November 17-19, 2015
The story is, that in 2005 a local villager, in search of water, happened by a hidden opening in the limestone mountain high up in the hills of what is Phong Nha National Park, situated in the mid-section of Vietnam separating the north and the south. He walked by the unseen cave entrance, alerted only by the cool air he felt emanating from within, and knowing this was a sign of water close by, he worked his way through the thick overgrowth and encountered a parting of rock.
Upon further investigation he discovered the hidden space opened into a deep, wide, expansive cavern of unfathomable size, which after being reported to the government was subsequently named Hang Thiem Duong, which in Vietnamese means ‘heaven.’
As we descend the staircase, built only a few years ago when the cave opened up to tourists, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to stumble upon this. At the time there was, of course, no easy access down into this gigantic indoor crater, as the entrance opens into a fairly sharp downward decline, but light from the outdoors would have at least given this man an idea of the enormity of his discovery. The magnitude of how deep and how far into the earth this cave went, still remained to be seen.
Because of its mammoth size and unbelievable beauty, ‘heaven’ became known as Paradise Cave and it was, until the discovery of the Hang Son Doong cave just a couple of years ago, the biggest known cave on earth.
Once inside, several stories down into the earth, one cannot help but feel as if they’ve entered into another universe. The monstrous stalagmites and stalactites, billions of years in the making, are beautifully lit up, highlighting shapes and textures entirely unique to their process of creation.
The wooden walkway, which only goes for one of the 19 miles that is the length of this underground passage, leads us through a science fiction-esque landscape that for the next hour continues to boggle my mind. I stop to contemplate how deep into the earth I have walked and this thought might have, in other circumstances, given me a slight start of claustrophobia, but looking up and around at the expansive ceiling, which at certain junctures is an unbelievable half mile high, one feels a ridiculous sense of spaciousness inside this completely enclosed space.
If you listen carefully you can hear the perpetual dripping from the earth above you as it stealthily works its way through the the rock, continuing to morph and engineer these grandiose creations at a pace we cannot perceive. There are areas where small currents bubble up from the earth below and areas too, where the water has pooled in an elevated space, that with zero undercurrent and zero air current, creates a crystal clear, glass-like stillness that does not seem real.
In fact, this entire experience does not seem real. Having visited and admired so many gorgeous man-made structures in the last several weeks, it quite simply blows my mind to be in this natural phenomenon, older than time as we can fully comprehend it, that is, quite frankly, about a million times more extraordinary than man could ever create.
I leave this phenomenal sanctuary thinking about that man, and how he probably didn’t get any water that day, but got instead, a legacy that will be passed down through his ensuing generations… a legacy that is in perfect alignment with the Goddess Mother that is worshiped here in this country.
I leave with my own awe of that unfathomable force known as Mother Nature and the patient endurance with which she perpetually molds and shapes this world, which in turn molds and shapes me too… and I am filled with a profound sense of gratitude for being able to stand on and in this glorious piece of earth.
After leaving Paradise cave it’s hard to imagine things getting much more interesting. So when we arrive at the busy entrance area of Hang Toi, affectionately known as Dark Cave, and are given a little briefing about our zipline over to the other side of the river that takes us to the cave, I kind of wonder what sort of Disneyland I have inadvertently landed myself in.
I must inform you now, that I have no photos of this experience past the one taken from the reception area which you see below, because sans an everything-proof Go-Pro, there is no way a phone/camera would have survived the next couple of hours. But luckily, happily and somewhat surprisingly, I did.
Despite their inherent similarities, these two caves (and ensuing experiences) could not have been more different. If Paradise Cave was the refined, elegant older sister, all aesthetic and grace, then Dark Cave is the nitty-gritty, rough and tumble tomboy of a sister… no less charming, but worlds apart.
After our quick zip, wearing our swimsuits and geared up with life jackets, helmets and headlamps we seem ready for anything and I begin to wonder what, exactly, we ready for.
The group climbs from the riverbank down into the cold water and we swim against the gentle current around a large bend that leads us to one of the most spectacular sights. The river abruptly hits a flat, very high wall… a mountain of sheer limestone covered in lush greenery that rises up from the water, and in this wall of rock where it meets the water, a wide mouth appears, and here the river flows out from the earth… and we swim in.
Inside the cave entrance, the river bed soon rises to meet us and we then work our way along a constructed wooden pathway that has been built over the little stream that rises out of the wet, sandy cave-beach. Deeper in we go, walking along this on-again, off-again river that leads us further and further away from the light until finally, the need for those headlamps becomes obvious.
After some time I realize I have missed the moment when the cave entrance is no longer visible and daylight is no longer present. We are deep enough and have made enough turns that without all of our artificial light, the cave’s moniker suddenly has a lot more credence.
With the wooden walkway now behind us, we alternately wade and hike the riverbed and sandy, wet inclines as the water dictates, all the while marveling at this ridiculously wonderful tunnel landscape of black limestone (the real reason for the caves moniker) that surrounds us… every curve different than the last, constantly morphing under the changing light of the headlamps.
Up a steep incline, we reach a path veering off from the ‘main road’ that consists of two very high rock walls on either side of an approximate 3-foot opening. Hiking up and in, the cool sand under our feet slowly starts to become wetter and wetter and I realize we are headed toward the one segment of the tour I had told myself I would opt out of… the mud bath. Not my thing.
But, seeing as we are (necessarily) single file through this maze of rock wall, I cannot back out, at least not at the moment, and so I trudge onward, hoping for a place I can eventually step aside.
In writing this, I look back and cherish how clear and fully aware I was, at that moment, of how rich the possibilities of life are when you let go of your preconceived notions and your unwitting prejudices, and fully surrender to an experience as it’s happening… particularly one that does not hold great appeal.
The movement along this path becomes slower and slower as the mud under our toes becomes thicker and thicker. It starts to move up from your feet to your ankles and then from ankles to knees, and if you land your step in one of a thousand hidden, waiting holes, which eventually you will, you are suddenly up to your waist. Grabbing for the wet, soft, uneven walls provides only the appearance of stability, as the slippery mud throws you off balance every chance it gets.
As we progress deeper, the giggling and shrieks of mis-steps becomes louder, and it becomes impossible not to laugh with joy at the absurdity of what is happening. We are all now minimally waist deep in thick, heavy chocolate pudding, and at certain points I feel stuck, actually unable move forward, and it gives me an experiential understanding of the mythical quicksand of story-book lore.
But we’re all in this together, literally, and the comradarie has amped itself up big time. So with a push from behind or a pull from ahead, we all make it to our stopping point relatively unscathed.
Giddy from the sheer absurdity of it all, we convene in a wide, mud-pool sort of space, all of us dripping and covered in thick, wet earth. The guide talks for several minutes, about what I couldn’t tell you, until he says it’s now time to fully understand the dual meaning of ‘Dark Cave’ and asks us all to turn off our headlamps.
Deep inside this cavern, away from the river and deep inside some rocky outcrop, the darkness that hits you as the last light goes out, is heavy and absolute. It has a thickness to it that almost feels tangible, and to experience zero change in perception between eyes opened and closed, is a very different, very strange sensation… and I like it.
There were moments when the group tried to quiet itself in this blackout, and I hoped it would succeed so as to add silence to the pure darkness alongside the feeling of weighted liquid bearing down on me. I settled for a few moments of relative quiet though, letting the magic of this surreal, virtual night alter reality for awhile.
When it is time to exit, I hoped that this mudbank we were settled in was on the edge of, or around the corner from some sort of quick exit pathway, but no… we have convened at a dead end and turn around to take the same, slow, precarious, muddy walk out the same way we came in. Now however, the river that greets us also helps clean us, and by flashlight we dip and splash and rinse, taking quite an extraordinary amount of time to get all the mud off. It is safe to say I have never had such an epic bath in my life!
Making our way back out and daylight eventually finding its way back in, I ask myself if I’ve ever done anything that wonderfully weird before and I’m quite sure that I have not. Back at the mouth of the cave we kayak down the river to our starting point and I feel so exhilarated by this entire experience. It occurs to me that although I would never have chosen this experience for myself, and that I even hoped to work my way out of it, I am so incredibly happy that it transpired. It is yet another reminder that the path of surrender, the path of least resistance, is the one that holds all the golden reward. Every time.