The mud and the darkness

(No.9, Vol.4,Oct-Nov 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Inside Dark Cave

Entrance of Dark Cave

Riding a zip line crossing Chay River

Dark Cave is about 20 kilometres from Phong Nha Cave, Quang Binh Province, by road. Examined by British Royal explorers in 1990 and 1992, its entry way is 20 metres wide and 40 metres high. The cave is 5,258 metres long, and the ceiling inside is up to 80 metres high. Like many other caves in Phong Nha - Ke Bang area, it has a dry part and a submerged part. The darkness inside the cave is thick, much thicker than in other caves. So thick that one feels one can scoop it. That’s why people call it the Dark Cave.
Visitors can get on a boat at Phong Nha landing on Son River, go upstream and then follow Chay River for about five kilometres to reach the Dark Cave. Or, from Dong Hoi City to Phong Nha - Ke Bang Heritage Centre, it takes 40 minutes to drive on the fabulous Ho Chi Minh trail. The Zip Line entertainment park is 17 kilometres from there. Then I and my friends rode a zip line over the Chay River and took a boat to Dark Cave.
The entry is a mysterious narrow hollow in a gigantic lime stone mass. When we went inside, darkness immediately enveloped us. Without the stairs and a guide, few would dare to come in.
We admired a big stalagmite standing guard at the entrance, with a wavy surface covered by tiny, glittering grains. We found fossilized shells in the cave walls. There was even a fish skeleton high above. We had to climb up a large rock to see it in its entirety.
The deeper we went, the darker it became, and the more fascinating. We followed a section of a cave river, wading waist-deep in cold water, and then turned to another path to walk in mud. Nobody would expect such a path amidst stone walls. Amazing! It was very narrow; at times the bottom was just wide enough for our feet. Mud covered the walls and stalactites. The path zigzagged for about 10 minutes, and we came to a wide area, with soft, fine mud that thickly covered the slopes, allowing us to slide like kids, then splash into a muddy ditch. We yelled like kids and let the mud cover us from head to toe. ‘Nothing anywhere can compare to this muddy joy,’ Pon, a foreign tourist exclaimed. He and his pal had a specialized camera. One snapped continuously while the other slid and fell and splashed.
At the end of the muddy path we cheered loudly again, seeing another muddy hole about 20 metres in diameter. Again, sliding and falling, eagerly and wildly. The mud penetrated our skin, feeling like an elixir of life. We turned off all the lights on our helmets to enjoy the primeval darkness and the silence, disturbed only by dripping water.
After a few minutes of soaking in the mud, we turned to another path that led to the Thuy Tien pool. It was quite big, with clear, cool water. On the other side of the pool there was a passage, about two metres wide, leading to a submerged interstice. We dived through it and emerged to a field of rugged rocks. We sat there for a while, enjoying the air, the absolute silence and the perilous beauty of the rocks, and then went back, finishing the exploration of the Dark Cave to join sportive games that take place on Chay River.
For a long time, people said that Phong Nha - Ke Bang is like a beautiful woman that one can only look at, without touching. That’s because monotonous sight-seeing was the only thing available here. Lately, some tour companies have ventured into the realm of adventure tourism with considerable success.
Last August, zip line, a daring sport, appeared in Phong Nha - Ke Bang for the first time. Tourists can cable slide 400 metres from the wildlife watch station to Dark Cave, and slide further to a creek bath site. To guarantee safety for guests, Phong Nha - Ke Bang tourist centre has hired three Vietnamese mountain climbers to train mountain climbing and cable sliding here. Since the opening of zip line services, the area has become much livelier. Every day it receives on average 60-80 tourists, mostly foreign.
According to Mr Le Thanh Loi, Phong Nha - Ke Bang tourist centre’s director, his centre will soon invest in the Chay River and Dark Cave area to create more attractions such as a suspension bridge or homestead eco tourism, so tourists will have a more in-depth experience of this land of caves.

Text and photos by Truong Quang Nam
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