My Hang Son Doong Experience – Day 3

An appropriate song to listen to as you read my next installment of my journey to the end of Son Doong – got to love a bit of Status Quo.

The men of the group snored very loudly on the second night in camp 1 and although Captain Caveman had one of the best spots for our tent, I was very tired on the third day. Some of the ladies in the team were doing a few yoga stretches before breakfast but the most I’d managed was standing on one leg to put my wet trainers on. Captain Caveman had said that other groups often found day 2 the hardest so day 3 would be easier and was the day we would reach the end and depths of the Son Doong cave.
We started the day with lots of steep, rocky climbs, first up and then down, we had lunch at the infamous doline 1. This in itself was beautiful but made me nervous due to the definition of a doline being where the roof of the cave has fallen in and so is exposing the sky. I had lots of questions about being trapped and falling rocks that nobody else seemed to be concerned about. We were lucky to see sunbeams coming through the doline and we were also treated to more yoga poses from the ladies who took up various tricky stances for the photos. The level of yoga was too advanced for me so I tucked into a chocolate bar (yes we were given KitKats) and watched from afar. Meanwhile Captain Caveman was up a huge stalagmite doing a time lapse video on his camera phone. I needed the loo and to my amazement there was an actual man-made toilet around the corner and over some calcite rocks.

We walked more and for some of it over grippy rock but on steep paths, we saw cave pearls and encountered more slippery rocks that really were not my friends. By this time my bruises were black and I was desperate and determined to finish this expedition. We stopped at the edge of a cliff and could see our next campsite below us, after another lot of scrambling over the rocks we reached camp 2. The assistant guide had a cup of tea ready for me, our tent was again in a great spot on what felt like a soft sandy beach and I started to take off my trainers.



Day 3 did not end there, as Captain Caveman reminded me to keep my shoes on and grab stuff for washing, we were off to the lake. We were fortunate that it was early in the season as the lake dries up and leaves a big muddy area in front of the Great Wall of Vietnam (the end of the cave passage). I hate mud and love water so although I was tired I was up for this bit – how hard could it be to paddle in a boat across a lake, see the Great Wall, paddle back and then have a wash at the edge of the lake.
This was one of the scariest sections of the tour; first we walked for an hour through sand then more rocks and got to the boats which were as big as bathtubs and very unstable. I had the best rower (Captain Caveman had rowed a lot in his youth) but it was pitch black and huge. I cried and sat as still as possible so we didn’t tip over and Captain Caveman had the camera on filming me as we finally made it to the end and I touched the rope attached to the Great Wall, which could be used as an emergency exit. We got back to where we got in the boat so the next few people could go in and we had a wash and I washed my hair before walking back, getting dirty and sweaty again. At Camp 2 I was overwhelmed that I’d done it and had tears of joy followed by fear that tomorrow we would reverse the trek to get out. That night I decided to celebrate with a couple of nips of vile tasting rice wine and I thought of how good a beer would taste instead.

My Hang Son Doong Experience – Day 2

Day 2 of the Son Doong experience started with yoga stretches at our camp in Hang En followed by chatter of who had had the rat in their tent last night. After a pho bo breakfast I put on my new Salomon trainers in readiness for slippery rocks and we set off towards the exit of Hang En via a sandy slope up, and rocks down towards the river. We crossed the river and after a wash out of our shoes we started the steep winding climb towards the Son Dong entrance. On the way there were a few really scary and claustrophobic bits for me but after a couple of instances where I stopped breathing I was ok. My pace was slow on the uphill and I wasn’t confident with my shoes on any steep or slippery parts. I knew that after lunch we would be descending 80 metres into Son Doong via a series of ropes and the fear that we would be in a harness and clipped on made me even more wary. I wanted to turn back.

After a lunch of spring rolls and some crackers that tasted of Belgian waffles it was time to go to the entrance of Son Doong. By the time I’d been to the toilet a couple of times Captain Caveman had already gone on ahead and our guide asked if I would help the porters say ‘May I take your harness off?’ for when we got to the bottom.
Before I could tell anyone I wanted to turn back I found myself being strapped in to a harness by an assistant guide who was fiddling about with the buckles on my thighs. It’s fair to say I have trust issues so I found the other cave expert and asked him to tighten it, as it felt loose. The rest of our group was ready and Captain Caveman and I had already decided I would go first so that I wouldn’t panic – it didn’t work. There was a little crawl of a few metres that I’d got myself worked up about and had a bit of hyperventilating as I passed my backpack to the guide, who had gone ahead. A fellow trekker was close behind me, with a Yoda backpack on, so I asked him not to come through until I was at the other side, so that I had the option to retreat if I needed. Once through it was still a little walk to the climb down which was awkward in a harness.
The guide clipped me on to a rope and then I had to lean back and walk down backwards, it wasn’t vertical but it felt it. I was shaking like a leaf and sweating – I looked into the guide’s eyes and said ‘do not let me die’ & he replied that he wouldn’t. There were 3 or 4 rope bits and I had completely forgotten what to do to unclip and clip on to the next ropes so I think I got help with a couple of those. I remember thinking not to look down but that was impossible with instructions from the team to put my foot ‘here’ & ‘there’. It was harder than I thought and I scraped my elbow when I slid down a little way because my trainers lost grip. I regretted going first but knew if I’d been last I wouldn’t have done it.
After the difficult bit we then walked on all types of rocks and had to jump across some, I was in a daze and couldn’t wait to get to Camp 1.

Their ain’t no party like a Phong Nha party

An obvious and appropriate song choice for today’s post, and needs no introduction.

Phong Nha certainly knows how to party and with one of their favourite families leaving for America, soon it was obvious that one goodbye would not be enough. Luckily, friends of Captain Caveman, Hilary & Roy were in town to help us celebrate and get through a week of parties. Captain Caveman and I have been friends with this wonderful couple for about three years and are really going to miss them and their cute little girl. An American girl and a Vietnamese boy who fell in love and got married here in Phong Nha and have so many friends who will miss them so much.

On Friday 13th January Oxalis Home put on a beach BBQ and buffet for the leaving party, the food was fantastic, the beers were flowing and a small fire kept us warm as we celebrated.

There was more karaoke fun for me, Hilary and Roy over the weekend as well as food out at a good selection of eateries in Phong Nha with the other cave experts and friends.


On Monday 16th January there was an iconic moment at the Phong Nha River House – the sign was reinstated on the outside and we took a photo of the owners standing beneath it.


On Tuesday 17th January it was the official goodbye party and Phong Nha River House did a great job of the catering. The speeches were emotional and brought tears to people’s eyes as we said cheers and wished them a happy life in America. Captain Caveman and I were of course of the last to leave and knew we would regret drinking so much as there was another party the next day.


The annual Porter Party was also held at Phong Nha River House and is one of the highlights of the year for me. There are three porter teams who work for Oxalis and they save a portion of their earnings to have an annual party. There is usually lots of food, beers and loud music and this year was no different. At breakfast Captain Caveman and I had watched the weighing and the transportation of the goats that would be eaten at the party.  It was such a great party and the next day I ached from too much dancing.


Thursday and Friday of this week didn’t pass without more goodbyes to our favourite American friend, with lunches, hugs and a beer or two.

Yesterday I also got up at 4am to see Captain Caveman off as he embarked on a 4 day cycling trip from Hue back to Phong Nha with his mate, Big Nose.


My Hang Son Doong Experience – Day 1

I’ve used today’s song as a ‘Flash Back Friday’ post to tell of my story to the biggest cave in the world. I believe it was George Mallory who, when asked why he climbed Everest, said ‘because it is there’. I’m certainly no explorer or climber and my life until I met Captain Caveman was blissfully unaware that cavers existed – I would never had imagined that I would become a fully-fledged member of the ‘Cavers Wives & Girlfriends’ (CWAGs for short) club later down the line.

People kept asking me if I’d been to ‘the big one’ yet, meaning Hang Son Doong, where my other half works at his dream job as a caving expert. To be honest the only reason I had agreed to go on the 5 day expedition trip is because I could and I imagined it would be something I would regret not taking the opportunity when I was given the chance. Plus, I had been curious to see for myself what all the fuss was about – so many of the tourists I’d heard say it was remarkable and one of the best trips they had been on.
I’d met my fellow trekkers the night before at the Oxalis briefing and was looking forward to getting on with the challenge. I was scared but motivated by all the support I’d had from back home, especially as I was raising money for two charities. We were a mixed group of Americans, Canadians, Vietnamese and I was the only British customer.
Captain Caveman was among the Oxalis staff on the tour as he had been swapped after I had booked on to one he wasn’t working. I had mixed feelings about whether I would have been better on a tour without my partner, or not.

Unfortunately one of the female customers was sick and had to make the tough decision on whether she would still be able to proceed and if not, would her husband still go ahead without her. I felt sorry for her as, having already done the first day on a previous Oxalis trip, I knew how hard it would be if she had to turn back. After a group photo with Ho Khanh, we left as a whole group with 2 cave experts and a Vietnamese guide in a bus that picked us all up locally and drove out through the National Park.



The first part of the route was to Hang En, which I had been to before with friends from the UK, so I was hoping it would be familiar and a little easier. It wasn’t and as we got half way down the very steep hill I recalled how hard we had found it almost a couple of years ago. It was also at this point that the lady who was ill had to turn back and head back up the hill with the tour group who were passing us on their way out, while her partner carried on. As Captain Caveman spoke to the other two cave experts in charge of the returning group it was disheartening for me to hear that some of the customers had really struggled and we saw the last of them come up the hill with both hands being held by helpers. The weather was sunny and hot and by the time we got to the start of the river crossings I was beginning to wonder if I’d done the right thing.

I loved the river crossings on the way to Hang En at first. It was refreshing on my feet and I was happy getting wet and walking in my old innov8 trainers that I was used to. They let the water in but didn’t hold much sand which meant less chance of blisters. I tried my best to keep up with Captain Caveman and the Canadian Doctor, who were at the front of the group, but made my first error when I found myself in the middle of a river crossing alone (they were quite a bit in front and the rest of our group was following our guide at a more shallow section of the river). Luckily I didn’t fall in but it was a wakeup call that my camera was in my back pack and could’ve got ruined. A few crossings later the doctor very kindly gave me one of his walking poles to use which really helped me out.

I’d forgot about the rock climbing into the camp at Hang En but managed it at the front of the group while everyone else climbed higher for extra photo opportunities, I didn’t want to use up unnecessary energy and climbed up and down as instructed by Captain Caveman until we reached a plank of a bridge. As it was winter the hot and cold pool I’d previously seen at Hang En were one bigger, deeper pool and required a bit of teetering over the plank to get ashore and to our first campsite.
I had a mini melt down at the bridge but managed it without falling in. I was met by an assistant guide with a hot cup of black tea and the best feeling I had that night was taking off my wet shoes and socks and going for a very cold dip in the water.

Our first meal was out of this world with pork, beef, chicken, tofu and vegetables served hot and with a real flare from the Chef and his team. I was hungry and tucked in. The rice wine was available for all to enjoy but I had about 2 mouthfuls all night knowing that I certainly would struggle the next day if I got a hangover. The tents were bigger and comfier than I remember and so I went off to bed before some of the others.

During the night one of the young ladies was taken ill, probably from dehydration – it’s very easy to not drink enough and in the humid conditions it can be a common issue. While Captain Caveman tended to his customer I tried to get back to sleep but by this time I was starting to worry I wasn’t fit enough to do the next few days. I had found that the slippery wet rocks had made me very nervous and I’d become more scared of falling than ever before. I lay awake worrying even after Captain Caveman had returned to the tent and that’s when the enormity of what I had let myself in for really kicked in. However, the next day I was to find out that no amount of imagination and fear was to prepare me for what I would encounter to get into Hang Song Doong.






Abandoned Valley

Today’s song choice is from a band I went to see 10 years ago and reminds me of my Abandoned Valley day tour in 2016. As Thursdays are now often used for ‘throw back Thursday’ posts and pictures I thought it appropriate (plus I’ve been to so many parties recently I was too hungover to write much today).


Last March I went on to a one day tour with Jungle Boss tours, here in Phong Nha and I thought the Abandoned Valley trip was amazing despite me being more of a city girl than the active sort. I was due to go on another caving trip in a few days time so this would be a warm up to get my legs used to all the walking. It was hard and I regretted wearing my new Salomon grippy shoes as they were hurting my toes on the way down the massive winding, rocky hill to the valley of the jungle – the thick greenery and the steep rocky walk was like something from another world for me. We had snacks of dragon fruit and choco-pies (like wagon wheels) after almost 2 hours of trekking before donning helmets, lights and gloves for a scramble over rocks into Dark Cave. It was a total of about 700m in pitch black and we even sat at the end of the cave and turned our lights off and sat in silence for 5 minutes to get a sense of the nature around us. (Yes, I was scared but after a while just relaxed and it felt weird).


There were 8 of us on the trip and of course I was the fattest, slowest, unfittest and oldest. The others were 2 Americans, 3 Germans & 2 Dutch and I made friends with Janou and Emma, the Dutch girls, who were fantastic trekking buddies. The guide was my good friend, Uy, and there were a couple of porters and a national park ranger.
After dark cave we walked along the river going in and out of it to cross the trails – the German man by this time had stopped removing his white plimsoles and rolling his jeans up.
We stopped for a delicious BBQ pork lunch in the jungle next to a swimming spot and although the sun wasn’t out it was warm and the area was beautiful.
After lunch we swam in a very cold pool that lead into a massive cave so we swam with lights on to the end, about 200m and floated on our backs in the dark. I wasn’t so keen on the bats in there but it was a nice swim.
Afterwards we set back off trekking up the massive hill back to meet the bus. I was shattered but had a good laugh and was wishing I had ordered beer, not 7up, for my drink at the end.
In the evening I ate with my new friends at Bamboo Café before heading across the road to get drunk at Easy Tiger’s with Uy and some of my fellow customers from our tour. The night ended in the karaoke til very late, singing to random songs that most of us didn’t know.

Chasing Bacon

The day after my birthday party I woke up with a hangover and a craving for a bacon sandwich. Captain Caveman had already gone across the road to meet his fellow cavers at Ho Khanh’s. Ho Khanh is the man who first discovered Hang Son Doong, the biggest cave in the world, here in Quang Binh and now has a homestay and café that probably has the best coffee in the area.

I joined Captain Caveman and the usual breakfast group but with the intention we would go over to the River House to see if they needed a hand clearing up from last night and make sure the bill had been paid, before having breakfast. Typically by the time we got there we had left it too late as all was tidy and breakfast was finished.

Our next attempt at breakfast was at Rustic where I asked Captain Caveman to order me a banana smoothie and a bacon sandwich (they do really good bacon sandwiches here). After a while I’d finished my smoothie but there was still no sign of my food so I mentioned that it seemed to be taking a long time. Captain Caveman had forgot to tell me that when he ordered, an hour ago, he was told we couldn’t have a bacon sandwich as they were out of bread – I wasn’t happy. Even the resident puppy seemed disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to have any leftover scraps.

We cycled the 2km in to town and went to Easy Tiger, still chasing the bacon and finally got a great sandwich just exactly how I like it, finally.

In my hung-over state I had almost forgotten my drunken promise of lunchtime karaoke so I then spent over four hours in a private karaoke room, at Phong Nam in town, with great friends and more beer while Captain Caveman escaped to the pub.

It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want to.

The famous song ‘It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want to’ by Lesley Gore back in the 60’s, was playing in my head a couple of times on my birthday – it’s one of my favourites.

We had arrived on the overnight train leaving Da Nang, later than expected, at 11.30pm and were met by the driver outside Dong Hoi station just before 5am meaning we were back home in Phong Nha before sunrise. I really wanted to go back to bed so that I wouldn’t be too tired for my party at the River House that night and so ignored Captain Caveman has he unpacked, did washing and generally made a noise for an hour.

By lunch time I was hungry and so we went to Capture for birthday brunch and beer, I had a very tasty salami and cream cheese sandwich and temporarily forgot we’d fell out about me needing too much sleep (I’m not the one who fell asleep in the cinema). I was hoping for a birthday massage however we ended up having another beer in Easy Tiger where we were joined by Chrissy and then another of Captain Caveman’s colleagues, who I’d not seen since I left Phong Nha 6 months ago.


A beer in Capture café, on my birthday.



 Easy Tiger beer, spare salami and sunflower seeds – what more can a birthday girl need?

My party was arranged for 6pm at the Phong Nha River House so at 5pm Chrissy invited me to hers for a celebratory drink which was much appreciated after an argument with Captain Caveman about a plug socket and my strength. The party was a great night, despite Captain Caveman being sat between two blokes I didn’t know who talked about caves and work all night; he wasn’t even seen at the amazing buffet. Lots of my favourite people came over to celebrate and Chrissy organised a delicious carrot cake, I got some lovely gifts of a gorgeous scarf, a much needed notepad/journal and (at last) a bell for my bike.

I had lots of beers and didn’t even have room for a whisky night cap when I got home.

The first trip of 2017

On Saturday (7th January) we were ready very early and awaited our bus pick up for 6.45am outside our house with hangovers. The attitude on time keeping in Phong Nha is very relaxed compared to back home and so after a few pick-ups and stop offs we were finally leaving town and heading to another wedding about 50km away from Vinh. Captain Caveman and I joined Watto & Chrrisy on the bus with the other Oxalis employees and arrived at Dung and Huong’s wedding at 11am. I was still feeling a little fragile so I opted for the tea offered rather than the rice wine. There were lots of friends and family there and the happy couple looked very nervous as the speeches and singing, by various people, continued at volume. There was the traditional pouring of the red, fizzy wine into champagne pyramids followed by a sip with linked arms as people clapped or took photos.
The day was warm and the sun came out making it pretty hot by the afternoon when the food feast started – there was beef, pork, chicken, bread and sticky rice washed down with too much rice wine and cans of winter melon (both are an acquired taste).
After the wedding we were driven by car to Vinh train station where we would be getting the overnight sleeper train to Da Nang then going to Hoi An for a couple of days with Watto & Chrissy. As there were a few hours to kill before the train that evening Captain Caveman and I went for a walk around the town and found ourselves in an empty Bia Hoi place drinking Huda beer and eating beer snacks. Back home bar snacks would usually consist of crisps or nuts but here they are a little healthier with their offerings, we were given rice crackers, cucumber and a vegetable we affectionately call eyeballs – related to the aubergine and has the ability to suck all the moisture from your mouth with one tiny bite. We also tried a Vuvuzela restaurant but weren’t particularly impressed with the food although the beer was good.
Our overnight train journey was OK despite having a carriage door that kept swinging open because of a broken catch, so a little sleepy we arrived to the car waiting to take us to Eden Homestay on Cua Dai Street. Chrissy and I have stayed here a few times and so Chrissy had managed to get a good deal by booking directly with the hotel. We had a good walk to Dingo Deli for our breakfast as this was a place all of us had enjoyed eating at in previous visits and it wasn’t quite as good as usual – I prefer their lunchtime food over the breakfast and was glad we had booked breakfast at our homestay for the next two days. While in Hoi An we visited a tailor, shopped for DVDs, ate Vietnamese and Indian food, drank wine in nice places. Captain Caveman found the best fish and chips at a place called ‘Chips & Fish & Stuff’ while I enjoyed their famous Hoi An dish of Cao Lau (a pork noodle dish).
On Tuesday Watto & Chrissy headed back to Phong Nha while we headed to the dentist in Da Nang for our check ups. I was glad to hear that my teeth were fine and needed no treatment – Captain Caveman was all good too. We treated ourselves with a trip to the cinema in Da Nang where we watched Arrival, a pretty good film despite me not liking sci-fi/alien types. The overnight train from Da Nang back to Dong Hoi was good despite an elderly man on the bottom bunk of my side not turning his light off all night so again we didn’t really get much sleep. My birthday started with me being annoyed at Captain Caveman for being tetchy with the old bloke.

2 Housewarmings, 1 Wedding & a Funeral

Friday 6th January must be considered an auspicious day in Phong Nha because we were invited to three parties all on the same day, some of which overlapped slightly.
The first party was for a house warming just round the corner from us for one of our Vietnamese friends who has had a new 2 bedroom house built. Captain Caveman and I were the first to arrive at 10.30am (they do like to start celebrations early over here) and we had a look around and went up on to the flat roof where the views are lovely. As the other guests arrived we moved down in to the front room where the westerners were given seats and a table full of delicious food with beers while the Vietnamese guests sat on a floor mat with a hotpot style dish. We all enjoyed doing cheers (chuc suc khoe, in Vietnamese) with our generous host, Hoan and her father Mr Nguyen before having to make our apologies to leave as we had been due at a wedding across the street at 11am.
The wedding was huge and the brightly coloured venue was already filled with lots of guests and the loud dance music was pumping out. Bang and Yen looked great and they had very generously filled the tables with food and provided lots of beer. Half way through the frivolities a South African man was planted beside us at our table and he was plied with food and beer for about an hour before he mentioned that he had just arrived with his wife and she might be wondering where he was. I managed to dance quite a lot, mainly with a couple of the Vietnamese men who really know how to dance well. The Vietnamese women are usually much more shy and reserved at weddings so it was no surprise to see that it was just me and men on the dance floor, until Captain Caveman managed to drag a couple of passing tourists in to join us. By 2pm we were pretty merry and were conscious we were already late for Mr Hung’s house warming, which was a ten minute cycle ride towards the town. As we were getting ready to leave the wedding a big procession of really brightly dressed local people came walking towards us, filling the width of the road. It was a funeral and so we stopped dancing and just watched them go by unaware of who had died.
Captain Caveman and I arrived after all the other westerners in our party and had been saved a space at an overflowing table of food and yes, more beers. We were immediately welcomed and given food directly into our bowls, as is the Vietnamese way at parties like this, with a few rounds of cheers.
Despite being already drunk we managed to give the party a good go and I even did cheers with an elderly local woman who looked like she was tasting beer for the first time – she left the party straight after which was also our cue to leave. I needed an early night as the next day we were heading three hours north for another special celebration.

Things I’m looking forward to in 2017

Here’s a list (my first of the year) to whet your appetite, aptly named Things I’m looking forward to in 2017.
• Seeing my parents after what will be 6 months away from them. I can’t wait and am already planning an itinerary for us to spend 2 weeks together in Vietnam.
• Getting a job. As my fixed term mortgage deal has ended and therefore increased my payments, I’m twelve hundred quid per year worse off, so I need to find a way to earn money that can go into my UK bank account while I’m out here. Any suggestions welcome as I make a concerted effort this month to secure something.
• Having a full body massage for my birthday, I’ve been dying to try the new spa in town and it’s been 6 months since I last had a treatment – it could be a little different to Champney’s though.
• More wedding celebrations – we’ve known about Dung and Huong’s wedding a while so have planned accordingly but Bang & Yen surprised us with 24 hours notice.
• My birthday – we had planned to go for an ‘all you can eat’ brunch at the Intercontinental in Da Nang on the Sunday following my birthday but had to cancel as Captain Caveman was due to be away 12-15th in Son Doong. Instead my celebrations consisted of a visit to the dentist and visiting Hoi An for a couple of days with Watto & Chrissy before coming back to a party at Phong Nha River House.
• Tet holiday celebrations – the end of the year is always a string of celebrations lasting up to 5 days.
• Having a quick holiday for a visa run at the beginning of March – still looking at where is cheapest to go so it might be somewhere new or it could be and old faithful like KL.
• Colin visiting for 3 months from February.
• A possible Australia visit in July – Captain Caveman is going to a caving conference for a couple of weeks in Sydney and (if I can afford it) I might go along for a trip as I’ve never been to Australia before.
• Captain Caveman and I are hoping we will be able to fit a few weeks in Turkey at the end of his Oxalis season.
• I know it’s a way off but I’m already thinking about celebrating my 2018 birthday in Vietnam, or at least Asia.
• Finally figuring out this blogging lark and getting my JoLoYoLo shenanigans out there for anyone to read – I still haven’t worked out how to really use wordpress and so will welcome any tips.