In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Upon awakening from an unrestful sleep, perturbed by his ever roaming mind and a good hit of opium, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote these lines in a burst of creative inspiration. He may have been dreaming of Vietnam’s Quang Binh province when he wrote them.
Certainly for me, the landscape and geology of Quang Binh province have come closest to the natural realization of the romantic chasms and caves of ice in “Kubla Khan”. The area is a dense jungle in shades of green, with tall vine-entwined trees and foliage forming a thick canopy that conceals hundreds of caverns and the streams and rivers that course through them.
During the years of the war, the area’s impenetrable forest cover and innumerable caves gave cover for the transport of troops and supplies for the northern army. It was the most heavily bombed area of Vietnam according to experts, particularly as it’s the narrowest stretch of land for the Ho Chi Minh trail to course through. This famous trail would be bombed out of all repair, then a new alternate route would be constructed through the meandering karsts and mountainous, tree sheltered terrain, and the cycle would repeat. This was all told to us by our guide Phuong, with a hint of nationalistic pride, as we rode on the bus to our trailhead.
In 1990, fifteen years after the war ended, the British surveyed the caves in area and found riches beyond their expectations. Hundreds of unexplored caverns, wildlife and fauna unique to this unusual ecology, the untouched countryside of a country that has grown densely populated and settled as any in Asia.
If ours had been the age of art and poetry, this first modern day encounter with the largest caves in the world, Hang En and Hoong Son, would have stirred the brushes of the J.W.Turners and Caspar Friedrichs’ of our era and moved the teeming minds of modern day Coleridges, Wordsworths and Thoreaus to flights of Romantic poesy. Such is Quang Binh’s cavernous, unspoiled beauty; the region epitomizes the Romantic sublime.
But we live in an age of drone cameras, of cgi superheroes and instagram filters, and thus the caves and underground rivers of Quang Binh will bring forth only richly exposed, instagrammatic celebrations for the time being. These caves await the inevitable influx of selfie stick waving, chattering tourists. So far, the grandest artistic commemoration of Quang Binh’s landscape is the sight of a gigantic CGI ape punk slapping American helicopters to explode in the jungle below, while actual, physical mountains, streams and flora placidly observe the fabricated destruction.
But I write this in my ignorance of the Vietnamese poems and prose that are tributes to the region (readers, if you know of such works, please write to me). After all, Quang Binh is, I’d find out later on wikipedia, the family home of Bao Ninh, whose novel The Sorrow of War is still one of the most melancholic ruminations of war that I’ve read.
My newlywed friends Lincoln and Jessica and I went to Quang Binh province to trek to Hang En cave and make camp there. It is ranked the third largest cave in the world, and the only way to spend an overnight there is to take a tour through Oxalis adventures, the first and currently only tour operator that can take people camping in the region’s numerous caves.
As a child I never visited Quang Binh. It was, and I suppose still is, a poor region of Vietnam, a middle place nestled between Hue and Hanoi. Farmland, small towns, fisherfolk by the sea, hill tribes on the hillsides. All this is changing rapidly. With the aforementioned Kong: Skull Island film that came out in 2016, a buff Tom Hiddleston running through soggy Quang Binh wetlands has been the harbinger to the opening up of the area to future films, further visits from directors and location scouts, and more blockbusters to come featuring the area’s oddly beautiful landscape.
We landed in Dong Hoi airport and got a ride to Phong Nha through Oxalis. After settling in to the company’s base guest house, we spent our afternoon riding two old rented motorbikes through Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park. This region is set aside and recognized by Unesco for being one of most biodiverse in the world. Monkeys, gibbons, macaques, even pangolins can be found here. Tigers used to be here too, but no longer. The drive is gorgeous, which created its own challenges. Instead of dodging the aggressive traffic on crowded Saigon streets, I had to tear my eyes away from the views of million years old karsts and odd features in the landscape to keep myself from flying off the curving, winding switchbacks of the park to fall screaming into the jungle trees below.
The May afternoon was stiflingly hot; even the wind provided by the bikes’ velocity couldn’t erase a lingering, lethargic mugginess in the air. Occasionally, however, we’d hit a cold spot in the jungle, a gap in between limestone cliffs, shielded from beating sun by karst and jungle canopy, with the temperature dipping by several degrees. Feeling this startling blast of natural air conditioning, I’d whoop and holler my appreciation; it was like walking through a Hong Kong sidewalk with all those air conditioned stores’ doors open! Sometimes the upslope was too much for our old motorbikes, and we puttered our patient ascent, with me worried over whether the bike’s ancient, rusty breaks can handle the similarly steep descent sure to come later.
Towards dusk, we stopped by Paradise Cave (Dong Thien Duong). A cave accessible by car, Paradise Cave gets plenty of visitors and is more traditionally touristic than the others we would encounter later on. Nevertheless it was, to that point, the most magnificent cave I had been in. Huge in size compared to any I had seen, it housed conglomerates of massive stalactites and stalagmites of a multitude of colors. Atmospherically lit up by floor lamps for maximum effect, the cave often felt like the enlarged playground of an eccentric billionaire rock collector. One formation in particular looked like nature had decided to be a gaudy and opulent interior designer, and crafted spaces for the greedy eyes of the wealthy. Over the millennia, limestone had dripped with water to form massive folds of drapery, burnished sand in color, sandpapery in texture. Behind this curtain, a blue limestone wall has been cracked with gold stalactites, still dripping slightly from condensate. A clear, undisturbed pond gathers the water and mirrors the view from below.
A friend mentioned to me on my return to HCMC how, just a year or so ago, there had been a beauty pageant held inside this cave, with high heeled contestants walking down the large runway that is a platform built for looking over the cave’s descent. The area was packed with contestants, camera crew, even an audience. As absurd as this pageantry must have been, in some sense there couldn’t have been more apt a location. After all, we so often see nature’s beauty as material for consumption, and a cave’s splendid decor, formed by millennia of geologic dripping, offers the most natural background for the celebration of our own embellished beauty.
After visiting the strange formations of Paradise, we drove through the dusky rural landscape of Phong Nha to get back to our guesthouse. Endless fields of rice, meandering rivers and streams, limestone hills in silhouetted layers, all turn to downy velvet as the sun began to settle. We clicked our headlights on. The only human created silhouettes I could spot on the drive, were the occasional triangular rooftops and crosses of church steeples in the region. They stood out in the relative flatness of the fields.
We returned to home base as night settled, turning in for an excited, unrestful sleep awaiting our day hike into the region, deeper into wilderness.
Part 2 of the trip is here: No Colours of Green Fields: Inside Hang En Cave