Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas in a Cave

By the time our three-leg journey to Vietnam touched down in Dong Hoi, our trip already included two 'firsts' for us:
  1. There were three of us! (Juli's niece Siera joined us for this trip as a birthday gift)
  2. We were missing one of our backpacks!
Turns out that Juli picked up the wrong backpack off the carousel in Hanoi, and none of us noticed as she carried it to the domestic terminal and checked it for our third flight. Although the airline alerted us by email to the problem before we took off, our attempts to convince the airline staff to leave the bag off our plane were unsuccessful, so some poor other person had to wait an extra day to get their bag back. Since we were heading for an overnight caving trek the following day, our first stop upon arrival in Phong Nha town was to buy Juli some appropriate threads (and a toothbrush). Not the most fun start to our trip, but fortunately Juli did not let her lack of comfort stop her from enjoying the first few days.

Stopping for lunch on our hike to Hang En. Juli looking very colorful in her new clothes!
After a night of good sleep, we were picked up the following morning (Christmas!) for our caving adventure to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. We met our guides and fellow trekkers, put on some borrowed trekking boots, then piled into a bus for a ride to the trailhead on the Ho Chi Minh Highway. From there we descended towards a remote village, and it was on this hike that we first met the jungle leeches. Little did we know how many of these little suckers we would meet on day two! The village appeared about two miles into the hike.

River-crossing on our hike to Hang En Cave
After another three miles we made a stop for lunch beside a river. After lunch, our hike included many river crossings, never very deep, but the borrowed boots had very thin rubber soles, so it was sometimes slow going over the submerged rocks.

Approaching Hang En (can you see the entrance?)
After about eight miles of hiking, we had made it to the entrance of Hang En cave, the 3rd largest known cave in the world. We strapped on helmets and headlamps, and continued into the cave. We came upon a ledge with a beautiful view of the campsite. It looked amazing from far, and up close it was even better - nice new tents and sleeping bags, two composting toilets, a changing tent, clotheslines for our wet socks & pants, a swimming lagoon, a communal table, and...a Christmas tree!

Initial view of our campsite upon entering Hang En
After settling into camp, we were free to hang out, swim in the lagoon, and enjoy the scenery. While Juli and Siera went swimming, I tried to take some good photos of our surroundings. Dinner was cooked up and served, and it was delicious. We enjoyed some mulled wine with dinner, and then also tried some homemade? rice wine (can't say this was 'enjoyed' nearly as much as the mulled wine...but based on the amount in the bottle the next morning, the guides and porters had no problem enjoying it on our behalf). Post-dinner entertainment included different games, the most popular of which was Heads Up!, one of our favorite pass-the-time games at home.

Christmas Dinner in a Cave! Note Xmas 'tree' (branch) in background.

Overnight, sleeping in the cave was not a problem, except for this solo guy from New Jersey, TJ. We knew he was trouble on the hike in, when a guide offered TJ his hand for help crossing a river, to which TJ replied "Don't hold my hand I'm not a girl!" TJ got up in the middle of the night to cause a ruckus - whether by banging on the metal table, or by ruffling tents (Siera's). 

A stalagmite inside Hang En
The next morning we spent a few hours exploring the interior of the cave, making our way through the cave about one mile to another entrance. We saw some beautiful views within the cave, some gigantic stalagmites and stalactites, a viper, and of course some bats! After lunch back at camp, it was time to walk back to the Ho Chi Minh Highway. Unfortunately today, it was raining off and on. We re-traced our steps from the previous day about halfway, until we reached the hill.

The other end of Hang En

The hill was a very steep hike out, on wet muddy ground, and LOTS OF LEECHES. These little guys were everywhere, almost every time you looked at your boots or gloves you would see a few trying to worm their way to a hole or opening to get at your skin. They are difficult to remove as they have a sucker on each end, so pulling it off of you just makes its other end start sucking on your hand. The guides helped us remove them quite often. I was pushing hard to get up that hill, it was about 75 minutes of intense work (including the leeches). I was talking to the guide who mentioned depending on the season, you either had to deal with the wetness + leeches OR 100+ degree heat with humidity - in both cases you have to wear long sleeves, gloves, and I'm still not sure which one would be preferable!

As everybody started making to towards the top, a case of beer was opened and between sips of warm beer, everybody was focusing on leech removal. After the bus started rumbling down the road a few minutes, I waved over to Juli who informed me there was a leech still sucking on the webbing of my pinky & ring finger...I didn't even feel it, which apparently is normal for leeches. Siera was certain she still had a leech on her somewhere, and before jumping in the showers back at the Oxalis office, Juli indeed pulled yet another leech off Siera! All in all, I was just happy the leeches were nowhere near as big as the ones in Stand By Me.

Our 'hard sleeper' for overnight train to Hanoi
While it would have been nice to relax in quiet Phong Nha town for the night, that was not on our itinerary. Instead a driver was there to whisk us away back to Dong Hoi where we were to catch an overnight train heading for Hanoi. We grabbed some spring rolls and (hopefully) chicken from a stand near the train station for dinner. We were assigned a 'hard sleeper' cabin which meant a cabin with 6 beds (a 'soft sleeper' has 4 beds). The rain outdoors was seeping a bit through the window onto both mine and Juli's beds, and not knowing if the two unoccupied beds would be occupied at our later stops, we just rolled with it and slept so our feet were down at the wet end. After all the wet feet we had had over the previous two days, the lack of leeches coming through the window was enough to make it quite comfortable!

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