August 14, 2013

Cold Beer and Tackling Fear (Phong Nha, Vietnam)

It's above us, below us, surrounding us. It's as if the darkness has swallowed us up whole. It seems to go on forever. The air is hollow and silent except for the sounds of our breathing and of our arms and legs softly swishing through the black water. The water is so cold that my legs cramp behind my knees. Is it possible for someone to forget how to swim? I'm worried I might. Occasionally, I reach out to clamp on to Tom's arm/hand/back/head/foot just to have a touchstone.

We're in one of the many caves in Vietnam's Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park (a UNESCO site), and I'm scared. They had told us what to expect, but I was still unprepared. I never considered myself a brave person, but here I am, swimming in the deep, black waters of a mysterious cave that I was terrified to enter. The only light comes from my headlamp and the headlamps of my companions, though I know (from backpacker tales) that they will soon ask us to turn out our torches and tread water in the apparent infinite vastness. Just the thought of it makes my heart race. I reach out again to my touchstone. That's enough for the moment and, in a quick second of calm, I am in awe of what we're experiencing.

There are only a few guesthouses in the area and the most popular one, by far, is Phong Nha Farmstay, owned by an Aussie (Ben, one of the first people to explore the region's caves) who married a local Vietnamese woman (Bich) and is staffed by fellow long-term travelers stopping off for awhile in the countryside. Later that night, when it's all over and I've survived, I tell Ben how scared I was in the cave. "That cave terrifies me," he agrees, "We don't know what's in that cave!"

Now you tell me.