperature of the water Jack and Rose had to deal with in the Titanic . Then we had to “kayak” back to land. I use the term kayak lightly because it was a glorified raft with these tiny half paddles. The three of us couldn’t seem to figure out the weight distribution and ended up paddling around in circles more than once.
Because of all the swimming and mud pit, I did not bring my camera with me on this little adventure so I have no pictures to share. This one will just have to be stored up in the old memory bank and you’ll just have to take my word for it that is was a pretty sick experience.
We got back to land and quickly got on our bikes. The sun was now setting and the rain had significantly picked up. I’m not really sure how Eric could see anything (but he was handling it very well – while I don’t think he was particularly thrilled with being responsible for my life on the back of his bike, I did feel completely safe.) We turned off to a rode that was just calf deep thick ass mud. At this point it is completely dark out and I have had my fill of mud for a while. We had to walk the bikes through the mud, maneuver them around a tree that had fallen down across the road and then walk them through a river that had flooded over the road. I wasn’t too concerned but Eric later shared with me that I was inches from being swept away by the current. Then up another hill of thick ass mud. We finally made it back to the hostel for a well earned hot shower and beer.
The next day was another rain-out. I escaped Phong Nha on the afternoon bus to Hue and successfully avoided the flooding that the boys had to endure for the next few days.