After our visit to paradise yesterday it’s off to the caves again, in this area that houses the worlds biggest caves it’s the thing to do. Today there’s no punishing steps to climb or heat to battle, in their place we slip smoothly along a river to the cave mouth surrounded by the giant bulges of rock that stand in mobs all around us. Our timber boat battered and rustic from years of making this trip travels surprisingly smoothly past people plucking weed from the river bed with what look like giant chopsticks, heaving large mounds into their narrow boats to overflow the sides and kiss the waters surface. The world carries on as we carry on, tourist adventure coexists with everyday rural life in this part of Vietnam too picturesque to not be enjoyed by all.
Rounding a bend in the river we stare in the face of a rock wall, vertical and severe even with the gentle hue of faint blue lending it a passivity its immensity contradicts. Our river that supports a world around it is no trickle in the mud and yet it channels directly to this sheer rock wall, and through it. Edging closer the engine is cut and we’re cast into silence, our smooth slip on the water just got smoother. The stone cliff persists, it’s not a trick, our river continues it’s slow meander into a gaping maw at the base of a stone wall that isn’t as foreboding after all. The lady guiding us today makes her way to the front of the boat and with a single oar lashed to the boat sways in rhythmic time to paddle us in silence into the darkness before us.Piercing the cave mouth the still waters become somehow more still and the air seems frozen in it’s place, this is a world defined by stillness. Scattered lights sympathetically illuminate the space we are in and the roof of our boat is lifted away by our guides leaving our view no longer confined and our imaginations no longer so necessary. We’ve timed our run well, the mass crowds are at lunch and for this journey into the river beneath the mountain leaving us to enjoy this stillness to ourselves. Grand formations abound, a melting world trapped in rock surrounds us as eleven people in a boat make no noise beyond the occasional shutter click of a camera or audible exhale when the wondrous view becomes too much to contain.
On our return the first of the afternoon wave of tourists ventures in as we’re off the boat to walk a part of the way out of this space. In the American war in Vietnam this cave network was used by the local forces as a refuge and place for medical support, a sort of field hospital. Strolling the huge caverns it’s possible to imagine wounded soldiers being rushed in, busy nurses and doctors tending the sick and a heady aroma of pho being cooked up to turn the harvested river weed outside into nourishment for the fighters. A war effort drenched in hardship and toil set on a stage of mystique and wonder.Making our way to the boat we glance back at the immense space that exists within this mountain we see; how much is rock and how much is air and stillness? All around us are similar mountains that we rode through for hours and will again tomorrow, how much of those are rock and how much of the space we assume is solid is nothing of the sort, just stillness and quiet. We’ve walked immense caverns, arenas that carve out not just mountains but ranges yet we’ve seen but a scratch upon a spot in terms of this regions grandeur. Hang Son Doong cave is the big bopper here, the largest cave in the world. With a principal cavern of 5km long, 150m wide and over 250m high it accommodates just 84 visitors a year, it’s the inverse everest that reaches no skies upward, it creates it’s own going downward. Such a sobering thought, an entire city block of Manhattan midtown could be uprooted and plonked into Hang Son Doong; this includes the skyscrapers.
So often our imagination is a hemispherical ideal, the ground is just the ground leaving us to push our thoughts into only the spaces that exist above terra firma. In Phong Nha our worlds are uniquely cut in two, vision and reality exists alone above ground while imagination forages and expands within the spaces we now know are below it, a blank impenetrable ground no longer. The world so much more alive than the blank rock ball we usually perceive now ferries us past rice paddies that divide our reality from our imagination, and on to food. We bash through dirt roads not entirely sure where we’re going but we’re looking for a restaurant we know is out here, Jamie and Ari are our guides but no one really seems to know where we’re going, it’s a wild goose chase looking for a chicken.Destination aside, this is the exact type of off piste jaunt that this road trip is about. We receive warm smiles, waves and even the occasional giggle for the tourists bashing their way down roads that see little beyond local traffic. But we persist and before long we’re at Moi Moi restaurant somewhere in rural Vietnam, we could be hours from town and centuries from urbanisation but what we aren’t far from is a pure taste of Vietnam. In fact pure Vietnam is walking past us blissfully unaware that in an hour it’s going to be our late lunch. Food doesn’t get fresher, our chicken is slaughtered before us and plucked with precision before kissing the grill as we sit down to a beer and peanut dumplings. Some dramas in finding the place aside, this is already worth the trip.
All four of us are starving and a whole chicken and some slow cooked pork in bamboo disappears along with the bowl of rice into the cavities of our bellies like the spaces inside the ground beneath us. On the slow journey back we cross the threshold from rutted rural road underneath the modern tarmac equivalent before swinging up onto not just a new road but a new era. From rural life we venture back to town, the past slips into the present, tourism shakes hands with everyday life and all the while our world remains sliced in two, above ground vision opposing underground imagination. In Phong Nha, like so few places in the world opposing ideals, places, thoughts and concepts exist adjacent and so succinctly separate; Phong Nha on many counts truly is not just where one world splits in two but where two worlds collide.