Friday, January 25, 2013

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Totally the most beautiful place we've ever been.

Halfway through January we went on a trip with our Argentinian friend/co-worker Maxi Cadiz and our friend Spencer from HCMC, who has one of the coolest jobs ever - he travels all over Vietnam recruiting students for the University of Cincinnati.
So, we took a 6 hr train ride north of Da Nang, it just went on and on, but it was only 3 stops or so (not including the random stops at parts where there's only 1 set of tracks) - and as we brought a bunch of sugary snacks to sustain us, it lead to way too many Top N Top cupcakes...
We pulled into town about 7pm, got a hotel - where the owner asked us where we were from and replied "30 years ago I would have shot you" - totally creepy - and then when we went to look for food, there was nothing open - not a single store - but we finally found a little sidewalk stand selling sticky rice and chicken, and it was ok, not great but all right. The good thing about the hotel was that it had an awesome soft mattress (1st one in Vietnam, woot woot! - though our backs still hurt in the morning). After some uno cards we all headed off to bed.
We got up bright and early the next day to rent a motorbike to take into the park, and we took off with nothing but a general direction and Spencer's internet access on his phone, but, his phone did have the full advantage of modern technology and we had a live map showing us where to go.
I must say - it was one of the most beautiful drives we've ever been on, it was so incredible I can't even describe it.
I hope this panoramic gets bigger if you click on it, because it shows the amazing rice fields we drove through and the mountains in the distance are the entrance to the park. It was breathtaking.

We went first to Phong Nha cave, which is partially filled with water and you have to take a boat to go inside. It said it was a "3 hour tour"... kind of ominous, but most of that is spent in the boat going along the river. The boat really crawls, but at least it was good scenery.
Here's a view from the boat along the river.
Here is where the boat enters the cave, it was pretty intense as the women rowing the boat are actually ducking down to avoid knocking their heads on the ceiling in the first part.
Here's me, Maxi, and Spencer inside the cave.
After the boat ride they have you get off inside the cave. It was pretty awe inspiring, but I admit I had a lot of Batman thoughts with the colors they had everywhere.

Here's a photo of the entrance to the cave.

After that we went on the craziest most awesome drive of all time to the next cave. It was A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. 
The mountains were so incredible; we couldn't believe our eyes.

And then, against all mind-blowing-ness, it got even more beautiful as we got into the canyon and were surrounded by rich greens, misty mountains, and dark earth of such color intensity no photos or screens could ever do it justice. Here's a link to a video in another attempt to capture the moment.

It was the experience of a lifetime. I think it will always be one of the best things I have done my entire life, and I must say I've never seen anything so beautiful, anywhere.
So, once we picked our jaws up off the ground, having dragged them the entire way to the cave in a smiling, slack-jawed stupor, we reached a newly (within a few years) discovered cave - Thien Duong Cave, also known as Paradise cave. We purchased our tickets and took the long, long walk up to where you hike up to the cave entrance, and Michael just HAS to point out the CRAZY SCARY SPIDER IN THE TREE ON THE WAY UP TO THE CAVE, seriously, I took one look at it and never wanted to enter a jungle ever again.
Duh duh DUH!
Michael seriously has to have a scary spider radar or something.
It was at least the size of an adult hand (including your fingers), hanging about 12ft off the ground in a large web in the tree branches.
We continued our walk as Spencer told us of his LDS mission to Australia "a place designed to kill humans" according to him. He said that there are giant spiders all over the place and they jump. Jump people {shiver}. Totally not my idea of a good time. But, he loved it and loved his companion's arachnophobia-induced attempts to keep out said giant spiders by taping closed all spaces in his room, leading to the inevitable in-escape of one spider who took up residence in the poor guy's bed. Hilarious yes, but creepy.
At Paradise cave you have to hike up 500+ steps to reach the top, then you walk down through it and back up to where you started. All I can say is that it was the most amazing cave we've ever been in. It kind of really puts Timpanogos Cave to shame... in an incredible Grand Canyon-versus-small-river-sized kind of way.
Here are some highlights:
Due to it's fantastical appearance and ability to defy gravity, this was one of my favorite formations.
This was one of Michael's favorites - it was ENORMOUS, somewhere in height like a 3 story building or something, HUGE.

This formation was amazing as you could see where it had fallen over who know how long ago and then kept growing in it's new direction, really really neat.
Here's a link to a video I took inside the cave to try and capture the sounds there.

After the caves we took a long, cold drive back to the hotel. On the way there was the weirdest thing ever - frogs were jumping across the road to their doom like a live version of Frogger. You would see them jump in your headlights like some desperate amphibian suicide, we might have squished one on accident, so sad...
We got back to town really late and after some entertaining exploits at dinner (everyone wanted to buy Spencer a drink, but the food was really good), we went to bed after a while of trying to figure out room space with the hotel. Then we got up even EARLIER the next day to catch an early morning train (5:00AM) back to Da Nang in time for Spencer's flight back to HCMC. It was a long, long day, but totally worth it. Here's a picture of some Bun Bo (noodles with beef) we had for lunch between the two caves, good times :)

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