Part 1 of the trip is here: Through Caverns Measureless to Man
…through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
- from The Prelude, by William Wordswoth
Wordsworth saw mountains as reminders of the divine, links for the human mind to the heavens, fearsome conduits. These “huge and mighty forms” loomed over and overwhelmed his childhood self, troubling his dreams, but they also cracked open his childhood imagination, expanding his interiority just as water flows through limestone to form grand spaces. The Romantics were drawn to mountains, seeing them as the fearsome sublime, beings that remind us of our small existence in a gargantuan world.
If mountains led to the divine, then caves were starting points for journeys leading the other way. They were entrances into the underworld, and their limestone stomach interiors and crystalline tracts, routes for beings condemned to unceasing torture and punishment. Else, they were seen as barren abodes for mystics, recluses and ill mannered hermits. Here, Polyphemus can chew his guests and use their bones for toothpicks. Here, in jagged, clammy interiors, the Gollums of the world could carve out their meager existences from minimal elements: fish smashed on rocks; small fire; long, sunless nights and days.
For me, going into Hang En would serve as a lesson at understanding time, as our exploration of the third largest cave in the world was time travel of sorts. Each odd formation we encountered was a trip backward through hundreds of thousands, even millions of years. We were surrounded, all around, by markers of the millennia’s passing. We were in a graveyard of an old ocean, and remnants of aeons of water patiently whittled the calcareous carcasses of ancient life around us— limestone, after all, is composed of the skeletons of old swimming things, lifted into atmosphere by the movement of earthen plates. Caves were the patient results of water seeking cracks upon the limestone, trickling through, transporting and layering the sediments into whimsical, fantastical, sometimes seemingly intentional formations.
At the lowest part of our descent into Hang En, the cave’s blue tinted walls had tiny white etchings, circles and wavy forms that seemed like hieroglyphics to me, like portraits of animals done by an ancient human tribe. Our guide explained that these were fossils of marine life, the same that formed the limestone, embedded into the surface some 300 million years ago. 300 million years! My fingers could, through gloves worn to protect these formations from my skin’s corrosive oil, touch and feel the thin engraved form of a creature 300 million years away.
The Walk to Hang En
We started our walk in the morning, around 10 AM, when the sun was already high and the day muggy. We were a party of 16, the largest group that Oxalis guides could take into Hang En, a mixture of Americans (we’re apparently the biggest visitors so far, refugees, no doubt, from Trump’s America), Canadians, and Vietnamese.
Much of the hike would be done on a descent. We started on a high hill, climbed down rather steep slopes, and passed through the streams and flat valley bed of Phong Nha — Ke Bang national park to get to the cave’s entrance. The flora was alien to me; the foliage of trees in the Vietnamese jungle is not the more uniform growth of the deciduous forests I was used to in New England. Here, tall thin trees, covered in green, occasionally loomed over smaller ones. Karst hills, seen from the lowered vantagepoint of a walker passing through streams, seems greener than green, with a rougher, more inconsistent texture of folliage.
We rested at a spot next to a crack in a limestone outcrop, where butterflies were having an orgy, or perhaps just going through an elaborate, polygamous courtship. Black and white butterflies congregated and flapped their wings in a circle, while more colorful ones, with startling streaks of blue or red, floated about in an enchanting conflagration.
Hang En’s entrance
Near the end of the hike, we relied on streams to cool us from the heat. When we stepped into Hang En itself, though, through a low hanging maw of the lower entrance, we had to worry no longer. A wide stream that gently flowed into the limestone and the thick mountain above us lowered the temperature noticeably. We descended first, then we climbed upwards in the darkness until we saw the wide mouth of the cave.
We realized then the astonishing size of the mountainous cavity we were in, for by then the cave had fully swallowed us, and the only natural source of light was a large white eye set in a face of black, looming above us, letting sunlight in. Far below, our camp nestled warmly on a sandy shore next to a pool of cold green water.
Meeting Howard Limbert, original explorer of Son Doong and Hang En
When we arrived at Hang En, we saw that another party had already set up their tents. A jovial Brit whose tent was closest to the water greeted us, and we found that this humble, friendly fellow is Howard Limbert, the original surveyor of the Hang En and Han Soong caves, the man most cited as responsible for the discovery of caves in this area.
Howard is small in stature and talkative, and he welcomed us with humblest apologies for his party. They were composed of VIPs, higher ups from several national airline companies that he and the guides and porters of oxalis were showing around to convince them of the demand that would come about for flights here across Vietnam. “They’ll be fine… but they do like to party.” He says apologetically. Then, later on, he added: “There’s already talk of bringing in a suckling roasted pig.” Chuckling, he added he had no idea how they’d do that. My friends and I joked about ways this could happen. I imagined a small fleet of drones airlifting it in on attached strings. “Flying in with an apple in its mouth,” Lincoln added.
Of course, I wouldn’t find out from Howard that he was the first explorer of the area. His proudest boast to us is not of his discovery of the caves, but that he brought chips to the area. “No, not the American chips. Cut wedges…” He explained to our guide.
Howard’s a small man, 5’5 in height. And he enjoys telling anecdotes, particularly bawdy and absurd ones involving celebrities. He told one story of how a famous actress came here and changed in her tent with her light on, casting a shadow of her body onto the cave wall and inadvertently providing a show for all the porters, guests, and guides. Of Jordan Vogt-Roberts, the director of Kong: “Oh, he’s got the best beard.”
When I asked him about the filming that seems to take place here, and whether or not there’s concern they affect the ecology of the place, he’s quick to negate the idea: “Oh no, no. They take everything back out and leave it like they found it. No, they’ve been very good.”
Night inside night
The group of high flyers and VIPs, all men, turned out to love music, playing the guitar and singing Vietnamese love songs until night time. They were fine, enthusiastic singers, but I would have traded the sweetest Mormon Tabernacle choir for a minute of silence in this cave, to hear the chirping of swifts all above us, or the water flowing as it has always flowed, hundreds of thousands of years before anyone camped here by our sandy beach inside this stupendous concavity.
I wish we’d had the chance to turn off our lights and experienced the darkness of the cave, or feel with our ears and skin the three hundred feet of air hanging between us and the dome of limestone, with its rooftop so far above that we could easily fool ourselves into thinking we were outdoors, and that it was just a particularly overcast, cloudy night.
But isn’t it just so human of us to want connection with others of our family, to join our voices to the human chorus that drowns the sounds of birds, of water dripping down ancient cave walls, of the slow calcification of strata and time that reminds us of our inevitable, quickly approaching doom? Entering the largest cave most of us will ever encounter, what do we instinctively first do but holler and yell, hoping to hear echoes of our voices come back to us? For that was just what we did, to remind us that, in this infinitude of space created thousands of years before we were here, we now exist. We are narcissists foremost, after all, and our voices remind us of our largeness.
Our VIP revellers turned in at around ten, and I would finally hear the swifts and the water around me. I suddenly realized then that, even in the new quietness, my mind was restless and I couldn’t sleep. Before, during, and after dinner, I had had three cups of the instant Vietnamese coffee that the porters carried (Trung Nguyen brand) and was jittery with energy even after a full day of hiking in the blistering sun. The diuretic force of that coffee compelled me to unzip my tent, walk to the compost toilet a hundred feet away, and urinate, and repeat it every couple of hours for a total of three times that night.
While walking to our composting toilet, I noticed that the cave entrance leached moonlight through an eerie eyelid of star light in the dome. The swifts echoed their siren songs loudly and concistently throughout the cave, the cicadas of this environment. Back inside, I realized that the outer flaps were too hot, so I unzipped them and pulled them aside, keeping the mosquito netting as the only barrier between my face and the cool cave air.
At around 2 AM, I passed out. At 4, a swift pooed on my tent, right where I had opened my outside flap. I heard a slap and felt wetness land next to my head, and some of it bounced back to hit my face. That’s one bucket list item I can cross off the list: having a cave bird poo on me inside the third largest cave in the world. I closed the tent’s open flap and had a two hours rest until the early morning, and rustling fellow campers woke me up. Cloud and morning mist covered the cave entrance; the temperature was lovely and chilly. My socks and shoes, kept outside to dry, were cold, and wet. I woke up, drank another insta-coffee, and we set off in these damp footgear to explore the rest of Hang En, before retracing our hike.
Inside the Caves
Often, we would climb a hill, crest to the top, and I would realize that we had climbed the equivalent of a minor mountain in some countries (the Netherlands, perhaps) but that we were still inside a cave, and the ceiling above us was still a dome that had swallowed both the summit we had peaked and us. And it still had room to stretch far above to swallow more. One particular photo I wish I could have taken, but the lighting was simply too poor, was the view my friends and I had of the party in front of us crossing a wide stream. We were at a high point looking down, and the figures below little ants waving light antennas ahead. A perspective shot inside a usually perspective-less environment.
These caverns are so vast and of a separate atmosphere that they had yielded their own native fauna. Our guide told us that numerous new species were found when these caves were first discovered: white fish that live only in the dark of the cool cavern pools, cave spiders, birds, lizards, creatures that had evolved and adapted to the microclimate within the caves.
In Cold Cave, small shrimp and fish that either had meandered their way to the mouth of the 4km cave wove their way through the clear water, exciting many in our group. In Hang En, I stood still in the water for a while and found that my toes were being nibbled by fish, exfoliating and clearing off the callouses from the hike, just like the “fish massage” offered by many shops in Asia. Then the eerie realization that I was being nibbled upon by unknown cavefish got to me, and I jumped out.
So at home are they in the environment that the porters and guides themselves sometimes seemed to be different species used to clammy coolness and long, hot hikes. The porters, especially, carried heavier weights and all wore thin plastic sandals that held barely any cushion or protection. Our guide Phuong explained this footwear thus: “I had shoes like yours, but I had terrible toe infections. So I switched.” He added that he, and most of the guides, spent more than a hundred days out of the year sleeping in these giant caves. He feels almost more at home here than outside. And indeed, after our tour completed in the late afternoon, Phuong would rest one night in town, then take a new group into Son Doong the following day: a longer, five day trip into the largest cave in the region, starting once again in the early morning.
Our walk inside Hang En led to the opening of the cavern that was used for the 2016 film Pan. There, we stood and took numerous pictures that did not do justice to the scope and varied layers of the scene. It was an image that would be fitting for any Turner painting, the rock face stony in its violent largeness. Outside and ahead of us, the opening’s curve revealed a karst mountain and the trees that climbed its back, and an afternoon sun shedding golden light on green. We were inside an earthen python whose maw swallowed skyscrapers. It thoughtfully kept it open for us to gaze out into the wilderness we had left behind for the night.
Time and Being and the Dilemmas of Tourism
I tried to ask Howard at dinner whether he was concerned the increase in arrival of visitors to the caves would also change their ecology. My question perhaps wasn’t heard in the din of dinner chatter – Howard was sitting a couple of seats away from me, after all. Instead, he answered by telling us that the region is getting a lot of great press, and that numerous movies are scouting these limestone caves for their shooting locations. Star Wars, the sequel to Avatar, big blockbusters that would bring almost unheard of interest in the area. He didn’t seem so concerned. In each of our venture, the Oxalis guides, all Vietnamese and mostly from Phong Nha, take time to explain to us to put our gloves on and be careful with the surrounding formations. There clearly is some effort to maintain the region as undisturbed as possible, but I worry that, as with all naturally beautiful sites, the increase in traffic can’t help but alter their essence.
The caves, with their massive spaces and strange formations, took millenias to take their current form; in contrast, their discovery and the touristic enterprises took just a couple decades. In fact, the last cave we visited, Cold Cave, and 400 meters of its 4 km stretch of frigid, subterranean hike, was just opened to visitors last year, and was finally included with the tour going through Hang En. Now both caves have almost daily trekkers passing through, viewing their crystalline stalactites, swimming and traversing their jagged forms. While Oxalis and other companies that run tours through the park have taken care to not disturb the monolithically ancient accretion of this beauty, the implications of having new visitors like me is vast.
Inside Hang En, I saw a fellow tourist use his bare hands to touch an ancient egg-like formation, one amongst hundreds on the sandy floor. This stone egg had come from thousands of years of calcite dripping from the ceiling and accrued around a grain of sand, gaining steady volume and size throughout the millenias. Our guides didn’t notice, or perhaps didn’t want to deal with telling him off. Noticing that he was about to pocket this treasured stone, my friend Jessica said to Lincoln and me: “…and… there goes ten thousand years.”
My friends and I didn’t want to play guide or be parents on the journey, but we couldn’t help be concerned at the enthusiastic need to collect and commemorate the experience by turning ancient formations into mementos, as if the deepest, oldest area of the caves were simply a gift shop at the end of a museum tour. At one point, I saw another man touch an ancient formation with his ungloved hand – his other hand was gloved. The teacher in me rose up in anger. I asked him, crossly, and in broken Vietnamese, where his glove was, and why he didn’t have it on. He shyly looked away and moved on. Of course, the region has already been changed by the war and the innumerable bombing that took place here, even before tourism was thought of as a possibility.
There continues to be reports that the government plans to build a cable car to Son Doong, an act which seems so blatantly destructive to me, but one which would bring many more visitors. Therein lies the dilemma. People should know about Phong Nha. The magnificence of time and geology acting in concert that creates these caverns teach an enduring, valuable lesson to visitors, even ones who go there and are locked in their phone cameras. Yet, increased ease of tourism there, constructions on site, diminish it, makes the place a product to be consumed. A cable car running to Son Doong turns it into just another human claimed wonder, a natural version of Ba Na Hills. In our urge to make such sites easier to visit, we domesticate and subdue them, when they should leave us in wonder. They become celebrations of human ingenuity in settling the landscape, and the vistas themselves just collections of photos in our I-clouds.
The mountains of Wordsworth’s childhood followed him as he rowed in the water of The Lake District. They haunted his years all the way to adulthood, re-forming as blank verses of fearful apotheosis. I wish the same disturbance would happen to visitors of the magnificent formations of caves in Phong Nha. I wish we would be changed by the site rather than changing it to serve as our entertainment.
In thinking back to the trip now, I am still flummoxed by the scope of what I saw. In this year’s writing project, I am writing about three decades worth of change in my birth country and city, but in Hang En, I touched formations of stone that are the accretion of millions of years of water acting upon stone acted upon by the mystery of tectonic movement, wind and rain and the elements all have their hands in the act of cave building. That, somehow, must be worth preserving.