I did this guided tour of the National Park twice, once as a paying punter, and the next day as a prospective guide. The Farmstay was looking for a part-time western guide to assist the local staff on one of the tours, and I felt like it could me a interesting way of getting to know the people and place better. I had three weeks left on my visa, and had to decide whether I wanted to abandon further exploration of Vietnam in favour of spending the remaining time here.... Decisions, descisions.
The junction at the end of this bridge is where the old Ho Cho Minh Trail meets Highway 21, which forms a strategic route across the border into Laos. During the American war, due to the blanket bombing, the supply trail needed to be rerouted through to Laos, which then followed the border south. It was named Highway 21 to commemorate the mean age of those who built it at great peril, and incredibly quickly.
Along Highway 21 was a temple of remembrance at Eight Lady Cave. The sad story tells of the eight young people who were trapped in the cave when an american bomb dislodged a 100 ton boulder, there were no resources available to free them and they perished over the next nine days. Next to the memorial stone, an example of ironic and ingenious recycling, a US bomb shell repurposed as an air-raid alarm bell.
After that a return to Paradise Cave where I spotted this small plant, seeded by an unwitting tourist and growing deep underground in front of an electric light.
While Son Doong is currently the record holder for world's largest cave, Howard & Deb Limbert who first explored it and know the caves here better than anyone else, are sure that there are still bigger in the area. One of the most promising clues is this bubbling mass of water. Two or three days after storms in Laos, 35km away, this simmering spring grows into a huge raised hemisphere of churning water, with vast volumes rising from the ground and forming a major surface river that flows through the trees. Cave divers have explored it to a depth of 50m and 120m back under the road from which I took this photo. Early guesstimates indicate that Nuc Mouc cave could be huge, maybe even bigger than Son Doong, though how much is discoverable, and how much permanently submerged remains to be seen.
For more information, Howard's report can be read here;
A short, but fun kayak trip on the Chay [?] river down to the dark cave.
Entrance to Hang Toi, the Dark Cave, so called, not because of the lack of light, but because of the dark stone within.
With life jackets, helmets and head-torches on, we clambered, paddled, waded and swam through this river cave, which serves as an overflow when Phong Nha cave reaches water capacity. It was exhilarating to swim for hundreds of meters into the black of the cave, wary of the blade-like karst stone that stuck up from the floor like VC spike traps; and diving under a fallen boulder that blocked our way. We all got emerged with smiles on our faces, mostly unscathed.
The amazing jungle of the Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park hides an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. Many species of primate can be found in the trees. Rare mammals roam the hills. Tigers were recently spotted returning to the area. Many varieties of butterfly fluttered by. Caves hold albino insects that have evolved in isolation into species unique to each cave system.
After the second visit, and much soul-searching I made the decision not to take the job that Ben had offered me. I felt that three weeks would not have been long enough to learn how to do the job well, and in all honesty, I didn't really want to be the guy who doid the dark cave guide for that long. I thanked my new friends, wished them luck and booked the bus to Hue for the next morning. My five days at the Phong Nha Farmstay had been the highlight of my trip to Vietnam so far.