Who really knows when the Phong Nha caves were first discovered? Indigenous people have lived in the mountains for thousands of years. The Lonely Planet ‘discovered’ them in the last 2 years vaulting the caves to number three on the list of top 20 things to see in Vietnam. During the ‘American/Vietnam’ war, caves were used as hiding places for people and goods. And today speleological experts from the UK and Germany discover new caves nearly every time they set out in the jungle.
The oldest caves are high in the mountains, but as the rivers run lower and deeper underground, new caves are being created today, ready to be discovered. Underwater rivers burst out creating deep blue lagoons.
We took a boat into THE Phong Nha cave. The young women driving cut the engine at the cave mouth and used paddles to push the long boat slowly into the darkness. The floating bridge that was used to cross the Chay river joining the north and south parts of the Ho Chi Min trail was hidden away during day light hours in this very cave. I searched the walls and rock face for signs of the rocket damage. We learnt that the Americans fired hundreds of missiles into the cave, and celebrated when one reached its target. It didn’t do much damage; the cave reaches at least 35km into the limestone karst mountain. I expect the floating bridge was towed well in each dawn, after a night of facilitating the safe crossing of troops and supplies.
After exploring the grottoes, and finding the 1000 year old graffiti, we paddled out into the sunlight…
A foreign owned research group had bought a boat for each of the 200 families in the area. They lined up, patiently waiting for tourists to drive around their previously quiet river home. Its a funny thing, progress.
We stopped to pay our respects at the martyrs’ cave, where eight young Vietnamese sheltered from a torrent of bombs. President Nixon wanted to boost support for ‘winning the war’ in pre election campaigning. Fifty B51 bombers dropped tonnes of bombs over a small area. The hiding cave was closed over by a rock fall, and nine days later, the shouting from inside could no longer be heard. The deceased are considered war heroes, and many Vietnamese people make pilgrimages to the martyrs’ cave. We did not offer incense at the shrine, trying to explain to the children that Chris and I respect other people’s right to worship whoever they want, but that we will not participate. ‘Why did all the other tourists offer incense?’ they asked. I don’t know. I think some people believe something, some people believe nothing, some people believe anything…..
This part of Vietnam is the narrowest, only 42 Km from the Lao border on the west to the ocean on the east. In a kind-of pincer move, the US targeted the area time and time again trying to cut off the movement of people, oil and supplies from the north to the south. For security reasons, its still illegal to stand on bridges. Well, that’s what our guide told us, when he pulled over so we could get out and view the sunset from the bridge.
Today, the rice paddies have bomb crater carved fish ponds in them. Bombs shells and bullet fragments are collected and sold as souvenirs. Also today, Westeners and Vietnamese alike use crisp green US notes to pay for big items. And apparently, that American icon, the new iPhone, is on the top of the wishlist of every young Vietnamese.
We heard of ex US fighter pilots having a beer with ex Viet Cong anti aircraft weaponry operators, discussing who was on duty on which day, and who shot who. Forgiveness? I’m not sure that has been explicitly on the national agenda. I hope there are individuals who have found it, and given it. Perhaps the passing of time and the re-greening of the landscape and the birth of about 60 million Vietnamese people since the long war have eased the the war wounds.
Our guide only stopped talking to light another cigarette. He was a tall, tanned, brash, raw, compassionate, mellow Australian, with a knack for story telling and a love for Vietnam and it’s people.
Paradise cave was grand and cavernous, tastefully lit and cool to wander through. The signage made us laugh!
Hundreds of city dwelling Vietnamese were bussed in to visit them, not a single one wearing remotely sensible footware. Thongs, or high heels, but nothing in between! Even the old ladies climbed the 524 steps easily, neither sweating nor becoming breathless. The same could not be said for Chris and I, each with a child on our backs!
The last cave we visited required padling inflatable canoes, swimming through icy river water, complete blackness, non waterproof head torches, and walking on bat droppings. I am happy to admit I didn’t mind being the one who stayed back to mind Sparky and Baby Boy, who share my intense dislike of freezing water. But Chris, Mum and the other three children, came back elated! What an adventure!