(August 11th) Breakfast was a good start, with eggy bread with honey and a simple pho. We were soon doing river crossings, then a whole day damp with sweat in the mosquito-rich jungle. We walked. All day. And unfortunately, this was the first day without cloud cover, so after at least 48 hours of wet feet and humidity this day was TOUGH. And a bit miserable, considering how much up and down there was on the steep limestone mountains. Something like 7 hours, including an hour for lunch – rice, plus the usual rice crisps, laughing cow cheese triangles, Oreo cookies, chocolate and marshmallow biscuits. No fruit this time.
After lunch, we climbed a steep mountain on a path that hadn’t been used in two weeks, so it was overgrown with brambles that continually snagged our hair, hands, cheeks… everything. Thick branches covered in inch-long spikes looked bad, but far worse were the thin vines with small, thin, backwards-hooked teeth that plucked apart the fibres of any clothing they touched.
Parts were so thick with brush we couldn’t see where we were stepping, a problem with so many boulders strewn across steep, rocky passages. One of the three Vietnamese travellers with us damaged his knee climbing, pretty soon after we started off, so he was taken off to get a motorbike back to the hotel. His trip was over.
The descent was slippery, but eventually we got back down, had a couple more river crossings, then reached our most beautiful campsite yet, next to a lagoon, a river and the mountains. Amazing. Exhausted. For context, I was almost as tired as I’d been on the last day descending Kilimonjaro. Lily had been quiet for the last hour or two. I can’t remember how I upset her. But I’d said something either mean or stupid or both. She was trying not to talk to me. But, seeing the camp was enough of a relief to lighten the mood, and we were friends again.
Dinner was the last of the trip, so it included a lot more rice wine (about the strength of soju but less flavourful) and a lot of singing. I backed Lily up with the Colombian national anthem (humming; I have no idea what the words are), then sung the first part of I Wanna Get Married. Victor sung La Marseillese (on my request), Hung sung a Vietnamese song that Ken joined in, and Ken and the porters sung lots of songs from their local regions. It was kinda embarrassing not to know any traditional British songs. Or, for that matter, any songs that would be respectable at a camp singalong.
At dinner we asked ‘Travelling Lover’ (Thien, one of our Vietnamese adventure companions who has a YouTube channel) if he was famous. They had been slowing the entire group down by about an hour a day taking fucking endless selfies, slowmos splashing in water, walking through water, posing in front of water, posing on rocks, in front of rocks… seriously, even by Asian standards of selfie obsession it was ridiculous (and more than a little annoying, considering the effort of getting anywhere).
In front of everyone, Ken asked me if I could remember any of the names of his team, although I got the feeling he was really asking if I’d bothered to ask any of them their names. I hadn’t, and it was massively embarrassing – these people had been my mules, my cooks, my cleaners. So, I was careful to show them I was taking their names, and writing them down;
Ken – our main guide, the guy who speaks English, told us where we were going, led us most days, playful, told me that a bone I found was a monkey bone (it was chicken), and had been doing this perhaps 5 or 6 years.
Hung – our amazing chef. Ken told me he doesn’t do the cooking at home, which I believe is a real shame for his wife and kids.
Phuong – a porter/safety team
Oai – a porter/safety team
Meo – 2nd guide, we didn’t communicate much, but he was playful, always doing physical jokes (like pretending he would push people in the water).
Luong – 3rd guide. We barely talked, but he led me home on the final day, and had the air of an indigenous guide at one with the nature around us.
Quang – porter/safety team
Huy – porter/safety team
Thien – the traveller YouTube Vietnamese guy
Duy – bed linen factory owner, friend of Thien.
The other guy – he was injured by this point, so I didn’t get his name.
(August 12th) This day we went on a river boat a little while upstream, got out and hiked a few minutes to Thien 1, the most impressive cave we’d seen so far, with a beautiful, grand entrance that we took way too many photos of.
In it, we had to zipline across a chasm so deep we couldn’t see the bottom of it, like something out of a fantasy movie. The cave was so wide our head torches couldn’t light the other side of a cavernous pit, and there were so many flies attracted to our lights our exposed skin became covered in tiny black dots: the bodies of flies that got stuck and died in our sweat. The bats enjoyed our presence, swooping through the clouds of food around us.
After a bit of a walk, including quite a lot of boulder scrambling, we got to Thien 2, which was only ‘discovered’ (in the European sense, as the locals already knew about it) in 2015, making us one of the first few thousand people to have visited the cave.
And that was it for caving. We had lunch, then walked an hour and a half back to the pickup point. I got separated from the others, and walked for maybe an hour with Luong, one of the guides I hadn’t communicated with much before. Luong showed me how to explode a leaf with a loud pop by smacking it into a cupped hand, what plants smell nice, figs we could eat. He helped me intentionally swipe my hand with poison ivy, which I was curious to feel the effect of, but which turned out to be a little disappointingly weak (a mild sting that slightly throbbed but was easy to ignore for the rest of the day). For long sections of the ascent, and then some of the descent, there was the CONSTANT buzz of flies in my ears. This wasn’t the dentist drill of mosquitoes, but the waspy hum of horseflies, so unabating I seriously considered whether I was going mad in the heat. I stopped walking for a second to swipe at the air around me, and was immediately bitten on the neck and head. The next hour was a mix of stinging bites and sweat.
At the bottom we drank Huda beer. In the van we cranked up the celebratory music: Despacito, followed by I Love You Baby. I tried to start a Mexican wave in the van (Victor: “I thought a Mexican wave would be dead bodies washing up on American beaches”). Talking of washing, the van was a heady mix of four day old sweaty clothes, foot rot, armpits and sweet, sweet success.
The van passed civilisation again. Farmed water buffalo covered in mud. Houses mounted on oil drums that would make the house rise with the water in case of flood. Iridescent green of rice paddies. Foliage on the mountains so dense it looked like a bushy blanket. The vines here seemed to cover every inch of livable space. Columns of leaves protruded out of the jungle, probably hiding tree stumps underneath, but which were so overgrown with vines they looked like bushes. By the time we got back to the Chay Lap Farmstay the smell in our van was so ripe it was hard to breathe.
That night, we had a celebratory dinner with Ken and the rest of our group, including the Vietnamese guy who’d injured his knee, and minus Jelle, who was out on a date with Mo. This was big news – we’d spoken at length with Jelle about his sex life earlier in the day. He is a 32 year old with anxiety disorder, who hadn’t ever had a girlfriend (it’s unclear whether he’d had sex, but he didn’t go so far as to say that). He goes to pieces around girls he likes, so it was great to see Mo all dressed up to go on a date to a new restaurant with him. However, when telling us his loveless history, he used some language borrowed from (perhaps accidentally) the incel community – girls say they want nice guys, but they don’t, they want bad guys. Girls are shallow. He keeps ending up in “the friend zone”. In other words, he’s an awesome dude, but girls are pre-programmed to make bad choices.
One other thing of note: I did my first poo since before the expedition – 5 1/2 days prior.