Vietnam 1997

Cast your minds back and think. Easy isn't it ? Ever done that and thought "well it seemed a cool idea at the time!" Back in the early part of 1996 I got itchy feet. I wanted to accomplish several things. I wanted to go on a good caving trip. I wanted to go back to SE Asia. I wanted to travel. I sought around for a good trip - as you do. I was idly flicking through International Caver and saw various articles on Vietnam. This seemed a happening place. Loads of really big caves in a seldom visited country. I wonder …

Our Hotel Garden was well appointedSeveral phone calls later I was talking to Dave Gallivan of the NCC. Yes there was space, yes some help would be useful - could I help with fund-raising grants and that? The game was afoot !.

All that now seems a long time ago. I can remember the rush setting in last August as we filled in all the forms for the grants and permissions. The super rush started in Jan as I tried to be vaccinated for every possible disease and syndrome available.

But then, before I knew it, we were at LHR terminal 3 trying to check in. This is not as simple as it sounds. We had done a deal with Thai airways to provide us with 40kgs of excess baggage. We had all agreed to keep personal kit down to 15kg thus giving us a total allowance of 65kg for exped kit. All well and good you may think - but no. By the time we all turned up and sorted everything out we had a problem. We were using two large drums for the kit. One weighed 30Kg and the other 56kg. this was not too bad as by the time we put a lot of heavy stuff in our carry on bags and thrown out half the dehydrated food we were back in the limit. That is until they wanted to weigh our cabin baggage.

Oh shit.

My rucsac going into the hold weighed 15Kg, my carry on bag weighed the same. That went for all of us ! The polite girl behind the desk turned the full force of her lip gloss on us and stated that we entitled to carry only 5kgs. The rest had to go in the hold and we would have to pay for it. What ensued was farcical. Everything heavy was removed, put into pockets and passed around. We then unpacked everything and weighed sacs and put hidden stuff in later. In the end the staff got so fed up and also since the flight was on its last call the just let us go - Victory !

And so to security. Time to unpack everything again as we demonstrate that

  1. 1 We are not part of Hezbollah
  2. 2 Carbide generators are not bombs and the white powder is not drugs - but they are welcome to taste
  3. 3 It doesn't really weight that much.

And so to duty free, cut short by "This is the final call for flight TG911 to Bangkok".

Mad panic sprint down to gate 34. Sit ourselves down on the best seats in Economy - (pre booked). And so for the 11 hr flight to Bangkok.

We had deliberately chosen Thai over Aeroflot and Vietnam airlines because

  1. They are more reliable and they don't lose your luggage
  2. The planes are new and crewed by trained pilots
  3. All the booze is free !

The flight was extremely good - even if we were in cattle class. Due to a mix up we were fed the business class food and given the business class wine - "does Sir want smoked salmon as a starter ?" 1 hour after take off, Snablet, Martin Holroyd and I were plastered and having a wail of a time. We drank heavily for 5 hours and slept it off the rest of the way. The three films as usual were crap. (For the record - Space Jam, The associate and some crap with Bill Murray about a circus elephant).

The journey took its tollThe next thing we knew, touchdown at Bangkok, where it was very hot - about 35C. We now had a 3 hour wait for our connection. We checked in bought a coke and sat down. The next part of the flight to Hanoi was uneventful. We dozed as the mountainous jungles of Laos and Vietnam flowed beneath us. Howard and Deb. met us at Hanoi along with Mr. My and Dr. Phai from the University. A short journey deposited us in our downtown hotel in Hanoi. Hanoi is a difficult city to describe as there are few reference points to compare against. Think of Bangkok, take away all the cars, replace with bicycles and clean up the air, double the markets and remove all the high rise buildings. Throw in a smattering of neo-colonialist French architecture and a large amount of socialist aggrandizement - you know statues of impossibly healthy young heroes of the revolution waving their hammers and sickles whilst gazing into the glorious socialist middle distance couple with lots of posters of "Peace and harmony through mind control". Add to this a tiny bit of Ho Chi Minh hero worship and you may start to get the picture. Actually, Hanoi is a green and leafy city with remarkably clean air and no traffic problems - yet.

The highway code - Hanoi addendum

Crossing the road is an article of pure faith. There are a total of 2 round-abouts and 3 sets of traffic lights in the whole city - these are studiously ignored. To cross a major road you just walk across. DO NOT try and avoid the bicycles and scooters they are faster and far more maneuverable - they will avoid you. The first few times you try it - fear is the main problem. After that you just stride purposefully across the highway and the traffic parts like the red sea before Moses.

The next 24 hours were a mad rush as we sought about buying all the extras we needed: Carbide, sweets, cooking pans, Bowls, cups, chopsticks. Knives, spoons, Sack of rice, Noodles. We also sorted out the maps and worked on a plan of attack.

OurDowntown Son Trach base camp was to be Son Trach, a small village flattened on a daily basis by the US air force during the war - (Yes it was actually bombed every day - since it was part of the Ho Chi Minh trail). We were to divide into 2 teams, each taking a member of Staff from the University. Team one (Howard, Andy, Cal and Martin) were to go to Hang Da Cao via Pitch cave and Maze cave. They also wanted to check out some going leads from previous trips. Team two (Me, Trev, Snablet and Deb. Limbert) were to go to the village of Ban-Ban and from there examine 4 large sinks running off the capstone into some limestone cliffs. The rivers were big (enough to have names anyway) and they just stopped at a series of cliffs !

We also had some other areas to check out. Some resurgences near Son Trach on the Chay river had not been looked at and a completely enclosed valley producing a large river in the wet season needed checking out as well as some more sinks near Cha Noi. All in all, there was more than enough to keep us all very busy for the 4.5 weeks we were in the field.

The journey there was to take 2 days as we drove in a dilapidated bus down Highway number one. Set off was at 7.30 am on Friday (Day4) morning. The first night we stopped in the town of Ha Tinh, about 400km of long tiring and dusty driving down an appalling road from Hanoi.

Interestingly every villager - man or woman- must spend 10 days a year doing road works in their local community. It was fascinating to watch the men sit around and smoke while the women literally broke rocks with sledgehammers.

The hotel was basic, but clean with a shower and a roof garden. We ate just down the road after the kitchens were inspected and approved for the honored British visitors. The food was excellent and unfeasibly cheap - massive scoff out for 8 Brits and 4 locals - (The Driver, Phai, Huey and Mr. My) came to about $5USD or about 60,000 Dong. We retired to the roof to drink neat spirits and exchange Speleo bullshit.

The next day we arrived at Dong Hoi the local county town for the Quang Binh district. It was here that we had to meet the Peoples' Committee for the district who were to give us permission to go into the Bo Trach county and into the border area. All meetings were held and paperwork procured, leaving just enough time to get the last fresh food before time for dinner and required clamber onto the roof for neat spirits and Speleo bullshit.

The next morning we drove to Son Trach where the bus left us. We were instant celebrities, particularly among the children. We had a dawn to dusk audience, they watched our every move, just gazing and smiling and saying "hello, what you name, how old you". This novelty wears off in about two seconds flat.

Mind the Gap!Son Trach lies on a large river (The Son river) and consists of a few bars, a small market and a ferry. The only thing the village has going for it is Phong Nha cave. This is a vast resurgence that was hammered by the Americans as it was used as a staging post and a hospital during the war. Some 5000 tourists visited it last year and the tour includes a ride up river in a sampan and into the resurgence by boat. The cave was known about for many years, but the 1990 expedition carried out a full survey to a strongly drafting choke with signs of the surface, roots, insects and snakes, some 8km from the entrance. This generates a relatively vast amount of income for the village, which has all been invested in building a small hotel for visitors that is very nearly ready.

We were put up in the village hall. We hung out our mozzie nets and put down our thermarests, said goodnight to the bust of Uncle Ho and got some sleep. The next morning we booked a truck to take us up the HCM trail the next day. The trail actually consisted of a whole network of paths and roads moving from North Vietnam, into Laos and then down through Kampuchea and into South Vietnam near Saigon. Our section was a rough forestry type track that at one time was a large road, however 20 years of rainy seasons and the constant attack of vociferous jungle has taken its toll. Put it this way, the camel trophy would see it as an interesting challenge but more than likely just laugh ! The road is very very bad. In places the ruts are 4 ft deep. The only vehicles that can get through are vintage Soviet 6 wheel drive ex-military transports. Even these have a very hard time on the road.

The main cargo is rice and people upto the border and rattan down. The winches on the front of the vehicles were as worn as the threadbare tyres.

We spent the day traveling to the hidden valley resurgence, this involved a 1.5 hour boat journey, followed by a 10km walk. This took ages. We got to the resurgence which involved a lot of chest deep wading and very soggy walking. This yielded a small unremarkable and rather nasty cave. Oh yes and Howard shat himself on the way out.

Anyone seen any caves?On the way back I found that apart from the jungle fauna being particularly unpleasant, that some of the flora can be nasty to. Tiger grass as it is known is an unremarkable green bush, indistinguishable from all the other green bushes. Indistinguishable apart from an evil sting. The slightest touch brings out huge fluid filled blisters almost immediately, that look like 3rd degree sunburn. It hurts like hell and washing it with any water makes it worse. I got it all over my neck. I was in agony.

The next day, upto Ban-Ban. This journey took forever. 8 hours in an open backed truck. All the foliage was overgrown and we effectively swept every spider, centipede, leech and snake onto our laps - lovely. Not trees on the line again?We dropped the other team off at kilometer 26 and we trundled on. Ban-Ban was at kilometer 44 another 4 hours truck ride. We arrived in the early evening about 4 p.m. You must remember that being so close to the equator, day is the same length as night. It is light at 6.15 am and pitch black by 6.15pm. Ban-Ban held a nasty surprise. A very large army base, complete with Satellite dish, and a whole plethora of aerials, oh and lots of soldiers. We duly reported to the base. We presented the papers from all the various committees and so forth.

The soldiers were impressed with our connections and permission, but not impressed enough. We were not allowed to go into the sensitive border area. (Ban-Ban is only about 6Km from Laos on a border rife with smugglers, bandits and drug running). Opium is Laos' largest cash crop and is one of the world's largest producers ever since the CIA taught them how to grow it efficiently to fund "Air America" and the Vietnam war.

The Hilton at Ban Ban"OK - what can we do?"
"They will radio for orders"
"When will we hear?"
"Can we go back to Son Trach?"
"Can we go on?"
"What do we do now"
"You stay in that building and you cannot take photos, and you must not talk to the locals and we will watch over you"

The building had bars on the windows...

Ban-Ban is in itself a beautiful little village. The houses are made of bamboo and rattan and are on stilts. Fresh water arrives in the village by means of a bamboo pipe from up the valley. A river runs by the bottom for washing. There is a small population of pigs and dogs. The people themselves are not Vietnamese but an ethnic minority which is part Laotian, part Vietnamese and part French in origin. They are from two distinct tribes, mainly they are Makon but there are a few Kharoon people who have married into the village and originate in the next village down - Khey Si. They have very dark skin and rounded faces. The women of the village usually wear long wrap around skirts and are more often than not topless. They all smoke home made cigars. In fact they all smoke as soon as they can walk.

A feature of the village is a huge bomb crater in the very center of the village. Resplendent with bomb casing and left over bomblets and fuses. Americans are still not very popular.

Having said that, we were very popular and drew a large crowd. Later in the evening, our soldier friends realised that we were harmless and left us under house arrest. We were not disallowed from talking to the villagers, they merely frowned upon it. Almost instantly, the village chief insisted that we go and have a drink with him. He had a huge earthen ware jar, filled with rice and a dark liquid and two bamboo straws. The game consisted of drinking until the liquid needed to be topped up from a buffalo horn. The challenge started at 1 horn each. However we played the joker and put the Mendip man Snablet on the challenge. 3 Horns later and every body was heartily pissed on the rice beer. The chief insisted on an immediate open festival !

A weird wind instrument was produced, a fire lit and the locals played folk music and did ritual dancing. One enterprising young soul disappeared into his hut and came out with a ghetto blaster and some elderly batteries and an even more elderly tape. We were then treated to Boney M - They only had one tape which only had 3 tracks. We got as far as "Ra Ra Rasputin, Russia's greatest love machine, That was a cat who was really far gone !" when Sgt. Bilko et al appeared and broke the party up, sending us reluctantly onto bed.

We were incarcerated in a makeshift hospital. We could not leave, there was nothing to do apart from play cards and watch the spider hunting wasps fighting the huntsmen spiders (they are very big spiders, but then these are very big wasps !). There was a lot of hustling and bustling between our ersatz Alcatraz and the base commander, who was always unavailable and refused to leave the camp to see us. However, we were not allowed within 100yds of his base. Bombs!You can see an immediate communication problem. It soon emerged via Huey that there was a delegation from Quang Binh arriving to inspect the village and the base.

HO HO we thought, we have impressive papers from Quang Binh committee, they will have to let us go ! It soon dawned on us that in true military tradition, they were awaiting further orders. Since no one has ever been shot for locking up foreigners in S E Asia, the local militia felt that they were just acting on the safe side. The impression we also got was that they were more than a little embarrassed, we hinted vocally, that this embarrassment would be made worse when their local party chiefs arrived. How would the base commander explain away 4 imprisoned Brits, a university student and lorry driver to the commissars ? Well we thought that he might have some tough questions. Herein lay the hope.

We plugged away for a couple of days. Finally we began to run low on food. This proved to be the last straw. We sent Huey over to the base, and demanded that they feed us or send us home. Poor Huey, he was very reluctant to do this as, being a young lad, he was slightly fazed by all the gold braid and AK47s. He became even more uncomfortable when we asked him to inquire whether or not they would shoot us if we just walked away. Huey was now shitting bricks.

If this didn't work we reasoned, one of our team was due to "develop" typhoid and or malaria by nightfall.

At 4.30 Mr. Cool came over and said "OK -You go NOW".

We didn't need telling twice. Within 30 minutes we off down the Ho Chi Minh trail. We headed for Ban-Ban Caroon, some 7 Km down the trail and about ½ km from the "road". We arrived about 7pm in pitch darkness expecting a jungle bivi. Off we go!Huey went to talk to the head man. 5 minutes later, we were guests of honour, drinking rice beer, smoking cigars and cooking on the floor of the headman's no2 hut (having turned out his family to let us in). We cooked and ate to a large audience. We then provided first aid to the village drunk, who had badly gashed himself running to see what the fuss was and got into in depth discussions with the chief. It transpired that the committee was visiting Ban-Ban the next morning and a truck was leaving Ban-Ban at 0800 and driving down to Son Trach with the army base commander and the committee and it would pick up the chiefs of the 4 villages or so scattered around the hills and take everyone down to a big pow wow in Dong Hoi.

The chief asked if we would care to join him on the truck ! Why yes we replied, it would be far better than walking 36 Km in the steaming hot jungle with large packs.

9am the next morning saw us trudging up the hill to the road. The truck eventually turned up, (but only after we gave up waiting and marched down to the kilometer 30 point!). We greeted our ex-jailers who were grinning at us in a very friendly fashion. In fact they greeted us like old friends !

We collected the others at kilometer 26 to find that they had spent 2 days lost in the jungle wandering around and sleeping on the floor. Nasty. Back to Son Trach for beer, baths and real food.

Phai tootled off to Dong Hoi to get permission from the army, while we spent a couple of days relaxing, eating and pissing about. One of the three days we decided to go and check out some sinks to the north of the main river, right by the road. This was some 20km away, but since it was close to the road, we decided to hire motorbikes. For safety reasons we cannot delve too deeply into this, other than to say, 3 ancient Russian motorbikes, three cavers and a long dusty road "the white helmets go caving".

The housekeeping seen to, it was back to Ban-Ban. This time we were guests of honour. The camp commandant insisted on proving us with an escort to keep the jungle nasties away and to keep an eye on us. We soon learnt that the village had a shop (!) that sold smokes, beer and Pepsi (yes Pepsi!)

And so to sink one. This was a three hour walk across some very nasty hills in a particularly dense bit of jungle. So dense that we had to use the river to get to the cliff base. An hour of wading in the pouring rain. Up to our chests in water, leeches everywhere and then a huge cliff looms. NO CAVE !! All that work and we find a tiny little rock alcove and the large river disappearing into a pile of rotting trees and boulders.

Of little interest was the fact that somehow somebody had managed to steal all our carbide and our first aid kit. Long trips were not going to be possible and we could not afford to get ill.

The next day it was to sink 2. Another 2 hills further than sink 1. This time we took Mr On, a local guide who said that on the Khe Ry river there was a large cave. Mr On packed his bag, loaded his AK and kicked his dog. We set off at first light. Like a scene from exodus!A long trek and another river and another large cliff. We had had enough. There was a cry " a cave, its fucking enormous!" We passed the river which sank into a small cleft in the cliff and onto a really large entrance. Since we were on the Khe Ry river, and Hang is Vietnamese for Cave it is natural to name the cave Hang Khe Ry.

Hang Khe Ry is big, very big. We made a camp in the large entrance, ( about 150 m across and 45 - 60m high), got changed and went underground. We were very excited as we waded past vast gour pools and started to survey.

The entrance series as we found later, is a low passage, maybe 3m high and 45m wide with a sandy floor, supporting a variety of cave life (centipedes and crabs mainly). There are a variety of static pools and a few avens full of bats.

There is no flowing water as this is a clear wet weather over flow. We followed the passage to a "T" junction passing some large inlets on the way. At the junction we met a very large, fast flowing but shallow stream. The passage led off up and down stream. It was truly awe inspiring. Maybe 40m wide and 60m high and quite noisy. We had surveyed about 750m in 3 hours. After a discussion, the other three went upstream while I sat down and waited. I was feeling strange, quite ill in fact. The others followed the stream to a wide, deep canal, adding maybe another 1000m in a couple of hours. A total of 1.8 Km was surveyed in a total of 5 hours underground.

I was glad to get out a little early. By now I had developed a very nasty gut infection. I was suffering from uncontrollable shits. Coupled with very eggy burps. The conclusion was a touch of Giardia. We decided to leave Khe Ry for a siege on the next visit. The other 3 decided to try sink 3 the next day while I walked out with Mr Cool, the army guide.

This walk took some 7 hours, and I was very dehydrated by the time we arrived back. I had managed to shit myself several times and I felt bad. I bought 2 cans of Pepsi, washed by underwear and went to bed. The next morning, I got up, and washed my sleeping bag - for obvious reasons. The others slunk back at about 3 p.m. depressed because sink 3 only yielded 150m of passage and led into a sump. (We later found the other side of the sump, some 8km further into the cave)

The No 17 to Ban-Ban24 hours later and we were planning the next assault from the comfort of Son Trach. This finally saw the entire expedition, 2 guides, 4 porters, an army guide, 2 interpreters and a committee representative marching into the jungle for an 8 day siege of Hang Khe Ry. The siege paid off. When we ran out of time and food, Hang Khe Ry had yielded some 14.5km of truly exquisite passages and the inlets had given rise to another entrance and more leads for next time. The cave had to be left, downstream there is a question mark, the passage is about 100m wide with a large stream and still going straight into the hillside. (Read it and weep !)

Mr On decided that we needed to eat better, they insisted on supplementing our diet with fresh fish and wild chillies (furnace hot!). Then Mr On expanded his repertoire, he brought back a monkey, and offered the brains around. Then it was local snakes, a fresh pangolin, and 4 dead iguanas and their eggs. Strangely, dehydrated spaghetti bog takes on whole new height of delicacy when faced with such a choice.

While we finished this off, Trev and Cal went to look at sink 4, a long way over, but it apparently had a cave. Huey went with them, as did the two guides. We expected them back on Tuesday. Tuesday morning came and went. Tuesday afternoon, about 3.30, Huey came back, he was beside himself. He reported that Trev and Cal had gone underground and while they were down there, the river had vastly increased in size and the entrance series had completely filled. He had waited 24 hours but since there was no sign, he had come for help.

30 minutes later, 4 set off with just wetsuits and lights. Me and Andy were to follow at first light with all the left over food, equipment and to bring the rest of our entourage. The 4 that set out at 4pm had a 7 hour walk, much of it in darkness and in the densest jungle yet encountered. They were knackered by the time they got to the cave. When Andy and I pitched up they were trying to get some kip. We soon organised into shifts.

One shift building dams to divert the river, the others underground bailing the sump. It slowly started to work. The water levels dropped inch by inch, but not fast enough. We sent the Army man back to get 20Kgs of food, 6 porters to bring out our stuff and to send a message back to Phai. Phai was to wait 48 hours, cancel our train tickets, and then head up with the last of our carbide.

Things were getting desperate, we were trying to sleep on the jungle floor, with banana leaves for beds, and every four hours we needed to get up and check on the sumps. A Cave!We had practically no food and a very limited first aid kit. Nobody had slept and we were all developing very nasty fungal infections from the long term immersion. Basically, we were in a shit state and getting worse. We raided the trapped pair's gear and found Trev's Valium. We finally got some sleep!

Thursday 0400. Me and Snablet go and check the Sump. Between the last visit and our attempt, it had dropped about 4 feet, we hope that an air space had been produced. I waded into the sump, we thought there was an airspace. What followed was about 5 minutes of shouting and banging. Suddenly there was a reply! Cries of "oh Shit and Hello" came though the newly formed duck. I splashed through to find Trev and Cal sitting on a sand bank smoking and looking lovingly at their last piece of food. Snablet went to wake the others. Both were in good shape - considering, both were very hungry and thirst, but they had carefully conserved their light and had made a little nest to keep warm.

All emerged smiling into the warm dark jungle , they immediately set about changing and cooking some breakfast. We all greedily swallowed what food we had left. About ½ a pack of noodles each with a little dehydrated Soya protein, not enough to keep warm with let alone a major walk out. We set off at first light with several thoughts weighing heavily on our minds.

  1. Had the truck waited ? we were now nearly 3 days overdue.
  2. What had happened to the gear we had dumped ?
  3. Would we make it back to Hanoi in time to get our flights ? (we had used all our contingency time up.)
  4. Could we manage the walk out ? we were all very tired, under nourished, sick and over loaded. Normally we would take 2 days for this walk, we had one.
  5. Would we find the way ? The guides had gone to bring back food.

We girded our loins, burnt our rubbish, killed a few leeches, pissed in the river (just to show who really is boss), waved goodbye to the dams and set off into the forest. For the first few hours we were running on adrenaline. A mix of about 400 calories and determination got us through the next few hours. By about lunch time we were half way but flagging fast. Luckily we came across the army at the first river junction. Mr cool had about 4 people in tow with medical equipment, food and cigarettes - NECTAR!. Half an hour later, we met all the porters, who had collect all our gear, and were coming with the siege kit, picks, shovels, sandbags etc. etc. All were overjoyed to see us.

We stopped for lunch and booze was passed round. We pushed on to Ban-Ban, things were getting rough. We all had bad feet and walking was painful. The temperature was hot and we were dehydrated and hungry. On top of this we had enjoyed about 4 hours sleep in 3 days.

The last kilometre was murder. Trev and Deb.'s feet were so bad that they couldn't walk at the end. Deb. needed carrying. It was not pleasant. Arriving at the truck at about 7pm and expected a night in Ban-Ban. However, the driver was by now desperate to get back . We bought some beer, popped a blue peter (Valium - after Valerie Singleton) and sat on the truck for the 7 hour trip back. Next thing we remember. Its 430am and we are cold, hungry and in Son Trach. Phai is beside himself with delight and makes us all a very early breakfast. We grabbed 3 hours sleep, said hasty farewells and headed for Dong Hoi.

Arriving at Dong Hoi we encamped near the railway station to sit out the short wait for the Hanoi express. We browsed around DH for two hours as Howard and Martin presented themselves to the local committee to explain our findings. They were instant TV stars. Word had got out about the rescue and the local press wanted to hear our side of the story.

As Howard walked into the room there was an attractive young Vietnamese girl with a microphone. His first words were "Cor looks like there's plenty of tottie". To which she replied in perfect English - "good afternoon Mr Limbert perhaps you can tell VT3 (the channel) about your experiences - we are broadcasting live !"

Phai in the meantime had arranged for more tickets. Unfortunately only half of us had decent seats, the rest were in 3rd class (no aircon - no seats - just benches) for the 14 hour rail journey to Hanoi. I can't say much about other than it is listed as one of the great railway journeys of the world - magnificent scenery and extreme discomfort.

Back to Hanoi and a massive scoff. Homewards!We spend the next 36 hours eating and drinking constantly. At the final dinner we presented Phai with a ticket for him to come to England for 3 weeks in the Autumn as a thank-you for all his help. We finished the evening with a quick chariot race round Hanoi and a shopping trip to the local tourist haunts.

And so our journey was over, we trogged to the airport for the now obligatory arguments about weight and luggage and finally blagged our way onto the flight. Next stop - 14 hours stop over at Bangkok international, 14 hours of pure boredom and tedium, interspersed with the discovery that they have a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Now don't get me wrong, I normally wouldn't go near the stuff. However, it was food and it was cheap, and we were still permanently hungry.

Aboard the Thai flight we misbehaved as is now de rigeur for British cavers on planes with free booze. We emerged 12 hours later from the cocoon like embrace of the aircraft blinking in the cold frosty glare of Terminal 3. Happy to be back but sad it was all over. Breezed through customs and then into the welcoming arms of our respective beloved's.

Journey over, we look back. The expedition bagged over 20km of some of the finest cave in the world. The few who remained found another 10km in the North of the country making our trip one of the most productive for many years. (The Mulu trip only found 10km) The experience of finding them in the pristine jungles of central Vietnam is an experience that will live with us all forever. The friends we made out there will stay with us for years and we inevitably learnt as much about ourselves as we did about everything else. I personally cannot wait to see Dr Phai again and have the pleasure of taking him caving in Britain. Plans are already afoot to pay another visit in 1999. I want to be there.

If you have the chance to go to Vietnam -even as a tourist. Visit - a country that All to soon will be the same as Thailand and Malaysia - ruined by greed, pollution and too many visitors.

Simon Davies