Hang Son Doong

Hang Son Doong Trek Day 1 
We left the town of Phong Nha by van with another van carrying porters and a truck carrying gear. We headed up into the mountains, passing into Phong Nha National Park. Up in the mountains, at the trailhead, in a cold rain Ian, the trip leader, said, “It’s going to be a leech fest today.” So we all tucked our pants legs into our socks before we headed down a steep muddy track through the jungle.

A couple of hours into the hike, before we reach the bottom of the hill Dave, who is 80, had to turn back as the going was too tough, and Ian said this section was much easier than a number of others to come. He was traveling with his son-in-law and grandson. They went back with him. It would be a huge disappointment to come all this way and have to turn back. I understand that they had come to Vietnam specifically for this trek.

Now we are just 5 guests, and I’m the oldest by almost 30 years. (And as it turns out either the oldest or close to it so far.)

The Vietnamese porters are carrying up to 100 lbs on their backs in large rice bags, with crude straps attached, while wearing cheap plastic sandals. Even then we step aside to let them pass us on the trail. They all seem to be 18 to maybe 30 years old, but I understand their fathers are just as good. We feel pretty inadequate by comparison.

When we reached the bottom of the hill we went down river; frequently wading across and along the river.

Throughout the day we would stop to check for leeches, thin, brown, little things that I had a hard time seeing. We all had them on our boots and clothes, but none had attached.

When we reached the cave Hang En, we and the river entered the cave. (Hang means cave.)

We camped on a sandy area inside the cave, along the river and below a huge window above a massive pile of boulders.

Day 2 

We went through Hang En by wading down the river to where we and the river exited the cave.

(Note the tiny people on the sand below.)
We continued down the river valley with its mist shrouded vertical limestone walls hundreds of feet high, wading where the water wasn’t too fast or deep or scrambling along the banks where it was.

The river enters this valley at Hang En and leaves through Hang Son Doong with several other streams entering through caves as well. That makes this a real lost world with all access via caves or over the steep mountains. It’s little wonder that the cave wasn’t discovered until 1990 and not explored until just five years ago.

Then we headed up a very steep muddy hillside, grabbing rocks and trees as we went, and then down again to the entrance to Hang Son Doong. The wet, muddy conditions meant more leeches, some of them coming off the skin leaving bloody spots.

After entering the cave we climbed 80 meters down a very steep rock face, using fixed and safety ropes and harnesses, to the river. So after all the climbing up and back down we are at river level, but the river enters through a boulder pile that we can’t.

We continued deeper into the cave through boulder fields, across sand slopes and multiple crossings of the river all by the light of headlamps.

The boulders in the cave are of all kinds: water cut with razor sharp edges, broken falls from the roof and ceiling, and rough calcite deposits. I definitely needed the gloves for hand protection and sure didn’t want to fall.

We all keep noting how much harder this is than that first muddy climb down to the river, where Dave and family turned back. I keep thinking how glad I am that I’ve been working out and doing balance exercises; and how much I wish I was stronger and had better balance.

We climbed past the massive 80 meter high stalagmite, called the Hand of Dog, to just short of the first doline and camped for the night.

(A doline is a place where the roof of the cave has collapsed making a sinkhole at the surface and a vertical shaft to daylight for the cave. They are major features of Son Doong, bringing daylight, fresh air, and life into the cave.)

The first campsite in Son Doong is high above the river on a sand covered terrace. It’s a great campsite, inside the cave, but with natural light from the doline and very flat.

Everything is immense inside the cave. The entrance arch to the doline is more than 800 feet tall. The doline is more than 1000 deep from the surface. The cave rooms can be hundreds of feet wide.

It’s hard to convey the size of the place in photos. It’s hard to light a space that is hundreds of feet in every direction without generators and huge lights. If you do get enough light and a long enough exposure it’s hard to convey the three dimensions or scale. The National Geographic teams did a great job, but they hauled multiple generators and spent a couple of weeks shooting, not an option for us.

Day 3.

We headed up and through the first doline stopping for photos, including reflections of the doline in pools on the far side. The water level in the pools is much lower than when some of the best known photos were shot, but it’s still a great view.

We continued through the cave to the second doline, known as the Garden of Edam. It’s quite a bit larger than the first one and has a substantial jungle in it. Even the terraces on the approach are very green.

The jungle was heavily damaged by a typhoon last year. There are a lot of downed trees and the remaining ones look pretty beat up. We continued thru the Garden and down into the next section of cave to the second campsite. The ground at this site is sand as fine as powder. It sticks to everything!

Day 4.

The porters were a little slow getting breakfast going this morning, so we walked deeper into the cave for a while through some slightly smaller spaces with large stalagmites and columns.

The cave then has a lake or mud valley depending on the water level. It was pretty dry, so it was going to be a half kilometer mud slog to the end of the cave. I passed on that, but several of the younger folks did it and seemed to think it was worthwhile, if only for the mud and a swim at the end.

After breakfast we headed back through both dolines to the first Son Doong camp. We took a more technical route back to the campsite, which was a little harder. My balance isn’t as good as I would like; I can’t hop from rock to rock like I used to, especially when there’s a big drop off to the side.

After getting to camp and dropping our packs, we climbed down a slope to a layer with lots of fossils of ancient sea creatures about 350 million years old.

Since we had done a lot of photography on the way out to the far camp, the trip back didn’t take as long and we had a short day. The porters seem to feel that if we are in camp at the end of the day, we must be ready to eat, so they served dinner at 4:00 pm. That makes the rest of the evening long.

Day 5

We left camp and hiked up to a point looking back at Hand of Dog and the first doline in the distance. Thinking we wouldn’t be going to any new spots I had let the porters take my tripod so I had to shoot hand-held. As a result the shots were not very sharp, not surprising considering it’s a huge space being lit with headlamps. The top, vertical part of Hand of Dog is over 250 feet tall, but the whole thing is much taller.

We went back through the two river crossings, no big deal by now, and then reached the 200 foot vertical climb up to the surface. We pulled ourselves up the rope, with our feet walking up the wall. Luckily we had a safety line too, as my arms weren’t strong enough for a smooth climb.

After reaching the surface and a few victory photos, we headed up for a while and then down the slope we had been dreading: steep, slick mud and sharp rocks. We made it down without any physical damage, but a lot of slipping and sliding.

We then washed the mud off wading up the river to Hang En and waded up the river inside the cave to the campsite at the other end.

The food has been excellent on this trip, but they went all out tonight for a feast. All the meals are served on a tarp with communal plates of food and individual bowls to put the assorted food and rice in. We westerners were not very good at sitting on the ground and eating.

The evenings tend to end up pretty early, but Cam brought a guitar and plays and sings a bit, sometimes accompanied by one or more of the Vietnamese. Alex brought a card game that the Vietnamese quickly picked up and love called Spot It. They end up in a tight huddle, with their heads almost touching, screaming, laughing, hooting, and apparently blatantly cheating while playing.

Day 6 - The Hike Out

Leaving Hang En we headed back up river, an easy walk now and then headed overland through a tiny remote village and the up the hill.

Since we came down the hill it’s been raining and several groups have gone through, so this part is slick mud with roots and rocks interspersed. It was pretty hard going, but I made it to the top in a little over an hour, damp, muddy and tired.

Taking off the muddy boots, socks and zip off pant legs, I found a fat leech had gotten between my hiking and liner socks and was able to bit right through the liner. It was my first leech to make it to skin, so I was pretty lucky.

After an hour ride back to the hotel, I grabbed my muddy stuff, my bag of clean clothes and a beer. The muddy clothes, the beer, and I had a long, hot shower.

At the big celebration dinner, Alex and Itai brought out the bottles of “snake wine.” We had convinced them that they were never going to get a bunch of bottles with cobras and scorpions in them through US customs. So they poured some for everyone; foul, nasty stuff. I took one sip and tossed the rest over the railing into the garden.

I feel very lucky to have been able to do this trip: both to get accepted in the couple of days before it was fully booked for the year, and to still be physically up to the task.

Homeward Bound

I’m back from the Son Doong cave trek, which was great, but definitely not easy. I’ll put together a whole report on it in the next couple of days, as I get the photos culled and edited, etc.

I woke Sunday morning with my cold back, or a new one. (There was a lot of hacking going on by both porters and guests during the trip. It really echoes in a cave.).

I had an hour ride to the train station, an 11 hour train ride to Hanoi, another hour taxi to the airport, the required two hour wait there and a 4 hour flight to Seoul, arriving at 5:15 AM. The whole time I’m feeling like a germ and snot production machine, stealing paper napkins and toilet paper rolls after the Kleenex ran out and the handkerchief got disgusting.

Finally in Incheon, the Seoul airport, I got some drugs and big pack of tissues, and a hot shower in the Asiana Business Lounge. I’m feeling almost human again.

Now after a five hour layover I have a 12 hour flight to Chicago and a limo ride home. So it’s about 35 hours of travel with transfers, etc.

I’ll be glad to get home.

Phong Nha

I’m at Phong Nha National Park and ready to head out for Hang Son Doong, Mountain River Cave. There are 8 of us plus about 20+ guides, porters, cooks and park rangers.

I found out that once they got the permit last fall to run this trip, the whole 2014 season sold out in two days. So I just happened to hit it right to get in. I was told that they are getting about 20 requests per day now. Since they can only take about 200 a year, it will remain pretty difficult to get on a trip.

The landscape is perfect for caves: limestone that has been raised well above the water table and lots of rain in the rainy season. The karst hills are all around us.

Back to Vietnam

We are heading back to Hanoi this afternoon. There Cathie will spend one night and then fly back home Sunday night.

I head right over to the Hanoi Train Station A to catch a southbound overnight train to Dong Hoi. Assuming I manage that, I should meet up with the outfitter for the trek to Hang Son Doong, the “World’s Largest Cave”. The government has only recently authorized visits to the cave, and it seems only a very limited number of people, only 220 total. So it’s pretty cool to see something unique and hard to visit. It’s a 6 day trek, 2 days of it in the cave and 2 each way, there and back. The National Geographic photographer who filmed it had a lot of lights and such carried in. I’m not expecting that, so who knows what kind of pictures I’ll get. I did learn how to hack my camera to get longer exposures than the original settings and I’ve got a tripod, so that should be interesting too.

Needless to say, I’ll be off the grid for a week and I don’t know that I will have an opportunity to post before taking the train back to Hanoi and a quick transfer to the flight home, so no guarantee of a post before I get home on the 17th.

Bamboo Bridges

We see a lot of bamboo bridges near towns. Typically they aren’t over the big rivers, but side streams. They are usually pedestrian only, but some will carry motor scooters. There are two here in Luang Prabang connecting the peninsula across the smaller river. They build them in the dry season and they wash out or are taken down for the rainy season. Families build them and charge a toll. The one here costs 5,000 kips, or about 60 cents. I do think there is a season pass for locals.
The construction is basic, a few bamboo uprights, 4 bamboo stringers and a woven bamboo mat on top. It’s a little bouncy and very squeaky but it does the job.

Luang Prabang, Laos

We are loving this little town. We have been taking it easy, just relaxing and walking around town. That was always the plan, but after three weeks of travel with a group, quiet time by ourselves was a priority. Plus I came down with a cold and have been nursing it a bit.

Luang Prabang has only about 50,000 residents. It’s a very walkable old town on a peninsula between the Mekong and the smaller Nam Kahn River. It’s the former royal capital of Laos, but clearly it was a relaxed kind of place even then. It’s also a center for Buddhist culture, so there are lots of temples, and young monks studying at them.

There are some well-known waterfalls near the town we could take a tuk-tuk to, but it’s the dry season so the water flow would be sparse.

It is touristy, but in a low key way. The tourist stuff gets pretty dense at the base of the peninsula, but we are closer to the end and it’s pretty quiet. The town has been discovered by Chinese tourists and there are lots of them, often in large herds. But some smaller groups too; we met one family last night who had driven 3,000 kilometers for a 3 day vacation here.

The temples are similar to ones in Thailand, with great multi-tiered roofs, but generally a little less flashy in decoration. We’ve noticed many illustrations of scenes from the life of the Buddha, and statues of all sizes and styles. We need to figure out the story behind one guy wearing a leopard skin.

Inside the former palace, a rather low key place, the throne room/ reception hall was stunning. The walls were dark red and covered with scenes formed using mosaic mirror bits. Unfortunately no cameras were allowed. Over the front door of the palace is a three headed elephant and a lot of Nagas. It seems strange to have snakes on the pediment of the palace, but Nagas are important spirits not ordinary snakes.

But, we found similar mosaic-covered walls at some small chapels in Wat Xienthong!

The mosaics portray a range of Lao life, farming, fishing, music, temple scenes and battles.

In the process they show all kinds of plants and animals well enough to identify them.

Last Day in Hanoi and with Lindblad

This afternoon we leave for Luang Prabang in Laos. It’s also the end of our travels with Lindblad. They’ve done a great job and the people in the group were good, but it will be a relief to be on our own again: no more group dinners, no more super-premium hotel. It probably seems strange to be glad to be out of the top of the line hotels, but we are really more comfortable in smaller, less expensive places that aren’t so shielded from the local community.

We’ve visited several temples in Hanoi the last couple of days, Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian although it’s hard to tell the difference here. The temples are very Chinese and people mainly go there to make offerings and short prayers at the various altars.

At the new year many people go to the temples, so there are lines of people coming and going, and crowds inside.

The Confucian temple was the main educational institution during the long Chinese occupation, and so it was full of students praying for success in school or exams. There were lots of calligraphy scrolls being purchased with Chinese sayings for success. Most people can’t read the Chinese, but it is still the language that is used for those purposes.

Ha Long Bay

We traveled by bus from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay where we boarded a modern boat styled like a traditional junk for a couple of days on the bay. (They put sails on the boats, but are they are totally inadequate for actual sailing.)

Ha Long bay is famous for its karst limestone topography, which results in steep towers and peaks of vegetation covered stone. The Li River in China is another famous karst landscape.

As is typical of this time of year the air was very hazy, greatly reducing visibility and the color and sharpness of the views. But these days this kind of haze is all too common. During the dry season there is no rain to wash it from the sky, so it builds and builds. If I was more serious about photos, I’d try the rainy season, where between rain storms, you might be able to get some clear skies.

It really is spectacular, even with the haze, I think even more so than the Li River valley.

After cruising for a couple of hours between the peaks, we got in small boats made of basketry and were rowed through a floating fishing village.

It sounds like the village will soon be gone as the government is closing it down and moving everyone to shore based villages where there are better services and schools. Since the fishing catches are dropping, some members of the community are in favor of the move, but it’s a big change for people who have lived their entire lives on the water.

We anchored in the bay overnight. Sunrise wasn’t much of an event, but the morning light and mist were beautiful. Mid-day we headed back to Hanoi.

It’s still New Years weekend. The holiday lights are still up and the parks were still full of families and couples out for a stroll.

Brrrr. It’s so cold here in Hanoi that they’ve set out blankets on the seats around the bar by the pool and are advertising hot drinks, including a hot mojito!?!

It’s 63 degrees early in the morning.

Hà Nôi

This morning, Lunar New Year’s Day, we flew to Hanoi. The airport in Hué was almost empty, except for western tourists. It was like flying on Christmas Day at home. It’s a day to spend with the family for the Vietnamese. Families were out in the Hanoi parks, dressed in their best clothes, and for kids almost certainly new clothes. Some kids were in very traditional clothes, and others in modern.

We also went to a water puppet show; a very traditional type of entertainment. The puppets are on bamboo arms under the water, with the operators behind a screen. I couldn’t get a clear shot of the faster moving characters in the dark lighting, but I got some of the slower moving ones.

Happy New Year!

Last minute shoppers here are stocking up on flowers in the traditional colors of red and yellow. Mums are the most common.


We traveled on to the “old” capital of Hué in central Vietnam. The old is in quotes, because although it was built in an old Chinese imperial style, it only became the capital of Vietnam in 1800 when the Nguyen family conquered the whole country with the help of the French.

The kingdom lasted until 1945 when Ho Chi Minh’s forces displaced the French and the king. The Citadel is a walled, moated city with a walled Chinese style “forbidden city” palace complex inside. Most of the palace buildings were destroyed during the Tet Offensive and the American bombing to retake the city afterwards. Only 10 of 160 original buildings remain.

It is strange to think of a new dynasty establishing itself in Chinese imperial style in the 1800’s, and with French help. Inviting the French had predictable consequences. The French were the power behind the throne and finally took direct control, making Vietnam a French protectorate, with a king who was more playboy than ruler.

We also visited a couple of the royal tomb complexes. The first was built in the 1850’s and is a walled park-like complex, with lakes, temples, courtyards gardens, and a large burial mound. It’s a pretty park, but of course, it was never intended for more than a few to ever see it.

The second was from the next to last king, Khai Dinh, and was built in the 1930’s. It took 11 years to build, which seems like a long time considering he only ruled for 9 years. It’s built on a hillside and while there are multiple buildings and courtyards it’s a much more compact plan.

The buildings are a mix of French forms and Chinese decorative elements, which doesn’t really work in my mind.

The best part is the inside of the main temple building, which is covered in mosaic panels made using broken porcelain and glass, much like Gaudi’s trencadis work in Barcelona.

I especially like all the birds.

Having heard the modern history of Vietnam’s kings and the French, I would have agreed with Ho that it was time for them to go. Unfortunately, while he was inspired by the American revolution and quoted heavily from our Declaration of Independence in early speeches, his entreaties for US government aid after World Wars I & II were ignored.

Hoi An

We left Ho Chi Min City and flew to Danang, then drove to Hoi An. As Tet, the lunar New Year approaches, more people are traveling, often from the cities to their home towns. So the airport was packed, with long lines for check-in and security. We were beginning to wonder if everyone would make the flight when the last couple came on board just as the doors were closing.

Hoi An is a small coastal town that was a major trading center in the 17th century, but then became a backwater. So the old town center was preserved, and is now a tourist attraction. Most people come for a day and leave before dark, which is a mistake because it’s prettiest after dark.

But first we visited the market, more fruits and vegetables, and almost as good as yellow chicken feet, pig heads!

We had a cooking class, which was better than I expected, with some new techniques and recipes. I also came away with some sharp cooking tools that will need to go in the checked luggage.

Hoi An is also noted for its Chinese style lanterns, both in shops and on the streets.

The Tet festival added a sculptural lantern contest, with some fantastic pieces.

They also sell the floating candles, like in China, and we couldn’t resist buying a couple from this girl.

At dinner we watched these girls absorbed in their video game.

The War of American Aggression

his is what the Vietnamese call our Vietnam War. It’s interesting to see and hear about it from their perspective. They don’t dwell on it much, most of the people were born after the war and in general they are more focused on the future than the past. But there is a war museum and we went there.

The top floor has photos taken by war correspondents that died in the war. The exhibit was put together with the help of the state of Kentucky. It was interesting and depressing, but nowhere near as distressing as the section on Agent Orange. The US sprayed between 70 and 100 million liters of toxic chemicals on Vietnam, depending on whether you believe the Defense Department or Columbia University. I have to think that if a country did that today it would be considered using chemical weapons and a war crime.

The defoliation destroyed forests and farms making villages unlivable, and caused health problems for the residents, including genetic damage for generations. It’s a wonder that they don’t harbor ill feelings toward us.

No photos for this posting, I didn’t need to take photos to remember the images.

Traffic on a Ho Chi Min City street corner