As we float up the Son river by boat, we wave to the local girls washing clothes in the clear waters on both sides of the riverbank.
Phong Nha Cave, Vietnam – A World Heritage site
A World Heritage listed site, Phong Nha is a place that has become famous worldwide for magnificent caves and grottos filled with fantastic stalagmites and stalactites.
After the boat trip we start the ascent to enter the caves by hoofing up over 600 stone steps, which seems to be at times verging on the vertical, a real challenge for any visitor.
My girlfriend, though desperate to see the cave, climbs at a snail’s pace. “How beautiful” she said, when taking a breather, pointing to the distant landscape. From the mountain side, in the distance, peaceful villages are nestled in amongst the green bamboos by the Son river, which is shimmers like a soft silk strip; from the red roofed houses thin plumes of smoke waft above, the houses look like wild flowers in the colorful sunlight; further away the river weaves its dreamy way through the precipitous mountains. All of which creates a breath-taking view.
Halfway up, we suddenly discover a small mossy roofed temple right by the steps.
“You had best not go in there!” the guide says. “It is very dangerous!”
That only makes us curious, so we enter, ignoring the creepy feeling. In the moss-covered yard sit two angry-looking stone lions squatting on the two sides of the gates ready to devour us. Inside the temple, there is no one and no incense-smoke but there’s an incense holder positioned right under a large gilt throne.
“Who is the temple dedicated to?” I ask.
“It is dedicated to Thien son coc tu (Mountain and river genies),” the guide replies.
Legend has it that on windy days, there appeared strange sounds coming from the mountain walls. The inhabitants labeled this as a strange but sacred omen.
In 1824, King Minh Mang ordered the construction of the temple, dedicated to mountain and river genies, in the hope of bringing peace and affluence to the locals. It is due the strange sounds coming from the mountain walls that the King named the temple Den Nghe (Listening Temple).
It is also reported that when the temple was initially built it was facing the wrong direction; there were a number of fatal accidents after landslides and trees collapsing beside the temple.
So, the locals then re-built the sacred temple in the position it is in today, and, so it is said, life in the area resumed natural order.
I keep asking locals why the temple is now left neglected but no one knows. “Perhaps, it lies in a dangerous position, where it could be easily buried under rock slides,” the guide suggests.
Finally we reach the mountain cave, it is beautiful beyond our imagination. The colourful artificial lights glowing on the rock walls create a special ambiance. Images of assorted wild animals dancing on the wall add a pre-historic air. A herd of bats flap their wings above our heads, while birds’ squawk, which at times in the darkness of the cave is spine-chilling.
We amble down the mountain to go down the world’s longest underground river, which runs right beneath the mountain we have just climbed up.
The mouth of Phong Nha grotto looks like the mouth of a titanic serpent steeped in the water. It is some 20 metres wide and 10 metres high and lined with superb stalactites. The guide tells us that it is due to the sounds of winds blowing in the grotto that the grotto is named Phong Nha (Wind Teeth).
Our boat sails in peace besides the sounds of clacking oars and the echoes of our own voices reverberating around. The cupola of the grotto looks like a thin gold-inlaid sheet. It reminds us of a love story in times of old, when the Earth and the Heaven were united.
On the Son river there lived a young man who was one of the 100 sons of Lac Long Quan and Au Co. He helped the locals hunt, fish and live peaceful lives.
The locals cherished him so much that they called him Phong Nha. One day, many orcas (killer whales) appeared and threatened the area.
An old man suddenly appeared and told him about a Fairy who had a wonderful sword. The young man stole the sword and killed the orcas, bringing happiness to the locals.
He then returned the sword to the Fairy. The Fairy, admiring his exploits, fell in love with him and he, in turn, loved her.
Unfortunately the Jade Emperor heard the news that his sole daughter had fallen in love with a mortal man so he whisked her away to Heaven. The Fairy felt so sad that she said she was determined to return. The Jade Emperor finally accepted their marriage, giving them the sword to protect the locale.
The grotto is said to be the sacred place where the couple met and lived. It is reported that during the American war, the area was used to hold weapons for the North Vietnamese army. In 1968, 16 Vietnamese soldiers died after two US rockets landed here, which is why the mouth of the grotto looks as it does today.