The journey began with a drive through fog dusted mountains. Mountains covered in very northern greenery, except for the clusters of banana trees scattered about. The wisps of fog reminded me of my present home in the pacific northwest, but this would be a very different adventure from anything I’ve encountered back home. There were sixteen of us, plus crew. Phung led the way, and Bamboo took on the role of caboose. At first we descended through unextraordinary woods, but when the trail flattened out, we entered a world I’ve never known. The jungles of central Vietnam – of Phong Nha, to be precise – are a landscape worthy of exploration. We had a ten kilometer trek ahead of us. Plenty of time to get immersed in the scenery. I had been slightly concerned that this expedition would be slightly beyond my skill level, but it turns out I had no cause to worry. The group consisted mostly of people in their early thirties or late twenties, there were two older older folks, and I was definitely the youngest. We were naturally split into three groups based on our stamina. I was surprised to find myself in the first group. I suspect I have more hiking experience than some of the others who don’t necessarily live in a hiking dreamworld. But even if it had been very difficult, I would’ve been quite effectively swept along by the flood of wonder that engulfed me for the duration of our journey. It was raining almost from the beginning. Somewhere between the Washington mist and the Florida summer downpour. A proper rain, anyways. And I couldn’t have been more thrilled about it. What good is a jungle trek without a minor deluge? It kept us cool, at least. We also had dozens of river crossings. Some only ankle deep, but others with the water reaching all the way to my thighs. This, too, felt a very necessary part of the experience. Technically there was actually only one river. I asked Phung how many times we had crossed it and his answer was twenty-six, though he’d never actually counted. We had been warned extensively about leaches, and I was wary of them. Just before leaving I had read a story about an Irish girl who had come back from Southeast Asia and had a leach living in her nose for over a month. Not on my list of experiences to seek out. But, after finding the first one on my trousers, I wasn’t bothered. I’d find several more throughout the journey (none on my skin thankfully), and they just aren’t such a big deal. Leaches were an unwelcome specimen, but the dozens of butterflies busily occupying the air around us at any given moment were certainly a cause for awe. The butterflies here are primarily black, with just brushstrokes of brilliant blue or teal, sometimes a stark white. Every once in awhile a huge white butterfly with bits of orange like a ginger cat.
Surrounding our mud filled jungle path were the same tall mountains we had driven past, still wearing their soft fog like a scarf. Sometimes we walked through a maze of tall grasses, sometimes along the yellow-orange riverbed, at times through wet, fern filled forests complete with twisting vines, and other times in open space with views of all of the above around us. For the majority of our trekking I walked directly behind Phung. I’ve found this really bizarre phenomenon where people on tours are afraid to walk very closely behind the leader. So I tend to bridge that gap. I like it too, because it means a lot of interaction with the tour guide. Phung is a twenty-eight year old local with a degree in English. His name means ‘direction’, which I thought to be very appropriate for a man who leads people through the jungle for a living. Names in Vietnam are chosen for their meaning, so when he asked the meaning of mine I chuckled. At least it’s interesting, if not full of hope for my future and character on my parents part. Rae is a Hebrew word meaning ewe, which is a female sheep. Which isn’t especially entertaining until you learn that Bock is the German word for a male goat. I explained that my parents probably just liked how it sounded. He found it humorous anyways and commenced calling me ‘sheep’. We stopped for lunch about halfway to our destination in a minority village consisting of thirty-two people. Our team of porters, about eight local men of various ages, was busily chopping vegetables for our baguette sandwiches and laying out a spread of food on a tarp. We were dining under the roof of the village chief. In addition to filling our stomachs we were given a tour of the village and told about how these people live. Mind you, we’re at least an hour and a half into the jungle. There is no possibility of getting a vehicle here, and they live without power. They seem to have a simple life, and they are very relaxed about the groups of foreigners coming into their homes. We set off again and reached our destination on schedule. Hang En translates as Swallow Cave, and it is aptly named. It is the third largest cave in the world, and it is home to hundreds, thousands, or millions (you count!) of swallows. Despite its large scale, it promised to be a much more intimate experience than other, smaller caves in the area.
Butterflies filled the entrance like a veil. Just adding to the surreal sci-finess of this experience. We passed through them and did one final leach check before pressing into the darkness. We schlepped through more water, scrambled over large boulders, and passed over thick white piles of dust that clung to our wet shoes. The sight of our camp caught me by surprise. It was…amazing. A tiny, temporary town spread on the shore of a cave stretching one hundred meters into the air. It was more magnificent than any cathedral or castle my eyes have ever seen. We had our own turquoise pool, all those swallows overhead, and the unspeakable massiveness of this carved out space. And it was ours for the night. No other tour groups, no multitudes, nobody selling kitschy objects, no fake lights and planned speeches. Just an intimate group sharing an evening in one of the coolest campgrounds you’ll find on this earth. After choosing our tents and learning about the composting toilets (been there, done that) we were free to do what we pleased. Mostly this involved taking a trillion pictures. Some of us scaled the back of the cave for a different view than we had coming in. Surprisingly I was the only one who took advantage of our private, perfectly temperate swimming pool. How many times in your life do you have the opportunity to swim in a cave? We had already been soaked by the rain, and there was a fire where our dinner was being artfully prepared. It smelled like camping and also like delicious potential and it was perfect for drying off. If I had been impressed by lunch, dinner was a gourmet feast. There were over ten different dishes and all of them were superb. And they were all prepared in a cave. Yes, mark me impressed. There was plenty of rice wine to go around, and though I found it hard to swallow, I had just enough to join in the enthusiastic một hai ba, yo! that echoed throughout the cave. Full and happy we sprawled out and enjoyed each other’s company. Sleep came easily and I slept fully. I woke over an hour before any of the other trekkers and just sat silently taking in my still unbelievable surroundings.
Breakfast was spring rolls and crepes with banana, mango, Asian pear, and chocolate sauce, or lemon and sugar. Freaking crepes made in a cave. Inconceivable. I was amazed by these porters. They carried all of our food, sleeping gear, and other miscellaneous supplies in these giant improvised rice sack backpacks through the jungle. And then they have the audacity to be amazing cooks as well. They mostly didn’t speak English beyond ‘hello’ and ‘good morning’, which made me sad because they all seemed so cool. I wished I could speak Vietnamese so I could join in their comradery. Regardless, I think I fell in love with them a little bit. And with our tour guides as well. After breakfast we explored other parts of the cave. We saw the final, and most beautiful, entrance. On its right side was a light mist of a waterfall. Not enough to make sound, but just enough to catch the sunbeams. The butterflies gathered in a thick cloud here, too. They seem to be the fantastical guardians of Hang En. On the ground there were dozens of partial eggshells as well as some fallen nests, and nearby a patch of stalagmite reaching up from the earth. On the way back to camp Phung reached for a handful of water and tossed it at the rocks to our left. Out of the rocks appeared the white forms of fossils. So much intricacy. This whole experience was just one of the most mind blowingly incredible few days. We wrapped up our time in the cave and headed back to our respective itineraries. The trek back through the jungle was no less breathtaking. More than once Phuong glanced back and caught me grinning. He commented on it, questioningly. And quite simply I just have a hard time comprehending the beauty of this world we get to inhabit. It’s so insanely wonder causing and gorgeous. I am always so humbled by my interactions with this kaleidoscope of scenery. The final hour back to the road was explained to us much like the leaches: a less than pleasant challenge we would be facing. However, it really wasn’t too difficult. Not even as difficult as some of the hikes I’ve done in Washington. Despite this, we all cheered a little as one-by-one we reached the top and were greeted with cold beverages.