A Vietnam Caving Expedition

I wanted to create a cave expedition to look for areas that are little known and explore in the hope of finding a ‘Lost World’, somewhere on our constantly changing planet that was still relatively untouched, I filmed as much footage as I could with a small hand-held video camera and created a self-made documentary of the experience, here is a very brief extract from that documentary:

The caves and surrounding areas were stunning and had a surreal feel about it, below is a short film extract from one of the caves….

What led to this expedition was that a friend of mine (Vorsila) sent me some images of a Cave in Vietnam located at in the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park called Hang Son Doon meaning Mountain River Cave. This has taken over Phong Nha as the largest cave in the World, however it was not the cave that drew me it was what was inside it….

The cave was discovered in 1991 by a local ‘jungle’ man called Ho Khan, other locals were suspicious of the echoes from the fast river running through it and so would not go near it.

It was not until 2009 when a team of British Cave Researchers went to explore it further and breaking through a huge calcite wall discovered chamber after chamber of natural wonders including a rainforest growing in an area where the roof had collapsed producing light and it was this that drew me, I wanted to explore what I felt was a true ‘Lost World’ and document what type of insects, amphibians and birds were living there.

I invited a friend of mine Jonas from Copenhagen in Denmark to come in on this, as he is a superb photographer and would be a valued companion to have along.

I then set about contacting 11 different companies to try to get us there, but we were turned down by 10 of them, then one company, Haivenu Tours Ltd, said they could get us there, however we would need a letter of endorsement to apply to the Vietnamese authorities to get to the cave.

So I wrote to a few people, but heard nothing, then wrote a letter to Sir David Attenborough who sent me a lovely warm and encouraging reply wishing us luck, however he could not endorse it and so I eventually got my letter from a company called Care for the Wild and sent it off with a back up letter from my local Mayor as a character reference.

I also wanted to try to get Ho Khan the local jungle man to take us to the cave, this was looking very possible if we got that letter approved, however, 4 weeks prior to going (flights, etc already paid for and booked) the Vietnamese Authorities said that we would not be permitted to get to Hang Son Doon, as it is too dangerous.

Although I was extremely disappointed at the time I now know that it was the right decision, for Jonas and myself had no proper caving experience to speak of, just tons of enthusiasm to get to that area.

The expedition was amended to a ‘mini’ version and we were lucky enough to get Mr Thin as our lead who discovered a cave in Cap Tu Cliff now named after him ‘Thin cave’

I flew to Vietnam and met up with Jonas and then a couple of days in we met Mr. Thin who, prior to our expedition starting, took us to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park where we went by boat to Phong Nha cave, once listed as the largest cave, but now deemed as the second largest as Hang Son Doon has of course been discovered and overtaken it as it is five times larger than Phong Nha.

Phong Nha cave is 7,729 meters long with an underground river that runs for 13,969 meters, its a little touristy with the grottos lit up and boats going in and out of the main entrance, even though the caves were not open to the public until 24th December 2010.

The second cave we went to was in my opinion far superior, Paradise cave (Thien Duang Cave), it is 111 metres above sea level with 500 steps up to the entrance there is then a further climb back down many steps to get into it, however it is a real beauty. Discovered in 2005, this cave is the longest in Asia and there is now talk that it could be the longest cave in the World at 31km long, almost 12 miles. After photographing as much of this beautiful cave as we could we headed back along the long wooden walkway and then climbed step by step back outside to the jeep, which would not start! I filmed in amusement Jonas and Thin trying to push the thing and make it go, and eventually it spluttered back into life and off we went.

We stopped at a small cave by the roadside with a Temple, it is called The Eight Lady Cave and sadly is where 8 women workers sheltered from a bombing during the War, they survived the bombing, however tragically a huge slab of rock fell and blocked the entrance.

They were trapped, the Vietnamese tried very hard to get them out but could not move the rock and after 9 days they died in there. There is an altar where people can burn incense and I watched as locals would light a joss stick, place it in the sand and then stand back and bow to the alter in respect for the dead. Many people came in the short time that I was there and this showed how respectful the people are even after this time has passed.

It shows how you can not take anything for granted, accidents do happen.

On the way back we stopped at Thins office and signed some papers to say that we were fit enough to do the Expedition and to agree to wear the Cave helmet and pick up our kit, which was issued to us by Thin. We were given Army jungle boots with holes in for the rivers, cave helmet, waking stick for hills and to get rid of snakes, Army hammock and Army sleeping bag. Then we were told to go and get some rest and Thin would get us the next morning, I felt very excited about it all and that night we packed most of our stuff up to leave at the hostel we were at and just kept the bare essentials.

We got up early the next day, stored our belongings and stood at the ready with our backpacks on and then Thin picked us up along with a park Ranger and a cook, porter and fish catcher, so we became a team of seven.

The Ranger was from Laos and immaculately dressed in smart green trousers and green shirt, the others were in casual clothes. Throughout the expedition the ranger maintained his immaculate image not seeming to have any sweat, mud or marks on him, unlike the rest of us.

We set off on a hot, bumpy drive out to Phong Nha Ke Bang National park, I felt very drowsy and kept falling asleep, it was strange as I was excited about the journey ahead, yet struggled to keep my eyes open, it was most likely the heat that was getting to me.

On route we stopped again at Thins office and Jonas and I had to sign a document each, the usual thing to say that we take responsibility for ourselves and are happy to take part in the caving expedition.

One of the office workers came out and asked looking at my signed form, “you are Amanda King?” I replied yes and she laughed and said, “then you are King” and repeated this a few times, very amused at the name.

We continued on the hot drive, where again I became very drowsy until we stopped at the side of the road and jumped out getting on our backpacks and were given metal walking poles for balance and to remove any snakes out of our path and a white caving helmet each. We were then ready for the trek into the jungle.

It was intensely hot, I quickly drank some water and then we were off, following the team down away from the road into the jungle.

We trekked steadily through jungle up a steep walk 500 metres with the path ahead covered in thick roots. I started to feel very sick on the trek, the sickness rose in me and I stopped several times trying to make it pass, it is very frustrating when these things happen and I tend to get ill a lot in very hot, humid weather, it is either heat exhaustion or due to the malaria tablets that we have to take, but it happens every time.

The trek was estimated at 4 hours however due to the intense heat and denseness of the jungle it took us longer. We trekked many hours through jungle up and down muddy trails over twisty trails and twisty roots many a time I got smacked in the face by an overhanging branch. I quickly learned to look up, down and ahead when walking, I found myself constantly grabbing tree branches for support, but they offered false security as they gave way each time I tried. Many of the plants stung, even through our clothes and the stinging sensation would last 6-7 hours. The intensity of the heat, steepness of the trails and heavy backpack started to take their toll on me and my limbs began to feel shaky and I still felt sick. The feeling of sickness continued but I kept walking following thins feet in front of me, watching each step he took and matching it, letting the pattern of footsteps act as a welcome distraction. On and on this trail went up steep muddy banks where we would slip down again sliding with our packs and sticks down muddy banks and up over leafy root trails. I lost my footing as it got caught under a twisted root and I fell, it was a hard fall onto rock and roots, I was not hurt, but it was a shock. The trek continued, on and on it went got to the stage where I just wanted it to be over with as it was just so uncomfortably hot.

We eventually stopped for a break and I drank more water adding re-hydration powders and vitamin c to it, I saw the ranger doing the same to his water. We continued on over many rivers from ankle high to waist deep, holding our cameras high up out-of-the-way in case of a fall over the slippery rocks underfoot made trickier by the often strong currents.

We then stopped by a river for lunch, I dropped my pack to the ground and walked fully clothed into the river for a swim to cool down, it felt heavenly and soothed me.

Thin got a fire going and lunch was sweet potato and two boiled eggs, after lunch we packed up our things and put on the jungle boots with the drainage holes in for the rivers. My sickness subsided and now we were on flatter terrain I felt much better, we walked over dry, rocky river beds and through numerous fast flowing rivers. I kept getting the UB40 song many rivers to cross running through my head, an obvious song to pop into my head, but it helped to keep me going.

The terrain then changed from the rocky river beds to waist-high foliage of giant green leaves, many of which were stinging plants or had thorns in, I felt like a miniature person walking through such huge leaves, like something out of the film ‘A journey to the Centre of the Earth’.

As we continued on with the hike, I interviewed and filmed Thin asking him about the mystique that hung over Hang Son Doon, which I was still intrigued by, he told me that he had found fossils inside the cave at the back entrance. it was fascinating to talk to him.

We continued on and then Thin then pointed ahead to the first view of swallow cave (Hang En)  situated near Hang Son Doon, a vast rock opening with a river running through it, this is where we would set up camp for the next couple of nights.

I felt elated to see it and crossed the water to it, where the boys were resting, not soon after they began setting up camp constructing a wooden frame by cutting tree trunks, knocking them into the sand and binding them together.

We could then hang our hammocks on them and organise our sleeping bags and mosquito nets, it worked well.

Our Camp, Swallow Cave, Vietnam

They then set a camp fire and a latrine area, I felt slightly self-conscious in the latrine area as when it was dark and you walked across to it, the boys would helpfully shine their torches at you to light it up, however this exposed you somewhat.

           View from inside the cave

I swam in the river inside the cave and Jonas waded in to join me at a rock opposite where we talked about the days events.

National Geographic voted this ‘Best Cave’ in Spring 2011 and it felt a real privilege to be here and especially to camp here, just the seven of us.

This cave was in fact like a mini Hang Son Doon, with thousands of swallows and a fast flowing river that filled the cave with strange echos which often sounded like human voices, keeping me awake at night.

Beautiful Swallow Cave View

I absolutely loved this place, the cave itself was beautiful, natural and for the next couple of nights it was just ours. 

Later Jonas and I went exploring with Thin in the area, we climbed some rocky areas and they looked at a deep cave from above, but did not attempt it. I searched the area for insects finding numerous exotic species of dragonflies and damselflies, Jonas joined me and we explored the area enjoying the sounds of the frogs which barked like angry miniature dogs. We had dinner round the camp fire sitting in the sand, we had a treat of rice wine, river shrimps, river fish, rice vegetables and Jonas and I tried a bit of swallow, which were roasted on sticks over the fire, locals eat them from the cave. It was a happy evening, Jonas, Thin and I later looked for more insects, frogs and even a snake.

At night I would bath in a small lagoon and watch the backdrop of the jungle light up with fireflies and listen to the sounds of crickets and singing frogs; it was magical.

          River from the cave at night

We would sit around the fire and eat hungrily anything given, as Swallows are what the locals tend to eat we tried a little, there were swallows on sticks roasting on the camp fire, they taste very bland and are quite tough. The boys caught fish straight from the river and we ate that, some tasted really good and others tasted absolutely awful, we could not work out why this was.

The food was generally very good, sweet potato, rice and jungle vegetables with the fish and shrimps from the river.

Not at this camp, but later in the trip Jonas and I tried cockroaches, beetles and crickets, afterwards we both had upset stomachs, which we were warned about, but its good to try these things.

Later in the evening, Jonas and I went out with head torches to explore the area and look for any insects, amphibians and reptiles to photograph. We saw a fish gleaming in the water from the head torch and went to photograph it but it swam away. Just as this happened one of our boys from camp came over with a machete, he saw this and jumped into the water, whacked a fish on the head with his machete and handed it dead to us smiling broadly, I do not think he understood that we wanted to photograph live things, it was a sweet gesture though.

That night I slept badly in my hammock, firstly as I was excited about what we might see the next day and secondly because of some strange voices that were keeping me awake.

The next morning Thin and the Ranger instructed us to put on our hard hats and we set off with our head torches, cameras and camcorder to explore some of the cave system.

We walked further into the huge dark cave, wading through a great deal of water in the darkness. We crossed the fast flowing cave river many times holding our equipment high in case we fell over the slippery rocks we walked on.

                Jonas inside the cave

The cave was huge, we continued along a tunnel that went on for some time before we came to huge boulders which we climbed we climbed up and over, careful not to trip on the jagged rocks covered in swallow excrement until out of the darkness came the most beautiful angular shard of light that grew as we walked towards it with emerald-green jungle behind it. 

         View of Forest from the cave

I felt that to a degree we had found our Lost World.

We continued on and walked up and along to the next part of the cave and then out of the huge entrance following the river. I stopped and took some time to look at the forest area and what I could see living in it.

Forest through the other side of the cave

In this area I saw a centipede, millipede, metallic multi coloured beetles, a tiny gold metallic beetle, a pink ladybird with black spots, earwigs, many species of jumping spiders, several species of dragonflies including Red Grass hawk (Neurothemis fluctuans) and Fulvous Forest Skimmer (Neurothemis fulvia). There were also of course the swallows which flew swiftly drinking water from the river.

New plants sprang up everywhere.

It felt like a mini Hang Son Doone and I was extremely happy with what we were seeing and experiencing.

Annoyingly my camera stopped working most likely due to the humidity, so I concentrated on filming as much as could with my small Camcorder. Jonas took many photographs with his camera.

We continued walking out through jungle following and often crossing the fast flowing river, eventually we got to a very turbulent part where some of the water changed direction and flowed furiously into a tiny opening in the rocks to Hang Son Doon itself and was as close as we could get, I filmed this and interviewed Mr Thin about Hang Don Doon and he pointed up the cliff opposite where the main entrance is, had we been permitted we would have had to be roped up and do much climbing to get there and then a long abseil down into it.

It would have been far too dangerous to get in there, it is for experts only.

The small entrance we found where the water was rushing in was also too dangerous as the current is so strong and you would be swept in at high-speed no doubt bashing your head in on the rocks as you went.

Thin said even he has not been up there, he has only been to the back entrance of the cave, as he thinks its too tough to get to, I started to understand why the Vietnamese authorities had refused us entry into that cave, they were right.

We moved on a little up river and stopped to talk to some Jungle men who were sitting in a small cave, these people choose to live wild out in the jungle, often for many years, just surviving out there like that. I could see the appeal of such a peaceful life.

Thin gave us lunch of one potato with mayonnaise, it was simple but efficient and after eating mine, I took my video camera and walked back downstream to where the water was rushing into Hang Son Doon to shoot some more footage of it.

I walked back and we continued on the trek, both Jonas and I were tired by now from sheer heat exhaustion which seems to creep up on you, often when you least expect it.

We continued walking the four of us, but had only gone a short distance when suddenly the Ranger sat down looking tired and irritable and began a long, sometimes heated debate with Thin in Vietnamese. This went on for quite some time and Jonas and I were standing there with our backpacks in the hot sun just looking at each other wondering what it all meant.

After a while I interrupted and urged them to move on, but they just continued the debate, on and on it went. I urged them again to move, Thin signalled me to be quiet and continued debating with the Ranger, I could see it meant something important, so accepted it and stood back, after what seemed an age the Ranger got up.

Thin quickly explained to us that we were supposed to be heading to Grass Stream Cave, the Longest Cave, however the Ranger had decided that was too tricky and did not want to go, however he changed his mind and we started walking, following him quickly.

But then just 10 minutes later he stopped and sat back down, he would not move and after another debate with Thin had clearly made up his mind, Thin was pretty upset by this decision and I could see he had tried really hard to get us there.

National Geographic had been in there and Thin of course, but very few other people so it would have been special to see it, Thin was bitterly disappointed at us not getting in.

The Ranger felt the route and the cave was too dangerous and was just too tired to attempt it, he was clearly worn out and affected by the heat, which was extremely hot and humid.

Jonas and I reassured them though that we were in fact very happy with what we had seen that day, although to be honest I was also rather disappointed at not getting to that cave.

We started the trek back through and alongside the river to Swallow cave and Thin this time took us a long way inside, a different route with a great deal of climbing over sharp, jagged rocks to get to it. It was the most amazing chamber that I have ever seen, how I would imagine it must be like being on the moon, fantastic, strange alien looking mineral formations, nothing of the like I have ever seen before. There were huge cracks in the ground, smooth and jagged rocks, strange looking mosses and clusters of limestone steps and points.

I think very, very few people have seen this chamber and he took us to this special area to make it up to us that we did not get to the longest cave, to my mind this more than made up for it and I was totally transfixed by what we saw. Thin seemed excited to be showing it to us also.

I could not take any photographs of the area, but could film it with my night setting and did so, if I can I will put a film extract of it on here.

We had been out from 9am to 15:30pm exploring, then once back at camp Jonas and I did a bug hunt walk of the outer area then I had bath in the river and enjoyed a fire camp meal of river fish and rice followed by cold green tea before we set off once again for a night bug hunt in the dark.

I slept very badly that night, the temperature dropped and it got very chilly at night in the cave. I was then kept awake by the ‘voices’ which sound like conversations, but of course they are just echos, Thin explained that there was no one there.

My legs ached and my left foot stung from blisters of wearing wet socks daily from the river treks and I had stings on my body from the stinging plants that sting through your clothes; the stinging sensation lasts several hours (6-7 hours each sting). The plant looks to be from the family Dendrocnide, possibly the stimulans species, which is known to be found in Vietnam, however I will look into this more fully and amend once I am sure.

Our hammocks were in a triangle for Jonas, Thin and myself so if any of us moved in the night it would shake the frame and your hammock, it amused me and I felt as though I was in a spider’s web that rocked when anything got entangled in it.

In the morning after breakfast we began packing that camp down in readiness to trek to a new camp, I collected my clothes which were scattered, randomly on bush branches, drying in the morning sun. Then I packed away my sleeping bag, took down the hammock and helped the boys unbind and dismantle the wooden frame. The cook put out the fire and tidied his area, leaving no trace of us ever having been there, it looked immaculate.

We started trekking, it was a very hot day and we hiked through rivers and over rocks, over sand and through embankments of the waist-high stinging plants, which by now I hated on sight. We continued on climbing up and down steep mud banks in and out of the forest.

After an hour or so we stopped and the boys waded across a deep river to the other side and examined a narrow rocky overhang from the jutting out from cliff side. They approved it and began setting up camp there, I was delighted as, like Swallow Cave, it was a visually beautiful location.

I waded across and proceeded to unpack and set up my things, wet clothes hung on branches on a spiky bush, hammock, sleeping bag and mosquito net put up and my wash bag and med kit with head torch and torch all with easy, recognisable reach for when it got dark.

The latrine area was set up on the opposite bank and I went off upstream to select myself a suitable little bathing area, the water was deep here and I saw some netted areas which the boys had set up to catch fish.

We had a fire lunch of fresh fish and rice and water straight from the river, put through a wind up filter pump that Thin had to make it safe for us to drink.

The rock overhang where our hammocks were was very low so you had to remember to stoop down when you got in or out of your hammock otherwise you could crack your head on the stone, I forgot this and hit my head many times going in and out of the area.

After lunch Thin suddenly said, “We go now Amanda, Jonas we go, ready?” we both quickly jumped up grabbing our day packs, camera equipment, water and caving hats.

We trekked upriver then onto a tricky route through very thick jungle where the Ranger cut our route with his machete, stopping to navigate the best way through the jungle. Branches cut us in the face and plants stung us, leeches dropped down on us from trees and crawled onto us from the undergrowth.

Again Thin and the Ranger stopped to look at the route and work out where we were and were we needed to head, cutting a new route through as we went. I found it exciting to have this route navigated and cut with the machete, this was a very remote area.

We came to a stagnant river with very slippery rocks underfoot and crossed it, before having a break, Thin pointed up to the mountain opposite and said “we go up there.”

We then headed up the steep muddy cliff which I know the name of but am reluctant to put on here to maintain the locations privacy. We scrambled up, up, up a muddy bank then began climbing over huge rocks and boulders until we reached the newly discovered Thin cave, that Thin discovered and named after him.

I felt very lucky to be shown this by Thin himself, the local jungle men know it is there but (much like Hang Son Doon) will not go near it as they think it is haunted. They have seen a large storm around it when it got flooded and believe that the Gods were showing their anger, so will not go in, also they believe that anything inside is bad luck and not even a stone should be removed from the cave.

We finally climbed over some very large rocks and there below us was the entrance to Thins cave, it looked dark, mysterious and slightly unforgiving. We were told that we could not take our backpacks in as the climbing was tricky, so we would have to put on our hard hats and leave the rest, though I put my camcorder around my neck and left everything else behind for the climb down.

Jonas began climbing down but turned back as he would not leave his photographic equipment, I understand this as his kit is worth a great deal, mine however was not worth anything as such and anyway I figured who on earth would find us up a mountain covered in jungle at an entrance to a cave even the jungle men avoided. However, monkeys have been known to take things so it was sensible for peace of mind.

Following Thin and the Ranger I began the climb down, it was deceiving how far down it was, the rocks were extremely slippery and the rocks would often five way and way below when you tested them with your foot. We were un-roped, the climb felt like an edgy adrenaline rush, but also I was very cautious and aware of the danger and the importance of taking my time and getting it right, this was one place where you could not afford to make a mistake.

Down, down we climbed then along a ledge and out and across into the blackness of the caverns and chambers within.

We passed huge formations that towered above us, one of the stalagmites was covered in calcite minerals and shone like diamonds. Looking up I saw a colony of Bats clinging to the wall and could see swallows flying in and out of the entrance.

I looked back and could see Jonas sat on a rock silhouetted at the top, he looked tiny, unreal.

Turning and continuing on through the darkness, the Ranger went ahead and through the various chambers and was clearly keen to explore and see what was further ahead. He disappeared out of sight for a while looking for different entry holes and caverns having climbed into a small space at the back of the cave even further into the blackness, it seemed it went on and on. He reappeared looking excited and it was one of the rare times that I saw him smiling.

Thin was very good to me and remained with me helping me over the different stretches, where the rocks were bad or there was a narrow ledge, I really appreciated this.

Further in it was really surreal with cracked mud which was very slippery and huge chambers that went further back into the darkness.

Thin showed me some huge stalactites and we found that if we hit them with a rock they would play different musical notes, I filmed this for the sound and we played them for fun.

The Ranger re-emerged from the blackness and spoke to Thin telling him in their own language what he had seen back there. We then made our way carefully back through the chambers, then back round and out back to where the swallows and bats were situated.

I looked up but could not see Jonas so began the climb back up following the Ranger with Thin behind me, the Ranger helped me over the tricky parts holding my hand and pulling me up and over where there were the steep ‘blind’ drops. I was grateful for his help as I was finding it difficult.

My legs were shaking quite a bit, I found the climb up very hard and it was good to finally reach the top and see Jonas’ handsome face, he was a comforting sight to me.

Jonas had quite a bit of bleeding from his knee and Thin bound it up, he was unsure whether it was a knock from climbing that day but then came to the conclusion that it was from a leech.

We then got kitted up and started the descent back down the cliff over the boulders, rocks and vines then through the steep jungle further down.

It was a long walk back through the jungle once we were down and we waded back again through the large stagnant lake and back through the dry forest.

Jonas had a blood soaked shirt and on lifting it we saw that there was a large leech attached to him, I grabbed the tail end of the leech and yanked it off, throwing it to the ground. He stripped down to the waist and I checked him for further leeches taking any that I saw off him. It is not a good idea to burn these with cigarettes as they can vomit as a reaction and leave their mouth parts in your skin causing infection. The best way to remove one is to rip it off very quickly from the tail end or insert a blunt object underneath it and rip it away.

It is not obvious when you have leeches on you as they release an anaesthetic so that the victim does not feel them,

I thought I should go and check myself and being the only female moved off away from the others further downriver where I bathed and checked myself with a mirror. I was horrified to find many leeches on my person on my stomach and ripped off a cluster of leeches the top of my thighs (they had crawled up my legs) and was disturbed by the amount of blood coming off me from these things.

I was also bleeding internally and this worried me greatly as I had not worn any underwear that day due to the heat, I mirror checked myself again and washed the blood stained clothes. I thought it would be best to get checked over properly once we were back from the expedition.

There was little to worry about though as leeches tend to drop off naturally after they have fed, 2 hours being the maximum time that they may be draining blood off.

I found more puncture marks on my stomach and legs where the leeches had bitten me, I guessed that there had been between 8- 11 on me from bites and what I ripped off from the days hiking.

I returned to the others wading back upstream, Jonas had a nasty bleed on his neck from a leech and he lay in his hammock to calm it down.

Later we had our meal by the fire and then Jonas and I went looking for bugs and frogs while the boys played cards, which they loved to do at the end of the day.

Jonas and I found a huge Tarantula in a burrow, it was very aggressive and would rush out when we gently placed a stick at the end of the web to coax it out. I filmed this and Jonas got some fantastic photographs of it.

We also saw a stick insect and a praying mantis, along with some frogs and crickets.

It was a good evening, but we were tired from the days events and so crossed the river back to camp, where I changed my clothes, washed some clothes in the river then hung on trees ready for the next day.

I got into my hammock under the mosquito net, fire flies whizzed along the banks opposite and the boys continued with their game of cards while the fire burned on.

I slept badly that night still due to pain in my left foot.

The next day I woke at 7am and washed my socks in the river and put them straight back on, it was never worth drying the socks as we were in and out of the rivers constantly.

After breakfast of pancakes we started to pack up the camp, I felt sad to be leaving as I had really enjoyed the camping and the peacefulness of it all.

Once everything was packed up, we kitted up with our backpacks and started trekking up river, then through more waist high plants and scrambling up and over more mud banks.

We then started a climb up a mountainside past fields of cattle and then forest and eventually came to a remote tribe of 21 indigenous people who spoke their own language, split into 6 families.

They were mostly friendly, apart from one man who clearly did not like my filming them, so I stopped immediately as I did not want to offend them. The children had enjoyed it though, especially when Jonas suggested I play bits back to them so they could see themselves, they laughed and clapped their hands in delight which was fun.

There was a huge cockerel that strutted about the village as though it owned it whilst the chickens all fled in different directions whenever it approached them.

The Ranger and Thin could communicate with the Tribe and Thin told us that they had some very strong superstitions and fears there. One disturbing fear was of being haunted and if while giving birth a woman died, they would have to kill the baby as well in case the spirit of the mother came to the village in search of it, I thought this was incredibly sad and it stuck in my mind.

There was a large wooden hut with a tiny, cramped area at one end and a large spacious top floor with the cooking area below. I learnt that women were not allowed in the large area, instead they had to sit and sleep all together in the small area whilst the men had the spacious part. An old man with missing teeth who was smoking a large pipe laughed at my facial expression as I learnt of this.

We had a meal there and then Thin said to rest for a few minutes to conserve our energy as we had a tiring route ahead, he pointed to the mountain opposite saying “we go up there.”

I was tired before we started and did not enjoy the steep climb up the forest-covered mountain at all, I took my time as my pack weighed me down. Jonas did really well, but I struggled and just wanted it to be over, I was walking in wet clothes after dunking in a river at the start of the trek up.

Thin hung back with me and we saw a snake that was black with red and yellow warning colours on it.

Through the tiredness my legs kept shaking and I was stumbling around all over the place, it was also a reaction to the heat I think.

Thin offered to take the camera and lens out of my pack to make the weight of it a little lighter for me, it was good of him and I went for it as then found I was moving faster and steadier. Its strange but such a little thing made a huge difference to me both physically and moral wise.

We eventually got to the top, it was a relief to see Jonas and the rest of the team there, they looked tired also.

The top where we were was just yards from a roadside and Thin had arranged transport for us out of there, he was sceptical as to whether it would arrive for a while, but then we heard a vehicle approaching and he seemed elated.

All of us were pleased to see it as we walked out onto the high road from the jungle, we were all shattered and the luxury of having the cool breeze from the open windows as we began our journey back was so good. I looked out at the sheer beauty of the lush green jungle that stretched for miles, it seemed crazy that we had been trekking amongst that for the past few days and to suddenly be back out of it on the open road.

That was one of the most enjoyable drives I have ever had because of the fantastic views and the breezy, well-earned rest that we all got, even the Ranger looked relaxed and the fish catcher and the cook happily chatted and sang songs on the way back.

We stopped off at Thins office to return our hard hats, sticks, hammocks, boots, etc. and to fill in a questionnaire and talk about our experience. Jonas and I both agreed that we had thoroughly enjoyed it and were extremely happy with everything that we had seen.

We made sure that we tipped them all very well to show our appreciation, I gave Thin a larger tip as he had looked after me so well in the caves and the mountain treks. I have not met a guide who had impressed me more than Thin, he was outstanding.

We had cold fizzy drinks, which after drinking river water was a refreshing thirst quench.

Then Jonas and I transferred back to the original little Army Jeep accompanied by Thin and the driver and were driven back to Farm-stay.

We said goodbye to Thin, thanking him again for all that he had done for us and he went on his way, disappearing in a cloud of dust that rose up as the Jeep drove off.

Boo the dog appeared out of nowhere to greet us, it was nice to see him, Jonas and I must have looked worn out and ragged as we walked tiredly up the steps to collect our bags and check back in.

I noticed that people in the bar were looking inquisitively at us, no doubt wondering where we had been, but I was too tired to stop and talk to anyone.

Once settled and showered I talked to a Vietnamese lady of my experience with the leeches and she advised me to drink a strong alcohol spirit, such as whiskey and eat hot spicy food as a precautionary practice to kill off anything. I did this with gusto, however I am sure that all was well by then anyway and suspect it was just a nasty bite in that delicate area.

Jonas and I had a day to rest at the Farm-stay before flying off to another part of Vietnam, Cat Tien National Park where we stayed in a jungle tent and saw Gibbons, Sun Bears and even a Black Cobra at Crocodile Lake.

After a week there we flew on to Cambodia which will be written about shortly in my Cambodia section where more adventures were to be had. Of the whole trip the caving expedition was my favourite part, a very special experience and one that was totally unique that will remain with me for a very long time.