Thiên Đường Cave, or “Paradise” Cave known to tourists like me and you, is somewhat of a new discovery in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, in the Quảng Bình Province.
Approximately 500 km south of Hanoi, or 223 km North West of Huế (depending where you’re coming from) it was stumbled upon by a local man one day not so far ago in 2005, and what a discovery it was.
The British Cave Research Association caught wind and explored the first 5 km in the same year, but the full 31 km was not fully wandered through until late in 2010 – the same year it opened to tourists.
Reaching 100 m high and 150 m wide, it managed to take away the title of ‘Longest Cave’ from it’s predecessor ‘Phong Nha’ Cave, which doesn’t just reside in the same country but also the same National park.
These extraordinary measurements did not win it the ‘Biggest Cave’ in the world however – no, although a contender, considered to be the biggest cave in the world can also be found around here. Phong Nha is a cave gold mine, so it should be no surprise UNESCO knighted this a World Heritage Site.
It was my boyfriend and my decision to visit Paradise Cave, out of the spoilt for choice gigantic cave menu – we like caves.
However, what we didn’t realise how much we had to prepare ourselves before finally reaching it’s entrance.
We booked ourselves on a tour from Huế, that would take a grueling five hours to get there, and another five back – if you are unexperienced or not knowledgeable about Vietnamese roads and traveling within it then please read my post Nightmare Aboard a Vietnamese Sleeper Bus to understand why a distance that should take three and a bit hours to cover, in fact takes longer, much longer.
So it wasn’t a wise choice from me to stay out a bit longer and have a few more Beer Hoi’s the night before.
I fell asleep in the small tour bus on the way there, my boyfriend kindly filmed this and I was going to add it here for comedic effect, but sadly and mysteriously it has disappeared from his phone…
What I will provide is a fetching photo of me in one of the free tour caps that were provided. Cám ơn!
After arriving at the park we stopped off at a roadside restaurant for lunch, which was included with the price – like many tours in Vietnam!
Joyful at the sight of food in an effort to relieve my heavy hangover, it was soon interrupted by a group of loud chanting Vietnamese men at another table. Although I have no idea what was being celebrated, it was indeed being celebrated with taking a shot of rice vodka and much loud, but happy, cheering.
They couldn’t resist getting our tour group involved – although a large shot of eye-waterly strong rice vodka with loud Vietnamese men shouting in my face was the last thing I wanted at that exact moment; it was oddly enjoyable and I’d gladly do it all again.
It was not over yet, the next part was a tough hike up to the cave’s entrance in weather of high humidity – I can’t remember how long this took in total but I warn you now; do not go hungover and if you are not of reasonable fitness give up now.
The walk down is much easier, however.
The first 1.1 km of the cave has a built-up wooden platform for tourists – the further 29.9km is not reachable by untrained cave explorers like us, as the cave shrinks into small hollows making it a safety risk to the average man/woman.
The only safety risk there is to worry about is the wooden steps going down to the platform – these can be very slippery, so make sure you wear suitable shoes, but then again, even if you’re wearing them too you too can still slip – as my boyfriend did which prompted me to hold his hands down the steps as if hanging onto him like a small child in fear he may slip again (sorry David.)
Inside, you can’t help but wonder at the cave’s beauty. It is truly spectacular and the lighting along the platform and shining stalactites and stalagmites – the most magnificent I’ve ever seen – adds to the eerie presence of the cave, imagine stumbling across this!
The heat and the sweat you experience outside is now cooly fanned by the damp atmosphere of the cave. We stayed inside for around an hour long gazing in awe at some of the wax-like formations.
The five hours it took to get here, the shouty crazy Vietnamese men with their rice vodka and the uphill trek were all worth it. It looks magical. Here are a feast of my best pics, which I feel the camera did not do enough justice.
Date Written: 05.01.2013 Place: Sydney, Australia Time: 11:28
I was hurrying to finish my beer whilst everyone was moving onwards, out of the hostel and towards beer hoi. As I stepped out behind them the two German guys (and 1 Austrian) were calling me from reception. “We changed our minds! We want free beer!” They were a few hours late for the free beer and our hostel’s bar was now closing, but then, as I was explaining this to them, Sara, the really drunk friend of Fabia from earlier, stepped out of nowhere and spurted out; “if you want beer you need to go to beer hoi or this club I went to the other day and got so wasted I don’t actually remember how to get there or back and…”
She was so drunk. I was drunk, but she was so much drunker. She was so drunk she was the kind of drunk person you look at and think oh god I hope I don’t look like that when I’m drunk.
The German guys looked at her confused, whether because they didn’t know who she was and where she just come from, or because she was just so drunk. German guy: “Wait, slow down, yes we want beer.” Sara repeated the above, German guys “We want beer, not bear.” Sara, “I didn’t say bear, I said bear.” German guy, “Beer. We want beer yes?” Sara, “I didn’t say bear!” I think she actually just accidentally spat on him by speaking. Me, “there’s a cafe next door that sells beer, let’s go there and sit down.” We all agreed to go there, besides we had already lost the others who must be at the beer hoi bar by now.
In the cafe Sara had found Fabia, eating a noodle dish. She had disappeared at some point during our messy Kings cup game and told Sara this was because she had thrown up, being so drunk, and didn’t want to go to bed on an empty stomach. Next thing I see is Sara, knocking on the cafe’s kitchen door and speaking, in the awful drunk loud way she was doing moments before, to the poor Vietnamese waitress, who probably would have come over to take her order anyway. “Can I have what she’s having? That girl over THERE. Yes, her. THE SAME DISH. I want the same as her. For me. Please.” Oh god, she’s literally in the kitchen shouting this at her. She is such an embarrassment to my fellow English kind. Of course the waitress could hear her fine and she could probably understand her too, why, oh why, is she shouting at her like that.
The Germans and I had got beer by then and when Sara got her noodle dish I think she asked for a knife and fork. “A knife and fork! There’s chopsticks right there!” Exclaimed one of the German guys, I’m glad I wasn’t the only one thinking she was an idiot. “I don’t know how to use them!!!” Wailed Sara. “What? But that’s ridiculous. You’re in Asia, you must eat with chopsticks.” Calmly said the Austrian from the group. Before long this Austrian guy was giving Sara a lesson in chopsticks etiquette by pinching the noodles from her plate, with his arm spread over her and feeding them into her mouth, whilst she was laughing and trying not to spill/spit out the noodles back onto her plate or all over her. If I was her, I’d be so embarrassed the next morning.
The cafe began to close for the night and customers were beginning to get shuffled out. Quick thinking, we ordered some more beer and was allowed to sit in our hostels bar, whilst it was closed, so we could drink the beers there. Sara hadn’t joined us, in fact I didn’t know where she went, perhaps she was vomiting and passing out on a war monument somewhere.
Fabia was back with us though and as our conversation moved from community service, being a punishment sentence in Britain, opposed to the compulsory care for old people service German and Austrian youths have to do for a year, Fabia was disagreeing with everything I said. The Germans were naturally inquisitive about what laws we had in England, or what kind of culture we had for caring for the old and anything I explained was becoming a catalyst of argument for Fabia, another bad drunk. For example; me: “Careworkers can get good pay in England.” Fabia “No they can’t, they get shit pay, they don’t even get minimum wage” and so it went on with any point I had to add to the conversation.
“Maybe we should change the subject.” I said, in the end, exasperated with Fabia, the most annoying person I’ve met whilst traveling. At which point Sara came bursting through into the bar, “there you are you BITCH! I was looking for YOU!” She stammered pointing at Fabia, Fabia burst out laughing, then SPLASH – Sara’s foot went straight in the pond which was at the end of the bar “WHO PUTS A FUCKING RIVER HERE?!” to which we all burst out laughing at her stupid drunken behavior. More laughing at her, than with her, mind you.
Anyway, Sara and Fabia finally buggered off to bed when I was left with the German guys having a conversation then another shock – a squeaking noise underneath my legs – a rat, yes a rat, just ran underneath my feet! I screamed and threw my legs up on the bench, the German guy sitting next to me jumped, “why did you scream!?” Me: “there was a rat! It ran underneath me and must have ran underneath you too!” German guy: “What!!?” He put up his feet too, then there was a noise across from behind the bar, “oh yes, that’s the rat!” said the bartender casually, as if the hostel’s cat or dog just ran through the bar, except it was a rat. A rat!!
It’s remarkable what you see and put up with when you’ve had a few beers though, after the rat incident and before we all went to bed, we all began laughing and agreeing that this is probably a common occurrence in Asia and worse, certainly, is yet to come.
The next day Jill had already left the hostel to meet her on/off boyfriend by the time I woke up, I didn’t see Simon, Charlie or Sara again and I only had a brief moment with Aiden in reception before he diasppeared too. As for Fabia, I had my own friend arriving in Vietnam the next day and although she apologised to me in the morning our friendship ended there, and so did our little temporary group, in Hanoi.
Date Written: 09.11.2013 Place: Koh Phangan, Thailand Time: 15:40
After coffee it was time to check in. We were in an 8-bed dorm with an en suite bathroom and a balcony overlooking one of Hanoi’s roaring motorbike filled streets.
Three other guys were just as chatty as us in our room, two were from Germany and the other from Austria. All were medical students who were now in Vietnam traveling after volunteering in a Bangkok hospital for several months. Another guy in the room was still asleep on a top bunk, I later found out this guy (when he woke up) was from Canterbury, like me, and my age but we’d never met! (Cue ‘it’s a small world..’)
After showering, Jill, Fabia and I went to get some lunch. The German guys had left to go to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, whereas the trio from the bar in the morning were still out somewhere. During lunch Jill explained her friend, also from Belgium, but who had to fly from Paris, was coming to meet her tomorrow and they would travel down through to south Vietnam together. After some questioning from Fabia, Jill’s ‘friend’ was actually her ex-boyfriend, who she used to live with. Jill said they were still friends and still wanted to go on this trip together, although it wasn’t obvious, I got the impression Jill was still a bit hurt from the break-up so I changed the subject
Hanoi was hot. The volume of motorbikes zipping through the Old Quarter’s narrow streets made the heat have a constant buzz. The Old Quarter itself is like a labyrinth with different streets focusing on selling one thing; so one street would be full of shoe shops, or clothes, or tools (shoe street, clothes street, tool street, you get the picture, these were not the actual street names but our nicknames for them.) We’d walked round for a fair while, stopping at different beauty salons and shops on the way, to eventually decide getting our nails done was too expensive (for Jill and Fabia, for me I thought 40,000 dong, just over a quid, was a better than cheap price!) and Hanoi, although having many varieties of shoes, did not have Jill’s large shoe size!
Jill carried on looking elsewhere, whereas Fabia and I made our way back to the hostel. I had a map and navigated our way back, which I could sense Fabia becoming a little frustrated about, maybe it’s because I took control of getting us back or maybe it annoyed her I knew where we were going and she didn’t, in the end. When we arrived at the hostel I left Fabia to it and ventured alone for my much anticipated manicure and pedicure, then relaxed…
When I returned to the hostel I bumped into Jill in reception, who was still unlucky in her search for her shoe size, not alone a shoe she liked. The plan was to go to our hostel’s free beer hour when it began, which we found everyone, apart from the German guys, drinking the free beer and playing some card games.
The next few hours that unravelled included a bit of a messy Kings Cup game, which I never really wanted to play. I said I’d keep out but after several cries of desperation from Simon shouting; “Emma it’s your turn! Pick up a card!” I didn’t want to upset him so entertained him by then becoming part of the game. Although I did refuse to the troll card rule, which meant sitting under the table for the rest of the game until the next person picked up the troll card. Aidan, obviously a hardcore Kings Cup player who took the rules seriously, stepped in my place and sat under the table for a large part of the game. Good for him… I also remember playing the “fuck you” game from that morning, only this time with alcohol, whilst noticing Fabia was looking very, very drunk. Another girl was at the table called Sara, who was equally as drunk as Fabia and who seemed to have met each other before.
There was one toilet at the bar, just one, for boys and girls to use, which I avoided when it was taken and just sprinted up to our dorm room to use the toilet in there. That’s when I saw the German guys from this morning, chilling out on their individual bunks. Their tourist outing to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was abruptly cancelled when they got there because the great Ho Chi himself had been shipped to Russia for his yearly visit, to preserve his embalming corpse so I guess he doesn’t start rotting away in a natural process? I don’t know, I find embalming weird, I saw Lenin’s embalmed dead body in Moscow a few months before and it was really creepy.
I invited the German guys down for a beer but they declined, claiming they were tired. So after my toilet break and feeling quite cheerful after my free beers I went down and brought a big bottle of beer and sat down with the rest of the guys. Except as I sat down Simon just stood up; “we’re going to beer hoi! Come on, lets go!”
Beer hoi is something I would soon find out was very entertaining throughout Vietnam. Kegs of beer are made fresh that day to sell at a makeshift bar which could be on a street corner or alongside a street equipped with small plastic chairs and to be sold all for the price of 30p (or sometimes less) a cup!
Aidan crawled out from under the table and so I got up to join them…
To be continued…
Date Written: 09.11.2013 Place: Bangkok, Thailand Time: 15:29
Finally it was the day I was waiting for since being in China – the day I was leaving it!
I obtained my Vietnam visa from the consulate in Kunming, located on the 5th floor in a building next to the city’s World Trade Centre, when I went to collect it, the only seat free in the waiting area had been taken by a Chinese mother hovering her young Chinese boy over it, so he could urinate. But with that sight well and truly behind me, which is actually a common one in China most days, the day was finally here I was leaving China and all its craziness behind by taking the 18:20 night train, from Nanning to arrive in Vietnam’s capital; Hanoi.
My first sight of a visibly and unashamedly Vietnamese setting was the train station we had to wait within for visa checks, the first station when rolling into the country, an hour or so away from my destination. The floor had a murky orange tiling, whilst the walls were painted a few shades from a mustard yellow. The tall ceiling echoed all the hushed conversations and commotions beneath it, whilst one wall was taken up by a full-length French window, with a semi-circle top and accompanying wooden panes. The custom officials wore a heavy dark green military uniform. This sight was a relief, as it was right then I truly felt I was without a doubt no longer in China.
I actually arrived in Hanoi around 4 or 5AM in the morning and shared a taxi with a girl I met on the train. Ruth, also English and a redhead, studied at Oxford and had been teaching English in China before coming to Vietnam. We found out her hostel was just around the corner of my own so we were dropped off there by taxi.
As I walked to my hostel in the dark with the sun still not risen, it was then I began to ask myself if I was particularly safe walking in the Vietnamese capital, at this time, on my own, to then eventually find my hostel with its security shutters down over the door and windows. Shit.
A bit stumped with that to do, I went back to the previous hostel where Ruth was still sitting waiting to check in. We chatted for another hour or so before I began to wander back to my own hostel again, this time dawn was breaking and being a bit lighter with a few more people moving about the streets, the shutters were half way up so I could crawl through to find a man sleeping on the floor, alongside the reception desk inside.
I didn’t want to wake him, the last time I had awoken a sleeping reception man no good had came from it (a story I haven’t posted yet..stay tuned), but I had caught a flash of a blonde girl in the corner of my eye, moving around in the room past reception.
I walked in that direction, past the sleeping man, past the reception desk, the lift and the stairs until I reached the bar of the hostel.
Five young people, my age, were sat around the table. “Heey!” I cheerfully addressed them, a friendly approach usually works well for me when meeting new people. Soon, sitting down amongst them I discovered their names; Simon, Jill (the blonde), Aidan, Charlie and Fabia.
Simon, Jill, Charlie and Fabia had all just arrived in Hanoi themselves, all equally exhausted from trekking in Northern Vietnam’s mountainous Sapa, the previous days before. Aidan, at first the most talkative out of the group, lived here at the hostel and taught English throughout Vietnam, he wasn’t up in his room and instead down here in the bar because he had stayed round a friend’s last night and only just got back in with the rest of them. Aidan was the one to inform me check-in, actual physical get-into-our-rooms-and-chuck-ourselves-down-onto-our-beds-check-in, wouldn’t happen until 10am, a somewhat long 4 hours away.
So, in that case, we decided to play cards. Simon, Jill and Charlie, all currently traveling solo, had met whilst trekking in Sapa. Fabia tagged along somewhere on the way home and Simon seemed to know Aidan from staying at this hostel before he headed to Sapa. I’m not going to lie; the bar was quite dingy, with walls stained with graffiti of hundreds of travellers from many stays before my own. Simon pointed out his contribution – a Swedish flag with his name and a date underneath it. There was a small, a very small, pond in the corner of the bar, which weakly emitted a leaking sound the entire time.
We played Vietnamese poker, without money, I can’t recall the rules and I can’t remember what distinguished this game different from your usual Poker game to make it Vietnamese, although I can remember the next game we played was a combined card and drinking game, which we played without alcohol. This one was called “Fuck You” – beat the card that lays with a higher figure from your hand, then declare “Fuck you” with the name of the person in the group you want to down their drink or shot. For example; “Fuck you Simon!” Whoever gets the last “fuck you!” in to their targeted person would mean that targeted person would have to drink. Of course we didn’t have drinks or shots to lace someone up with, so saying “fuck you” to a complete stranger, oddly but enjoyably, broke the ice quite successively.
After an hour or so, behind the scenes of our obscenities, the hostel, and no doubt the sleeping reception man, was coming to life! Another 2 hours to go yet, but the female receptionist now starting work told us there is room and us girls will be together in the same dorm, the boys will be together in another room. The sun was up and shining brightly now so our newly made group decided to go for a morning coffee whilst we waited for our rooms to be ready. Sitting in Cafe Marilyn we sat on the balcony in the fresh air and all ordered a creamy coffee listed as a “Vietnamese Coffee” on the menu and looked over St Joseph Cathedral and the square below.
Jill, from Belgium, told me she had lost her shoes whilst dreamily looking over the square beneath us. I couldn’t resist and joked asking if she had lost them down there, which we both giggled and she answered she hasn’t had much sleep, with comically putting her hand up to her forehead. The boys began to wander off, I think I heard Simon saying he needed to book his bus ticket to leave and head south tomorrow. Us three girls remained and all decided and agreed today, after check-in, we’d all get our nails done and find Jill some new shoes.
To be continued… (read part 2 here)