Phong Nha is new to tourism. I’m told that just 10 years ago the town was starving and mostly living off of trapping animals from the jungle. Tourism has changed everything in the area. In 1991 a local discovered a cave that, when later surveyed in 2009, was found to be the largest cave in the world. This cave, called Hang Son Doong, is just one of many caves in the now protected Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. We heard that just a couple years back, the town had only one bar with a refrigerator. Now there’s all kinds of restaurants, bars, hotels, and travel agencies ready to serve tourists looking to trek in the local jungle and caves. We would have loved to see Hang Son Doong, but it was too far, and too expensive for our trip. Instead we visited smaller caves that still gave us a glimpse into unique culture and geology of the region.
There are a handful of tour companies in Phong Nha, but only one who is doing “eco tourism,” rehabilitating wild animals, educating the public about conservation, and employing former poachers as trek leaders. We were lucky enough to book Hai’s Eco Conservation Tour and enjoyed a difficult but fascinating trek deep through the Vietnamese jungle.
I over-packed for this hike and brought too much camera gear. I barely even took many photos because the hike was more arduous than photogenic. We saw a handful of small lizards and bugs but nothing to excite the nature photographer in me. The jungle was lush and overgrown and thus I found it difficult to photograph. After an hour or so of hiking, I put my camera away to concentrate on *not* falling down the mountainside.
After a long day’s hike, we came to this cave where we were to have dinner and camp for the night. We were told that this was a supply cave along the Ho Chi Minh trail, where many truck-fulls of ammunition and medical supplies had been stored and protected from American bombings. The cave was mostly manmade, dug out from what was originally a much smaller cave.
The cave was treated as an almost holy place by our tour guides, who laid out some fruit, candles, and incense as votive offerings. They also started a fire in a raised rock pit that they explained was now common culture in the area, always keeping the heat off of the ground in case of any unknown bombs laying untouched in the ground.
Not pictured above is how badly Hai’s jungle trek whooped our butts. We were absolutely exhausted afterwards and were questioning our ability to get back out hiking the next day. Luckily, this Oxalis day tour was an absolute cakewalk in comparison. It could really just be considered a nice stretch for our weary legs.