A Vietnamese perspective, a reflective account of Mr Phuong
I joined the joint British - Vietnamese Caving Expedition 2010 in Quang Binh province as an interpreter, being the connection between expedition members and local people and the government. This time was the longest and hardest expedition that I’d ever had in my whole life, but it really was my happiest time when living amongst expert cavers, professional photographers, spent time walking all day long inside tropical forest with green all around, or completely dark, cool cave chamber – everything was completely different to noisy, dusty and polluted city where I’m living. This time, I had a chance to live naturally.
As usual, my work was to contact with local guides to get the latest information about new caves that they have found in the last year. I extracted a lot of new info, some of them were very interesting such about a cave near Lao-Vietnam border line where an US aircraft was shot down and burned, or a valley where has at least two fresh and good entrances which means hopefully for another good caves.In fact, it was. On the trip last year, all I had to do was trekking with expedition members and local guys to make the both sides understand each other – that’s all. This trip was not only just that because I aimed a higher goal: get into a cave and learn how to caving. Before the trip I told Howard about my goal and looking for his help to make my desire become true, and he agreed - what a good old man! This trip I was equipped with very good headlamp, wetsuit, backpack and other equipments which allow a dummy to get out a cave in one piece. I was instructed how to use equipments in right way, how to get in and out a cave safety, and they also taught me about things in jungle and especially inside a cave, how they made, how important they are or how to protect them, not only small things such as tiny stalactites or shiny cave pearls but also the whole jungle and its bio diversity – that’s the way we protect our resources, our environment, our lives. Great experiences, great knowledge I earned through the expedition.
The most things I had to do almost during the trip were how to live inside dense jungle. The Ke Bang Massif in Phong Nha – Ke Bang NP holds a large number of caves inside, but to get to cave entrances requires hard walking inside rugged terrain or even free climb on vertical cliff, with a lot of dangerous and bloody insects moving around. For this task, you must have proper footwear like heavy duty boots, thick socks, etc. Preparing these things was my luck. Thanks to Vietnam footwear and textile industries, I bought a good pair of jungle boots with price of US$ 5, and some good pairs of long socks, all in Hanoi, which protected me perfectly against tricky conditions inside jungle. Before each jungle trip, expedition members equipped me with sleeping and proper caving equipments if the caves are available for me to get in and out safety. Then after each careful preparation, we walked into jungle to find those new cave entrances. Walking inside jungle is not a hard work with me, especially in those days which have monsoon – cool weather and clean air make the trip easier than cloudless and shiny days. While walking, I kept looking for poisonous plants which will cause serious itch for at least a day, depends on how long and how much you touch it; or hungry small insects try to bite me. But thanks to the expert local guides, they always helped me about that. The last thing that I prepare for each jungle trip was my medicines which provide first aid when I got bite, cold, itch, injured or hard breath, such as first aid items, ventolin inhaler for asthma, antihistamines tablets…
In most jungle trips, we started in the morning and had tried our best to reach the nearest campsites to the cave entrance. Sometimes campsite was a good tent used by other jungle men, or a small level area where we are able to hang our hammocks or stretch our sleeping mat; have a large stream nearby or just only some small pools with a lot of tree frog larval. When we reached the campsites we usually had a small time for rest, then we went into nearby jungle to collect firewood, chopped small tree to make temporary tent and cook dinner. Nights in jungle came quite fast, and being tired after a walking day, I always chatted for a short time and get sleep quite fast while jungle men was playing card or fishing (if there was large stream near campsite) until midnight.
Food in the jungle was simple. I ate with both local guys and expedition members sometimes double meal because I can’t do anything with an empty stomach. For Vietnamese food, we always ate rice with pork or fish and vegetable soup. They were tasty, spicy, and if we have another spice instead of sodium glutamate, I could say they’re healthy food. Sometimes I ate pasta, bread, drank English tea with expedition members. Not too much food for my always-empty-stomach, but it brought me a large volume of energy, enough for trekking, caving or climbing. Each time we go for caving, I always took at least 2 packs of Energy Bar or 1 pack of Oreo biscuit because inside a cave always cooler, not counting that sometimes we might swim in cold water. Caving consumes a large volume of energy, so if I lack of extra food, my body temperature will decrease quite rapidly, I will fell asleep and exhausted – dangerous situation. Water was also a problem. Fresh water in jungle always contains a lot of disease agents and it need to be treated before drink. The easiest and most safety way to treat raw water is cook until it boil at 100oC in a few minutes, then put some black tea into it and wait it become cooler. But this treatment need firewood, a lot of time for both cooking and waiting until water is cool enough for drink. Another treatment we used in the trip was put 3 drops of iodine liquid for a litre of raw water and then wait at least 30 minutes for purifying. Water could be put into water bag or bottle, add some iodine drops then put it into backpack and keep walking – it’s easy and simple. For better taste, I always put 2-3 orange flavor multi-vitamins tablets for 1.5l water bag.
Caver is not only who does physical activities such as walking, climbing, survey… but also need sharp thinking about the environment. In karsts area, the most dangerous things are thunder storms with heavy rain because they could cause very strong streams or even flash floods which will block your way or even leave you no chance to survive if you stay near the stream. In rainy season, it’s even worse with all day raining, high water level and strong streams – that’s why caving expeditions are always at the end of dry season. In the last photographic trip in Hang Son Doong, we caught 2 thunder storms, one happened when we were still on the cave entrance, one when we were moving deeper inside the cave. The first thunder storm made us hurry to move inside the cave and cross the underground river before its water level rose too high. The second one happened when we were doing photography in the first doline, and then caused two dramatic underground water falls. I thought that was my first and last chance to see that most beautiful scene.
Get involved with the expedition up to 7 weeks, I finally realized how serious are illegal logging and hunting in here. In jungle of Minh Hoa district, I saw a lot of high quality hard wood, some trees with dimension up to a meter were being chopped and carried out of jungle by local men. It’s hard to imagine how a 50kg man can carry up to 100kg wood walking on rugged terrain, but it was real. In Phong Nha – Ke Bang NP, due to highly protection made by the government and forest rangers, there is no serious logging like that, but I saw a lot local men got into jungle to collect a precious wood which Chinese traders can pay up to US$ 100 for each kilograms. I asked and got the answer that local men just collect this kind of wood from dead tree, just because there was no longer alive tree in this area. Wild animal hunting and trapping were even worse. I can easily find a restaurant which serves fresh food made from wild animals in wherever we stay. In my opinion, I think this is the biggest things that the government of Quang Binh province must face if they want to make their NP as a best place for ecotourists, wildlife researchers.