Sightseeing Vietnam’s Hang En cave and Remembering the War

If you’re as old as I, you simply cannot trek the jungles of Vietnam without “those names” echoing through your mind: Da Nang, Hanoi, the Ho Chi Ming Trail, Saigon, Hue, and on and on. They were among the cities, the battles, really, that captured the headlines of the 1960s as news footage of that first “television war” seared the memories of college kids like me. Luckily for me, had it not been for a physical deferment caused by my lousy eyesight, I would have been toting a rifle in those jungles (I was so near-sighted that, without my spectacles, I wouldn’t be able to tell if I was face-to-face with the enemy or a banana tree).

Yet there I was last month, trudging through the dense overgrowth of tropical vegetation of Vietnam with a cadre of young people whose parents would have been too young to fight in that war (and probably weren’t even born yet). We were in search of, not the enemy, but one of the most colossal caves in the world.

hang-en-cave

My runaway adventure this time took me to the Hang En caves. This humungous cavern was tunneled out of a limestone mountain a few million years ago by the Rao Thuong River. Fortunately, the river dissipates to a series of ponds during the dry months so it’s navigable by tourists. But it can rise almost 300 feet during the flood season, covering the rocks in the foreground where cavers stand.

The Hang En caves are situated in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, an hour’s drive from Dong Hoi in the Quang Binh province. Dong Hoi is about an hour’s flight south from Hanoi. The sightseeing is magnificent; the “getting there” is what creeky old bones like mine deeply resent.

I first caught wind of this natural marvel in a New York Times travel piece. It sounded exciting, but I should’ve known there’d be problems. After all, I just confessed I’m old enough to to have fought in the Vietnam War. That means, at minimum, I’m a geezer who should select his physical pursuits a little more carefully. Frankly, it’s a 2-day trek that’s best done by folks younger than I.

The cave lies about 7 miles from the trail head, and in between is a jungle like the 2015-01-20 11.15.12Appalachian Trail on steroids. Those challenging seven miles are dotted with steeply undulating terrain and with scores of stream to cross. Some are ankle-deep; others can not only dampen your genitals, but can also sweep away the unsteady.

Fortunately, the smart folks who arranged my tour, Oxalis Adventure Tours, are smart enough to send along guides strong enough to rescue the weary, like me. To my credit, I dumped only once.

You begin the trek about mid-morning, and it’s mostly downgrade to start. Before long you’re camped beside one of those streams for a Vietnamese-style buffet lunch. Here’s what our generous spread looked like, and some of my fellow trekkers, who, by the way, were a cheerful, enthusiastic bunch. You couldn’t find more likeable companions is you picked them by hand. 2015-01-20 12.40.14

I’d guess most were in their 20s or 30s, and certainly in better shape than I. To give you an idea of just how much better, when they stopped for a rest, I stopped for what I hoped was a nap. Well, it was almost that bad.

After lunch and a short rest, it was onward and upward, and I mean that literally. We foraged through the underbrush for a few more miles before we reached a  small village, Ban Doong, where a community of about 32 Vietnamese tough it out, surviving mostly by farming.

By any measurement, it’s a primitive village, just the kind I remember seeing in 2015-01-20 14.16.19all those horrific news reports about the war back then. Ban Doong was “grandfathered in” when the state park was created; the 32 souls (and almost as many dogs) can live out their lives in a peace that eluded them for 15 years until the war ended in 1975. The Communist North Vietnamese won; the U.S. and its allies lost. In more ways than one.

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Charlie Wetherall and a Vietnam villager.

I am, of course, useless at speaking Vietnamese, but I was, with the help of our guides, able to chat with this amiable villager. He and his wife and passel of kids have occupied this plot of land all their lives. And it’s apparently been a hard-scrabble existence. Would you believe this villager is 57 years old. The old goat on the right, is 75.

By the time mid-afternoon approached, we were in Hang En cave. It’s one of the few times I can use the term, WOW!, with any precision. This cave, third-largest is the world, is a Wow! in any language.

When you enter the cave, the ceilings are quite low. Then, guided only by the beam of a miner’s hard-hat you’re wearing, you start climbing up rocks and scrambling atop 2015-01-20 17.10.04massive boulders to reach the summit. Hint: those tiny specks on the sandy floor way down there are tents. That gives you an idea of just how massive this cave is and the terrain you must surmount to get there. When you reach the floor of the cavern you’ll overlook turquoise pools of water and the massive walls of Hang En. I should think 30-story building would easily fit in this chamber, with room to spare for a rooftop antenna.

You can get an idea of just how steep the climb is from the photo below. Fortunately, when you reach the bottom and you’re about ready to collapse, Oxalis already has tents in place for a short snooze, if you care to take one. But the main order of business at the basecamp is a terrific Oxalis meal, packed in by a half-dozen or more porters.

Hang-En-Cave-Sunbeam-Phong-Nha-Ke-Bang

In the morning, it’s breakfast and the return trip through the jungle. From a fitness point of view, it’s probably a little easier going back than getting there, even though you might start the day still a bit tired from the trek the day before.

2015-01-20 12.18.01You simply retrace your path. And that means 20 more stream-crossings and a climb of about 300-400 meters through a patchwork of jungle roots and boulders. But, pant-pant, it was worth the huffing and puffing.

At trail’s end, we took a hard-earned rest and waited for the van to shuttle us to Dong Hoi. And from there, I boarded another puddle-jumper aircraft (a ATR 72 turboprop) for an hour flight back to Hanoi, that former enemy stronghold. I’ll have my missive about treading the perilous Hanoi moped traffic and my trip to Ha Long Bay for another time.EOD

All of which brings me back to the thesis I hinted at in the opening paragraph of this missive. Yeah, I know it’s off-topic, but worth considering. And that is, as Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes once remarked in jest, “War, what is it good for?”

Good question. I gotta tell you it seems so incongruous to the flying in an out of 2015-01-20 11.29.56the Socialist Republic of Vietnam as a tourist — a country where America sacrificed the lives of some 58,000 troops (to say nothing of the half-million civilian casualties and almost an equal number of Community military deaths). To visit this beautiful country with such friendly and accommodating people in the knowledge we were — within memory– mortal enemies is an inexplicable conundrum. How, and more importantly, why did this war have to happen?

Of course, the same could be said for Nagasaki, Berlin, Warsaw, Bataan, or even Appomattox, Virginia and hundreds of former battlefields where the blood of millions of combatants has been shed. It just seems, imho, such a waste. War is bloody, expensive, and it decimates populations. And in the end, nobody really “wins.”

Think about that as the U.S. gets mired ever-deeper in Iraq and Syria. Twenty years from now, those of you who are still here will be writing your own blogs about sight-seeing the city walls of ar-Raqqah or the Turkmen castle of  Kirkuk. No matter that the Islamic State controls them now. Sooner or later, they’ll be free, open, and accessible. And you’ll be asking, like I did, “Can we get along?”

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