6.5 Hours Underground – Phong Nha, Vietnam

It was pitch black. Close your eyes no difference black. Put your hand in front of your face and it can’t be seen black. “Now walk forward,” a woman’s voice rang out from the darkness. With a defined lack of certainty the group walked forward. “Follow my voice,” rang out (possibly) ahead of them. The attached body was two or 15 meters from them, he could not tell.

He had spent the last two hours underground with the light of his headlamp, his six co-trekkers, a guide, and two porters. Now, per the guides instruction, all light sources were off in this section of the cave that stood 50M high and just as many wide. 

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After stepping through the darkness for (possibly) a few minutes his head began to hurt; he felt pressure constricting inwards and then outwards. He started to feel dizzy, almost like motion sickness. “Follow my voice – other parts [of the cave are] not safe.” ‘What, other parts aren’t safe?!’  The group continued to walk the flat floored section of Paradise Cave as his senses wavered from lacking any visual or physical reference points. It was like being in the sensory deprivation tank. Down in the cave he was with only strangers, bugs (some unique to Paradise Cave), a water bottle, and miles between them and the exit to the earths crust above. After walking for an uncountable length of time (the guide said about a quarter mile) the most terrified member of the group turned their headlight back on, much to the relief of the whole group. It was relieving to have AA batteries give meaning to the world around them. Sight is his most valued sense.

The group continued on/in. Winding into massive cavernous caverns and through rounded hallways, stepping between stalagmites and stalagtites, avoiding trenches and other deformities on the ground, and going up and down mounds became normal. The 26 year old Vietnamese woman, who led tours of of this cave since it opened to the public seven years ago, stopped them frequently with an insistent, “Come here please.” She pointed out geological formation and showed them how to make music using the formations in the cave. 

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After a couple hours underground they reached the only sign of human life in the cave thus far – a rack of life jackets. They strapped up to cross the 100m lake – the only way through the cave. Two kayaks floated gear across while the visitors to the underground world floated and walked through the cool underground lake. 

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After another hour of walking they reached a hill of boulders leading downward. The porters rock scrambling ahead to prepare the array of rice, tofu/meat, veggies, and bananas. The group saw natural light for the first time in more than three hours radiating down from an opening in the cave ceiling 70M above. Water droplets cascaded through and created a mystical rain setting. The Californian had seen something like this before: in movies. He stood below as the water danced down onto him. He physically looked skywards and mentally looked inwards and contemplated the events that brought him here.

30 hours prior he sleepily stumbled off a sleeper bus from Hanoi and walked across the empty street in the quiet town of Phong Nha to Easy Tiger hostel at 4am. He passed through the open lobby, the pool table, and the pool to reach a wooden frame structure currently supporting a dozen occupied hammocks, with extras nearby. He strapped up to a post and slept until 8am check-in, ate breakfast, and went with a group of strangers on an outing to Phong Nha Cave at 10:30am.

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A group of backpackers walked 15 minutes up town to the river for a 20 minute boat ride to Phong Nha Cave. Phong Nha cave was used during the war as a secret base for storing supplies, as a triage center, and shelter. Once the cave was discovered by the Americans the Vietnamese stayed safe from missle drops above due to the protective mountain above and attacks from the front due to the caves tight positioning along the river. The entrance to the cave is only five meters high while the inside raises more than 40 meters at various points.

The engine was killed and the boat paddled 1500 meters down the river passing stalagmite and stalagtite formations illuminated by massive lights. He helped paddle back towards the entrance and they unloaded from the boat and walked the remaining 400 meters out passing great formatiations along the sandy path to the mouth of the cave.

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The group trekked two miles back to their trailhead. They passed through the gate and past the guard and up the one KM wooden pathway through the fully (artificially) lit caverns. The tour guide gave her final fliteraiously aggressive jabs as they walked to the cave entrance.

  • “Do you have a girlfriend?
  • “Do you want a Vietnamese girlfriend?
  • “What if I was your girlfriend?”
  • I will constantly poke your sides in a flirtatious manner reminiscent of youth.
  • “You are strong. You carry me,” I am going to hold onto your arm while you try to climb these last 100 stairs after we’ve been hiking for 6.5 hours

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They returned their helmets, their lights, and were driven 45 minutes back to their hostel. Easy Tiger’s nightly 6pm alarm blared signaling one thing: free beer until the keg is killed. This sets the tone for the remainder of the night as the beer garden plays host to live music and lively conversation. 

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The first night of his stay, after Phong Nha Cave, drinking with a group appealed to him. The second night of his stay, after Paradise Cave, it did not. Scrambling over rocks. Weaving through stalagmites. Walking through a dirt field. Swimming through a lake. That felt like true adventure. Finding the bottom of a pint and sharing words and making new friends, that felt effortful. When the exploration is good, it does not feel like effortful. It feels like you are living and doing, not that you are in a compulsory task oriented mindset of checking the box. The amount of calories and energy he exerted in the four mile round trip trek that day underground felt like less effort than strapping on his extroverted personality and entering the beer garden. 

He started to try to figure out why he did not want to extrovert but realized he had no one he needed to justify his rational to. His feelings were just because they were his own. He felt it less effort to leave a night early and take the four hour bus to Hue. He took control of where he put his efforts and boarded a bus and left town – free beer is only a strong magnet a majority of the time.

“I have never done this before- showing up in a city past midnight with nowhere booked to stay. I guess I am becoming more okay with the unknown,” he explained to his new friend that has been traveling the world for seven years. Their conversation wavered from passions to plans until the cabin lights turned off and sleep overtook them. As he drifted off to sleep he looked at himself and observed growth and change. 

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