Hang Toi is part of the cave system in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. // © 2017 Chris Lee
Feature image (above): Visitors can zipline to the cave. // © 2017 Phongnha Discovery
"Please do not bring anything valuable that you might lose in the mud,” insisted Victor, our Phongnha Discovery guide, for the second time in an all-too-knowing tone. We were about to delve into one of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s most absorbing sites, a small section of the Phong Nha Cave system that was discovered by locals during the Vietnam War and subsequently used as a bomb shelter. And I began to suspect that the mud-covered floor of Hang Toi (Dark Cave) was where iPhones and cameras went to die a messy death.
“Messy” is a fitting adjective to describe our little expedition. But it was the good, unforgettable kind of dirty: an I-have-mud-in-the-most-inappropriate-places-but-I’m-having-so-much-fun kind of disarray.
Of course, it didn’t start out that way. The drive from our farm stay was easy enough. And the orientation, during which our guide at the park gave us a blow-by-blow account of what to expect and what to do, was neat and pain-free.
Before long, we were fitted with harnesses, helmets and life jackets (that were slightly smelly and either too big or too wet). Then it was off to the top of a zipline tower where we were to begin our Dark Cave adventure. (The less dauntless may take to the river in a kayak.)
As expected, many things didn’t go exactly as depicted in the professional video they had played at orientation. The short zipline was enjoyable enough, but our landings were less graceful, for example. And the water that we had to swim across to reach the massive cave entrance, which looked warm from the purview of the zipline, was slightly bracing.
Our trudge through the cave required wading through water, evading sharp rocks and sloshing through a milk-chocolatey trail. The path was tacky, uneven and narrow in some places. There were a lot of awkward movements, inevitable slipping and mud splatter that often landed on my face or, worse, in my mouth. But there was also a heightened sense of adventure, as well as a lot of laughing. Despite our obvious discomfort, we were having the time of our lives.
In addition to wet dirt, a collective wonderment washed over us that such a place — whose terminus was a sizable mud bath so thick one could stand in it without ever touching the bottom — existed at all.