The cave in

By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News

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The view from a cave in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, Quang Binh Province. PHOTO: CALVIN GODFREY
We arrived in Son Trach at dark after 220 kilometers of uninhabited forest and pulled into the first place we saw, Ho Khanh’s Homestay.
Ho Khanh was nowhere in sight, but a laminated poster described him as a former “jungle man” who had grown up poaching timber and had, at some point, become an advocate for conservation. He’d also had the distinction of discovering Son Doong—the largest cave in the world
Rooms were US$25 a night and came with complimentary breakfast and free use of bicycles, which all sounded pretty delightful.
“Oh man,” my travelling companion whispered. “This is bullshit.”
We spent the next hour touring the town of Son Trach—a single strip of hotels, restaurants and combinations of the two that hadn’t existed two years ago.
On the night in question most of them were full, but my friend managed to negotiate a damp room above a restaurant for a mere $8. I awoke, covered in mosquito bites, to the sound of four teenagers singing as they set up the restaurant, which apparently consisted of nothing but gongs and squeaky chairs.
I dragged myself to the window and realized that Son Trach looked as though it had been built through a drained corner of Ha Long Bay—there was nothing around but karsts and field so brilliantly green they hurt your eyes.
For $17, you could hire a boat piloted by former rice farmers to paddle you into a brightly illuminated cavern of Phong Nha Cave.
After years of dirty disappointments, amateur zoos and dusty gift kiosks I’ve learned to be wary of Vietnam’s overhyped tourist attractions, but when our captain cut the engine and began rowing us under an inverted moonscape, things really changed. We lay down on the bow of the ship and didn’t say a word as we ate a sleeve of Oreos in stunned silence.
After that, I became addicted to the park and the place. I began submitting my résumé around town, hoping to become one of a score of white people who had come for the caves and stayed for the beer.
I spent hours sitting around smoky campfires at the newly constructed Easy Tiger Backpacker hostel—a hive of European youth recklessly shuttling their way up and down the country on rented motorbikes. They were joined, nightly, by British cavers, short-term tour guides and a handful of assorted consultants determined to reprogram the locals.
“It’s a good thing you’ve come now,” they kept telling me.
The powers had plans for a casino. An enterprising gentleman had paid a generous fee to sell tickets to Paradise Cave. He’d already grown rich charging entry to the cavern, which he’d outfitted with colored lights and a kilometer-long boardwalk.
Only a fraction of the park’s explosive-addled wilderness has been properly demined and explored. No one knew what kind of other, bigger caves remained waiting to be found and tapped for cash.
I began branching out to the luxuriant Phong Nha Farmstay, where I stayed zonked before the indoor fireplace, swimming pool and miles and miles of uninterrupted rice fields glowing a near iridescent green.
The cold mists of March made the park’s jungles haunting and imposing. In the sunlight, it all felt positively Edenic. But even they couldn’t match the sensation created by the endless expanse of fields tended by old war heroes. These old stooped figures had given the best years of their lives to building a supply line that would defeat the best armies the West had to offer—only to watch their former-foes’ next generation of losers return as whining tourists.
When I got tired of the whining, I decamped to the Pepper House where a retired life model named Multi (a name adopted following a drunken error on his visa application) and his stunning young wife Diem operate a dormitory, restaurant and farm with a campfire that burned late into the night.
Beds started at $10 a night and my plan to move in represented the straw that finally forced my longtime travel pal to get on a bus to Hanoi.
My early ambitions to explore wild portions of the park or sneak into Laos for Laab disintegrated into a listless desire to laze on various porches, drink cold beer and watch the rice grow.
By the time he left to pursue unattachment, I had attached myself to the idea of staying forever. Opening a fishing place. Or something.
It took a slap in the face to make me realize I had to go.
I’d sauntered into the backpacker hostel in the wee hours of the morning to find an expatriated Australian bushman leaning heavily on the bar with a pair of red gorilla hands.
“Wanna have some fun,” he asked me.
“Sure,” I said.
In an instant, all of the bones in my neck and head crunched and I found myself looking at the person standing next to me.
“I wanna fight you so bad,” the gorilla wheezed in a drunken fugue state. “I wanna rip your bloody ears off.”
Friends rushed in to grab his arms and put him back on a stool while I made a cowardly escape.
I spent the next day in bed, thinking about the place, my ears and what the hell I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Maybe rice fields are like the sun, I decided. You can’t look at them for too long.

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