Gosh, it all seems such a long time ago.
I suppose I started preparing for the 99 trip almost as soon as I had finished the 97 trip, the report got wrote and published (crappy grammar I know), funds got moved and slide shows delivered. One thing was certain, we all wanted more or less to go back. Howard the inimitable expedition leader seems to roll from one trip to the next and it was no real surprise that by about Feb 1998, plans were being made for the next trip.
As ever I pushed and cajoled work regarding time off and things were starting to come together, we then set about the usual round of negotiations, begging and soul selling to raise funds. This time we were really lucky, the Hood foundation, (sounds mysterious like he should have a disused volcano, hundreds of blokes in orange boiler suits and a fluffy white cat.) stumped several thou, as did several sports councils, the MEF and Lyon equipment. Thai offered us reduced rate tickets and gave us a practically unlimited baggage allowance.
I was to go for 3 weeks due to a change in jobs (oh well!) and was to be joined by Snablet who was in a similar position. Lessons had been learnt from the previous visit regarding food and health and this time we were going to rely on a large supply of MREs (meal ready to eat) while in the jungle as this was probably the only way to get the calories we needed without eating about 50kgs of rice each per day.
Cutting to the chase….
It was March time when Snablet and I presented ourselves to the check in desk with very little kit and two huge tackle sacs literally filled with sausage and beans, chicken curry and stew and dumplings. We had a 14 hour flight ahead of us followed by a couple of hours in Bangkok, followed again by a 2 hour flight to Hanoi.
What we need was some assistance to ensure the flight went swimmingly. As the 747 pulled into the air, the petite young stewardess staggered down the aisle laden with beer, spirits and finest wines. Our assistance had arrived. The booze flowed, the food slithered and the stewardess smarmed. Snablet and I were pissed before we crossed into France, excellent. Soon old Snab was well gone and busy meeting our neighbouring customers - an old couple - he had been in the war. Snablet was polite and kind, which involved sharing both his dinner and his drinks with the lady. For some reason she was not impressed. The payback of all this frivolity was that at 6am local time we found ourselves in Bangkok airport with raging hangovers, severe thirsts and a desire to get out of the oppressive heat that is southern Thailand.
A few cold beers soon dealt with almost all of the above and the next stop was Hanoi. We were met at the airport by Annette, Snab's wife who had been in country with the others for just over 2 weeks. She picked us up, deposited us in a taxi and immediately wrinkled her nose. For some inexplicable reason we smelt of stale booze, curry and BO, our response - an inane grin.
The next step was to head south towards the DMZ, Snab and I were pretty shattered and were hoping for a night in Hanoi before the 14-hour train journey to Dong Hoi, alas Howard, our illustrious leader couldn't wait to get going. After a quick nap, a bite to eat in the local street restaurant (it all tasted so weird and so unlike home which was 15 hours behind us) we headed for the train station. This is where the fun began, a picture a scene from exodus, mix in a bit of Michael Palin, add a few dodgy uniformed inspectors and about a dozen double booked seats and absolutely no space for the 15 tackle bags, 10 huge rucksacks, oil drum of carbide and the assorted paraphernalia that a trip collects. Ahh to be back in the Orient again…
A couple of Valium, a tiger beer, a walkman and few other bits and bobs and hey presto, as if by magic, Dong Hoi. A day was spent in Dong Hoi, meeting people, having long meetings about the potential world heritage status and several visits from the TV station. Our previous friends were very pleases to see us - we were soon to discover why…
The Ke Bang massif, is geologically rare and as a result of its position, escaped much of the worst ravages of Agent Orange and only suffered the occasional carpet-bombing. The climate has remained practically unchanged for millennia and as Anette, our resident biologist, entomologist, bug scarer and all round David Bellamy pointed out, a haven for some superb species - many unknown to western science! This uniqueness, coupled with the amazing yet fragile speleo-ecosystem has grabbed the interest of the UN - who are proposing a World Heritage Site.
The upside of this is that it would protect the environment, minimise tourist development and allow significant scientific study into the rare species found in the areas, the downside, no more logging, no more hunting, no more roads. What this would mean is that the incredibly poor people in the hills tribes in the area would remain on the poverty line, while the bureaucrats got rich on UN subsidy.
We pushed on to Son Trach where we set up base in 97. Much had changed, for a start there was now a hotel, 6 bars and a karaoke joint! Oh and television, refrigerators and warm showers - civilisation was beating an inexorable path inland. We split into two teams, the first team into Hang Khe Rhy discovered two years previously and still going. The other team (us) had our work cut out, we were to work our way inland towards Trung Hoa on the northern edge of the massif. Once there we would work our way inwards to some important areas that should yield cave leading to the massive Chay resurgence some 30k away. We were to take route 15a over the Khe Xai pass towards Minh Hoa.
We managed to rend a Nissan 4wd with a meaty V8, however there was room for 4 in the cab, and the pickup had a hard top nailed on tight. Our team of Howard, Anette, Pete, Myself and Mr Phai from the University of Hanoi sorted our kit out and hastily bought a case of Huda beer for the journey which judging by the weather was going to be tough. The temperature was now 35C and rising at 8am. We kicked off to look at Cha Noi about 2.5 hours from Son Trach by car, near the point where we reached on motorcycles the time before. Myself and Pete were in the Sauna, which was ventilated by the exhaust system to remove all oxygen and replace it with a mixture of carbon monoxide and dust. Warm beer helped.
A quick mooch about the valley and then onto the pass. The road got rough and rougher until highway 15a was little more than a path through the jungle, good in places but mostly mud and rock. The driver was possessed with a unique talent, which involved, getting to 10 mph, slamming the truck into 5th gear and slamming his foot down on the gas. Thus by keeping it in 2wd he ensured that our journey was slow, hot and bloody awkward. On several occasions we felt like turfing him out and doing it ourselves, however we were diplomatic in the extreme.
Over the top of the pass the road improved and the scenery of pure tower karst got better and better. We soon spotted a massive resurgence and Anette and Pete investigated. The entrance was a huge lake, and a huge sump. This was depressing as it made for more complicated hydrology than we had bargained. Pushing on we finally reached the small village of Trung Hoa, complete with a border post (we were the first stop from Laos) nestled into the tower karst. A cup of tea with the Commandant and we soon had permission to explore, furthermore he looked at our tired and dishevelled state and immediately started barking orders. A wing of his garrison was to be ours! A meal of noodles, beer and a few bits and bobs and beddy byes - the next day was to be busy.
First light the next morning, noodles and sausages & bean MRE, caving kit, sun cream and two water bottles. Off we go. The idea is a reccy into the heartlands of jungle to the south. Over a pass and into a hidden valley with a river that appears for 3km and no more - there has to be cave. It took about 3 hours to get to the valley and the temperature was now about 40C. On the very top of the tower karst we had to climb, we found a spring. While refreshing and good to go for a paddle, it did pose dark hydrological questions. On finding the valley, it was populated by about 6 or 7 huts - mostly empty but one family was busy growing and curing tobacco. We took shelter from the sun and drank green tea with a local who spoke of cave about 2 days walk south near Laos. He also confirmed that the river disappeared in a sump on the downstream side. He wasn't sure about the upstream end - he was willing to take us to visit.
On the way off up the valley, he asked Phai a question which when translated went very much like this.
Villager: Are you with the expedition then ?
Phai / Us: Err yes - what expedition?
Villager: The one in the valley we are going to.
Phai / Us: What ?
Villager: Been there a while they have.
Phai / Us: Who are they - we don't know about any expedition?
Villager: The Russians of course.
Well this we had to see. Two hours later, we met up with a team of Russian biologists who were camped at the head of the river. The Russians were from a field expedition of the University of Moscow, collecting bat samples, butterflies and bugs. Unfortunately they had scoured the area for weeks looking for bat roosts and had found no cave only boulder risings and sinks. Bugger.
Back home, then, a quick 4 hour trot home. It was now about 1.30 and red hot. A thermometer read 43C - no shade just bright blue sky. We yomped back at warp nine and got back to the barracks for night fall - about 6.15. I was truly shagged and started cooking tea while the others went to investigate a hole around the corner from the barracks. Not much - just another rock shelter. After a beer, a yellow fish curry and a team pow wow - we had worked out the next days plan. Back to the village and investigate the water courses around the edge of the valley.
Up early and off we went. As we marched across the plain, we saw a chap cycling along with an enormous box on the back, honking a horn, this caused much amusement, here we are miles from anywhere and what is this guy upto? A small competition was set up we reckoned that he must have been selling something. Some wag reckoned it had to be ice cream. Off into the distance he went we couldn't catch up with him so we set about our objectives.
After exploring a rock shelter we mooched about at the base of a pile of boulders, it was early morning and the temperature was rising but suddenly a cold draught was reported, an investigation revealed it to be a katabatic wind off the tower karst as the warm air rose it pulled the cool air down from the trees on the towers. Looking at the maps, the next best objective was to be the village a bit further down the road. So back to the truck and move on. On the march back to the base, we came across bike man who was surrounded by children. He was in fact selling Ice cream. He had cycled 25km that morning from a town on the coast with a huge block of ice in a cool box and a load of ice creams made from coconut milk. He was prepared to part with them at 300dong each (about 4p).
What had been a depressing day was picking up! As we sauntered gaily back towards the camp, we came to the river crossing, this was a dam with a large clear deep pond backed up behind it. It was about 15m wide, 10m long and about 5 ft deep at its deepest. Well, Ice cream and now a swimming pool - our luck must be in.
A happy bunch got back in the van for the quick trip to the next village down the road. A meeting with the headman ensued. The thorny question of caves emerged, oh yes he eagerly told us -big ones. They were first visited by a British expedition in 1994 - the called it "Ruc Mon". Oh dear, Oh dear oh dear. We had now come across the limit of the last trip to visit the area. In those days they didn't have the map of the area and did not record the village name. Back to camp.
A quick chat as we spot the first cloud in days begin to appear -oh good some shade. Sod this for a lark we thought, lets go back to Son Trach and follow up the leads near Phong Nha cave. Every body into the van and off we go. The clouds were now towering cumulonimbus and getting very very big and nasty. A storm was about to arrive, and it did, it had been brewing for a couple of days now and the rain was torrential. So it was now hot and wet - "which is fine if youse with a woman - but it aint no good in the jungle".
The next day saw us clean and well fed and looking to push Phong Nha Kho - of which 400m was looked at by the others on their first day. They had stopped above the pitch. We dropped it with a ladder and moved on in. Superb stonking great passage begged us forward, grabber O'Neil pushing deep and hard with the survey tape. Oh what fun - cave at last. Phong Nha Kho -about a Km was bagged in total - monster big pretty cave - lovely.
Over the next day or so we bummed about looking at leads and waiting for the others to return. When we all got back together a surprise was waiting. Firstly some western tourists had popped in, two elderly Australian ladies touring Vietnam on Russian motorbikes - go figure. As we supped in the bar and Phai got completely arsed on bird vodka (so called because of the crow in the bottle) they said we had been in all the press and the telly because of the UN. Uh oh we thought publicity, well not so bad to be referred to as the famous British explorers, but wondering what this might mean.
It meant that the Vice-President of Vietnam was visiting with the UN Special Representative to talk about world heritage sites with Howard. This pissed old HL off a bit as he wanted to go caving not talking. We left them to it.
The next object was two fold, we would split up again and move into deep country near Hang En. Hang Khe Rhy had ended with a huge entrance after 5k and it was thought to be near Hang En, in fact GPS showed it to be less than a kilometre. Our team's objective; go to Hang En, camp there, finish off the survey and come home. To get there via Khe Rhy would be a 3day trip. We reckoned a day max from the main road via Hang En. We set off by truck and got as close as we could and got to walking. It was now hot again and our guides said it would take two days. At the first encampment they set down and started drinking rice wine with their mates - this is why it would take two days - we would visit every hooch house on the way. A bit of chivvying and a more appropriate pace was found.
What followed was a full on speed march through some horrific jungle, up and over some evil tower karst, through rivers and kilometres of elephant grass. We got to Hang En about an hour before nightfall after doing the trek in a little under 8 hours, but we were fucked. In fact it was so bad that both Martin and I were done in with dehydration and while we managed to take photos the next day, we were both too knackered to finish the surveying and left it too Snab, Anette and "jungle" (Howard's brother).
Job done we headed home after two days out in the field to find that on our return the others had got a dead end in their trip and had gone out a day early! We reconvened at Son Trach. Plan B was called for.
To utilise our time in the best possible way, we looked at the open leads. The most promising were near Hang Da Cao and in Hang Vom, about 2hours from the Ho Chi Minh trail about half way to Ban Ban, ie. About 14km from Son Trach. We would camp in Hang Da Cao, a team would push forward into Maze Cave and beyond, and our bit would move into Hang Vom. (Hang Vom is probably one of the largest caves found, only marginally shorter than Khe Rhy at about 16Km, it boasts some of the finest formations and larges passages in the world.) Another truck journey, followed by the now familiar trudge through jungle.
With the camp set up and all of us fed - the next day was a day for caving. Martin, Anette, Howard and Deb and myself went down stream to arch cave, a massive beautiful cave with a large swim lit by a daylight shaft. We swam out through the clear blue lake and found ourselves in a completely enclosed valley - jungle and mist covered the sheer walls of the doline. On to Hang Vom. At Hang Vom Anette was to stay on the surface and take biological samples while the rest of us pushed underground looking for two things, the source of the huge river in Hang Vom which wasn't in the river bed on the way there and to look at the right hand wall, which nobody had ever looked at!
About a kilometre into the cave we found an inlet and went a surveying, after about 300 or 400 m it closed down into a sump - though what was before it was more like a Mendip cave than a Vietnamese monster cave. We pushed back towards the surface working our way along the wall. We found the river, a small bedding plane led to a rather large sump with a respectable amount of water emerging. Above this was found to be some rather large chambers (about 40m wide by 80m high) and some areas that looked silted up. A very promising dig if anybody can be bothered!
We went back to camp and had our tea with the others who had had a similarly productive day. It was soon apparent that everybody had brought a large supply of booze and impromptu piss up resulted in the underground camp at Hang Da Cao.
The next morning saw us leave the area and make our way back to Son Trach. There we had to deal with the inevitable leaving parties and drinks - it is surprising how good karaoke sounds when completely blathered. Dong Hoi for a lunch and a discussion with the local government about conservation and tourism. Then the night train to Hanoi.
In Hanoi we had a day to sort ourselves out and look about. Snablet and I had another 3 or 4 days to kill before our flight was to take us home. We were on R and R! We sent the others off to the airport with a cheery wave and headed for the bar. Anette (Snab's missus) fixed me with a steely gaze before leaving and said - "look after my Snablet - or else". Hmmm I don't know what is worse Snablet needing looking after or trusting me to do it ?
We decided to use our time wisely and booked on a 2 day tour of Ha Long bay, a region of flooded tower karst with some show caves. It really is quite spectacular and worth the visit if you happen to find yourself in Hanoi. We had one more day to kill in Hanoi before a whole night to be spent in Bangkok. (Ahh ha!) We took lunch in the Hanoi Hilton and visited the Thai offices to book a hotel in Bangkok. A lucky break meant that we could get a night in a 5 star hotel, with limo transfer to and from the airport for about $35 a head (cool huh). It was booked, paid for and we thought about the last night in Hanoi.
We had been invited to join Phai with his family for dinner at his house with Huey. No problem so far. It was about 10k across town to his house and a scooter would be needed. Huey could only carry one and since Snab had never ridden a moped or a scooter before, I volunteered for duty. Now Hanoi is a city of some 3m people, with about 10,000 cars and 2,990,000 scooters, all of whom have no regard for traffic lights, roundabouts or even human life. It was to be a baptism of fire. After a visit to a couple of museums, Huey met us at the hotel and I collected my steed. What followed was a nightmarish mix of adrenaline and fear. Picture about 3,000 mopeds all surging forward from 5 directions at the same traffic cop. Somehow I made it to Phai's and a nice dinner was had by all. It really was good to meet the family of somebody who has visited us in England and who was such a great help over many years. Snab and I struggled back, had a beer, and fell asleep with the air-conditioning on. (Consequently waking up at 4 am freezing cold.)
And so to Bangkok. We arrived on New Year's Eve - also known as the water festival. Pretty young Thai girls sprinkled scented water at us as we left the plane and headed towards the limo. The Thai Water festival is a bit of a lark. Basically everybody and anything is a target for water fights, flour and horseplay. Student drive around in pickup trucks with pressure washers, hotel staff squirt guests with water pistols. It is innocent, hilarious entertainment. Snab and I had our party heads on by the time we had checked out our suite.
What followed was an evening of hilarity and humour as we ate fine curry and cruised the bars of Bangkok. Contrary to popular belief Bangkok is not swarming with perverts and prostitutes. But the red light district (i.e. Pat Pong road) is an area of bars with lively, non-pornographic entertainment. It is the upstairs bars that need to be avoided. But down on the street you get a cold beer, good sounds and about 4 Thai girls in G Strings strutting and dancing on a stage. We went on a pub crawl, we got beered up in every strip joint in town. My last memory is Snab and I, staggering back to the hotel to honk up in the bathroom!
A painful wake up and breakfast led to a very long and uncomfortable flight home, helped only by food, beer and pretty stewardesses.
And so ended a great trip to Vietnam. In my opinion, though, Hang Vom and Hang Khe Rhy would make sporting caving trips that would be unbeatable. Coupled with the beauty of Phong Nha and Phong Nha Kho this is an area that while worked out from a new cave point of view, that should still be high on an adventure caver's list.