McKayla has been revved up and ready for the Phong Nha caves from the minute we set foot in Vietnam. All it took was a short bus ride from our hotel in Dong Hoi this morning and then we were in another little mountain town tucked in the hills. However, this place was deserted compared to Sapa, or most any place. What this town lacked in population (never a bad thing), it made up for in caves and beauty.
The bus dropped us off in downtown Phong Nha and we easily found the Midtown Hotel ($12/night). We spend our first day lining out our cave visits. The boat dock was on the north end of town and since town was only 10 blocks by two blocks,navigating was easy. Phong Nha Cave is accessed by boat and there were other caves we could get to by that same boat. Others would need not only a boat but also road transportation. We did our homework and came up with a plan; a plan that we actually stuck to – crazy!
That first night I was tasked with making some friends so we’d have people to split the boat cost with; the more, the merrier/cheaper. Even though we made it next door to the Easy Tiger Hostle (where most tourists/backpackers hang out) and stayed for happy hour, I just wasn’t feeling social. Instead, McKayla kicked my ass in cribbage and we went to bed knowing only ourselves. The next morning, we made our way down to the docks on the north end of town to get ourselves a boat to take us into Phong Nha and Tien Son Caves. We decided we’d hang out and wait for boat mates. Even finding two more people would cut our boat cost in half (it was $30 for the boat rental). So we waited, and waited. Nearly an hour and a half went by and we saw no one except a crazy amount of bored workers ready to sell anything and everything. Just as we were considering renting our own boat, eight more people showed up. With ten people on board, we were ready to make our way up the Song River.
On our way to the caves, we got to meet a German couple, Max and Lori. We hit it off almost immediately and ended up spending the next few days with these two bouncing around the park, sharing meals and swapping stories.
When we got to the entrance of the Phong Nha Cave, the captain killed the engine and she and her first mate began paddling us into this giant cave. The cave opened to these huge, well lit rotundas and we just sat back and floated through this beautiful, silent cathedral. The cave had been used as a hospital during the wars but it was hard to imagine what this place would be like without electricity, guided only by torch, lantern or, most likely, flood light.
At the back, they dropped us off to check out some stalactites and mites. Some of these were stunning 30 foot columns stretching from floor to ceiling. I’ve always found stalactites/mites fascinating; it’s like nature’s ultimate tag team: a slow drip for millions of years to connect into a column. If water stops flowing from tite, either breaks, the mite grows in a different direction, etc… they won’t connect. There’s a life metaphor in there somewhere but I’ll leave it to someone more philosophical than myself.
*** If either stops reaching for the other, both fail. – McKayla’s attempt at the life metaphor Nate is looking for.***
Next up was the Tien Son cave. As it turns out, it’s just straight uphill from the Phong Nha Cave. McKayla and I arrived before anyone else and had this massive cave to ourselves for a few minutes. A long, wooden staircase led us down into another huge cave system, filled with some more great tites and mites hanging off 100 food ceilings. The only sound that was made were the creaks in the stairs from our footsteps. Another beautiful earthen cathedral. Both this cave and the last had occatioanl patches of neon. At first, it just looked like different color light bulbs shining on but we’d read that it was real neon. There were bright reds, greens, blues and purples shining subtly and sometimes brightly out from these rough rock surfaces. Just a cherry on top of some incredible caves. The only thing that would’ve made these better, would be to have sections without lights; portions you’d have only your light to wander with in these huge, open and naturally pitch black spaces. But it was still pretty great.
As soon as our boat docked, Max, Lorie, McKayla and I sought out some dinner and beers. We had a really nice dinner sharing our travel stories, talking about being married while traveling and getting to know each other. Normally, when we meet people, the conversation stays ‘on the surface’ (where are you from? What do you do back home?etc). With these two it didn’t take long before we were sharing embarrassing stories, talking about our families and making plans to spend the following day together.