Belfry Bulletin

Search Our Site

Article Index

 

Vietnam 2001 Caving Expedition

by Peter "Snablet" McNab
with photographs by Paul Ibberson and Howard Limbert

Our jeeps drove around the bend in the valley, and before us a 40m wide 30m high entrance yawned out of a cliff, half a kilometre in front.  Excitement broke out in our jeep, we got the giggles.  It had been two years since we'd caved in Vietnam and we were chomping at the bit.  We drove off the road and headed across the fields for the opening, a small river separating us from the entrance.  We posed for photos on a rickety suspension bridge a mere 100m in front of the entrance.  An amazing amount of self control was exhibited and held us back from committing the mortal sin; running in and grabbing the first few hundred metres (just to see if it goes).  However, in this part of the world, permission had to be sought first. Howard and Deb headed for a border post 500m away to seek to announce our arrival and produce our carteblanche-go-anywhere-and-everywhere permission sheets.  We started getting a GPS fix when we noticed the large sign, written in English "Restricted Area No Trespass".  A closer look at the area surrounding the entrance revealed gun placements, army barracks and some bemused soldiers.  We had been completely blinded by our enthusiasm to get underground and not noticed the sensitive nature of our surroundings.  We quickly put the GPS and cameras away.

A summons to the border post found Howard and Deb being politely told that we needed further permissions from the Province's military HQ to cave within 4km of the Chinese border. Within 24 hours we were back defiantly brandishing further permissions, we smugly handed them across the table to the border post's C.O.  He proceeded to cut us back down to size, by pointing out a bracketed sub-clause "except sensitive areas".  Anywhere with in 4km of the Chinese border was classed as sensitive.  We left with our tails between our legs, accepting that it was probably pushing it a bit to expect to get into that particular entrance. We did not know that this was the first of many such bureaucratic red tape tangles in Ha Giang.

The 2001 Vietnam expedition was comprised of three parts; the first two weeks were spent reconnoitring the mountainous province of Ha Giang.  Ha Giang is the northernmost province of Vietnam. Permissions to cave in Ha Giang have proved difficult to obtain in the past, both Italian and Australian caving expeditions were kicked out.  The second two weeks concentrated on the adjacent province of Cao Bang.  We continued the reconnaissance work of the 95/97/99 expeditions, with a few excursions into neighbouring Long Son province.  The final two weeks were spent in central Vietnam in the densely forested mountains of Quang Binh, the scene of the 90/92/94/97/99 expeditions.  We had a strong team from the UK, Vietnam and Tasmania; Howard & Deb Limbert, Paul Ibberson, Martin Holroyd, Mick Nunwick, John Palmer, Duncan Morrison, Martin Colledge, Nick Jones, Trevor Wailes and Pete MacNab. From Hanoi University; Mr. Hieu, Dr. Phai, Dr. Bac, Mrs.Flower, Prof. My, Mr. Mau and Dr. Na. Jeeps and drivers were hired to ferry us about in the north. Accommodation comprised of government guest houses, committee rooms, occasional hotels as well as the obligatory cave entrances.

Ha Giang Province Reconnaissance

Meo Vac is the town the Pogues wrote a song about, except the gas works has been substituted for aggregate quarries.  However, once away from the dust, the surrounding area is jammed packed with gob-smacking cone karst, reaching to altitudes of 2000m.  The Meo Vac massif oozes deep cave potential, it's like the Picos moved to the Tropics.  The area had been visited by Italian cavers a few years earlier.  Unfortunately, they tried to explore the area without seeking the relevant permissions.  This is a big no-no in Vietnam, and the Italians were escorted from the premises. They did, however, manage to assess some of the area's potential by going -528m deep in the first cave they went to (Tar LunglBasta Noodles).  Prof. My told us that the Italian cave had ended in a river which needed ropes to cross, and as the Italians were still persona non grata with the local committee, and the NCC 's reputation for grabbing to uphold, we thought we had better check it out.

The Italian Job 2

Whilst the first team rigged their way into Ta lung (The Italian Job) local Hmong farmers told us of another long drop nearby.  Duncan, Martin C. and myself went to check it out.  We were shown to a Rowten Pot like entrance, and told the Italians had been a short way down a ladder.  We followed a small rift to a balcony, thus avoiding the loose edges to this imposing shaft.  A Y hang banged in, we dropped the shaft.  After 20m we passed the limit of the Italians descent (chiselled into the Wall).  30m down, a well placed deviation pulled us into the middle of a 50m diameter chamber with the floor 75m below.  At this point of the descent Duncan looked at the state of our rope and went a strange shade of white.  We knew we were caving on the expedition dog ends, as the new shiny ropes had gone down the -528m cave.  The rope was from the 1993 Dachstein expedition and was showing signs of wear. To make matters worse, a knot change 50m off the deck was required to bottom the shaft.  Unfortunately, the way on was not as exciting as the 105m entrance pitch.  After the initial impressive chamber the cave choked with boulders.

The Italian Job 1

We picked up the rigging and surveying of the Italian job at around -250m.  Mick and Dunc armed with a Bosch made quick work of the very loose 110m pitch, whilst Martin C and myself surveyed our way down, desperately trying not to kill the two lads below.  Rocks dropped from -200m would not land until -450m, (by that time they had a few friends with them).  Disaster struck part way down the next pitch - the driver broke!  "Only one thing we can do now" exclaimed Mick, three of us started packing bags whilst conjuring up images of drinking cold beer in the sun.  Our dreams were soon dashed as Mick started rigging the remaining 160m of pitches on naturals.  We eventually arrived at some horizontal development (-500m), our nerves slightly frayed.  A long narrow rift was followed, unfortunately as yet no sign of the reported raging river.  We eventually found another shaft, with Italian graffiti on the wall.  This pitch definitely needed a bolt placement to continue. We exited the cave very carefully, leaving the glory for the next team.  The following day the next team re-rigged the lower section of the cave on to bolts with a new and shiny driver.  They quickly made their way down the last pitch, only to discover the cave silted up at 530m deep/800m long.  The raging river was actually in another province, but the description somehow got lost in the translation from Italian to English, English to Vietnamese, Vietnamese back to English.  The cave was quickly de-tackled, but not without incident; Martin C was hit by a rockfall, dislodged by hauling tackle bags.  The tackle bag sized boulder broke Martins helmet and he suffered quite serious concussion for well over a week.  Surface reece's of the Meo Vac area produced lots of entrances with clouds coming out of them, unfortunately they were accompanied by kilometres of red tape.  We decided to move on to the Dong Van area.

Hang Lo La Phin

Whist carrying out a recce in the Dong Van area, we happened to pass an interesting looking sink. Consultation with a passing villager indicated that there was no cave in the depression.  There was no cave, so our secret police escort allowed us to go and have a look. Two minutes later we were back at the jeep, arming ourselves with wheel jacks and hammers.  Our first Vietnamese surface dig!  Half an hour of frantic digging and we were in, a ladder was soon dispatched down the first pitch.  This revealed further pitches.  We dropped the next 20m pitch into a steeply descending passage which followed down several awkward climbs to the head of an impressive shaft series.  We had time to drop the first pitch of the series, before surveying and de-tackling our way out.  The cave was -100m deep and storming off into the distance, unfortunately our helpful secret police man refused us permission to return the following day.  We spat the dummy, "Cao Bang here we come".

Cao Bang Province – Scratching a two year itch

Caving in Cao Bang was a totally different kettle of fish.  The caves were plentiful, easily accessible and we had carte blanche permission. The carpet bangs were open.  It didn't take us long to form the "Kilometre a day club."  However the club was only short lived and had to be replaced with the "Mile a day club."  The first on the 2001 list was Trach Kahn.  During the 1999 expedition, the team had driven past this area on their return journey to Hanoi. They spotted a few roadside caves and the nearer of these received some cursory investigations (500m of survey notes were recorded in the back pages of Paul's novel).  The team then continued the journey (now pushed for time).  The road continued next to a sizeable river, then sunk under an outcrop, a big echo and no time.  10km further, the road skirted around the top of a large gorge, 200m below a blue-green river issued from beneath a cliff.  The resurgence for the earlier sink, maybe?  The excitement rose to fever pitch when the teams' gaze fell upon a 50m diameter phreatic tunnel, winking at them from across the gorge. This entrance (Hang A) was about 150m above the steam entrance, and the subject of much beery bullshit and anticipation for the following two years.

Hang Two Years Later

Two teams rushed into the sink anticipating caverns measureless, whilst the third team ( Vietnam virgins) went for a recce with a local snake collector to another sink, Pac Lung.  We entered the big sink through some high level fossil maze, a race ensued to survey a route down to a streamway.  A short ladder pitch was found down into swimming passage, which continued in a series of sporting rapids to a sump.  With the cave struggling to reach 600m long, we were a bit dismayed that the big lead for two years had been "Ghar Paraued".  However the Viet virgins carne back over the hill with smug grins, 1km surveyed to a river passage.  Pac Lung was eventually surveyed to over 3km.

Hang A

The first team to go to the resurgence cave was dismayed to find out that it was located just over the border in Long Son province.  However, they were allowed a quick look inside to check if it went.  They quickly surveyed a kilometre (just to confirm that it went) and found a lower and easier entrance.  Mr. Bac then travelled to Long Son city to negotiate the various permissions.  A few days later with all permissions granted, the cave was on the move again. It was extended to 3km and contained a really sporting streamway, loads of cascades and loads of fun.  Unfortunately the stream sumped, leaving an 8km gap between Hang A and Pac Lung (the upstream sink).  This will be one of the projects for 2003.

Nguom Nam Lao

Our driver pulled off the road and we proceeded to bump and bounce our way along a dirt track.  We (JP, MN, PM, & Hieu) hoped we could get to the first sink on our planned walk (recce) back to base via several sinks shown on our map.  Corning up over a col, our jeep lost traction and slid back down.  Several half-hearted attempts, revs screaming and wheels spinning later, our driver gave up.  With our walk considerably extended, we marched off in search of the first sink. With a few pointers from local farmers we found our first objective. Nguom Nap Biu turned out to be 1/2 km of easy stream passage to a large sump.  We returned to the nearby village to ask if there were any more disappearing rivers.  There were! 

 

The author in Nguom Nam Lao

We were given excellent directions ('follow this river') and so set off on our way.  An hour's walk down valley, we followed the stream through some paddy fields to a large cliff where the stream disappeared into the undergrowth.  We thrashed through the undergrowth, to find a 40m x 10m passage leading into the darkness, Nguom Nam Lao.  After an initial false start, where we followed the stream into an impenetrable rift, we eventually located the 20m x 20m borehole next to it.  The main passage was followed for some distance to a junction.  The right hand passage was obviously the active passage, with a very strong draught, but stooping.  The left hand passage had a slight draught, flat sandy floor, and was walking size. We took the left which led through one of the most beautifully decorated passages we found on the expedition.  We were stopped by a small tube at the top of a large stal boss which dropped 4m into a blue stream below, the draught howled through the tube.  Back at the junction, the right hand passage led through a series of low stoops and crawls. We sent Hieu ahead to check that the passage went, while we surveyed the awkward section.  That was the last we saw of "grabber" Hieu for the next two hours.  We eventually intersected a massive passage leading both ways, and no sign of Hieu. We left a cairn of tackle bags and a note for Hieu to wait for us and then proceeded to survey the huge passage. Up dip ended in a gour choke, down dip was explored along a "Time Machine" like passage until we heard shouts from Hieu.  We abandoned the survey and rushed to his aid.  Hieu appeared from a crawl under some boulders in the floor of the massive passage, shouting exuberantly that it was still going.  Sceptical about the location where Hieu had reappeared, we had a ten minute look to confirm the passage was indeed still going with a howling draught and a storming passage.  We had surveyed just over a mile of cave, now time and light were rapidly running into short supply, and so we made a sharp exit.  Our idea of walking back cross-country via several sinks was abandoned due to dwindling daylight.  We resigned ourselves to the 10km walk back along the dirt track, followed by much the same along the road.  We stopped once only at a wayside inn to drink the bar dry (an easy feat, as they only stocked two bottles of beer and a coke).  Our excellent day of caving was topped off when we met our driver and jeep waiting at the col for us, with fresh doughnuts and sugarcane.


Flash Bang Hall, Nguom Nam Lao

The next day we got the jeep to within 400m of Nguom Nam Lao, and continued our exploration. First on the agenda was the pitch down to the blue stream.  MH, HL, PI, and DH accompanied us to the pitch, to photograph the preceding passage. They then continued further along the valley checking out other caves with Hieu.  We dropped the pitch and crawled along some squalid stream passage, to some low ducks (un-entered).  Above was a high level passage, but it all choked.  Back at the pitch, a dry passage led off, eventually reaching a chamber with several leads.  Following the main passage we continued through a stal squeeze into more walking passage to a further crawl to daylight.  The exit of the cave was being used by water buffalo to shade from the sun. We returned through the cave back to Hieu' s lead from the previous day.  After the initial 100m of choked passage we entered a phreatic tunnel, which went and went.  After a kilometre or so, a side passage was encountered, from which the sound of a river could be heard.  We continued along our tunnel to a breakdown, through which daylight could be reached. We exited the cave next to a large resurgence.  A river wound its way through the paddy fields and tower karst towards more limestone cliffs.  There were also some official looking buildings just the other side of the paddies, and so we kept a very low profile and didn't venture far from the cave.  We had no translator or papers with us, as well as no idea where we were, our maps stopped 5km short of the Nguom Nam Lao entrance.  The availability of the next map was restricted, as it mainly showed China.  We returned to the cave and headed to the river passage.  Downstream led thunderously to the resurgence sump, upstream was followed to a fast flowing swim, we abandoned our exploration due to lack of wetsuits.  As the weather became unsettled, the road became impassable for our jeeps.  We turned our attention to sinks nearer the road as time ran out for Nguom Nam Lao (next year's lead).



The Nguon Nam Lao Streamway

A week or so later we were conducting a jeep recce en route to the next area, asking at every village whether they knew of any caves.  We came across some commune party offices which seemed vaguely familiar.  We were at the resurgence of Nguom Nam Lao. Arrangements were made for us to stay for a couple of nights, but a courtesy visit to the local army base was required.  We drove the 2km down the valley, excitedly tracking our river, until we reached the barracks.  Permissions were granted for Nguom Nam Lao, but unfortunately they were unable to provide us with permission for the massive river sink 1/2 km further on as it was in China.  We split into two teams to finish off Nguom Nam Lao.  The strong swimmers (PI, NJ, DM) continued the exploration of the main river, and pushed it through some exciting passage to a sump, whilst HL, DL, and PM continued with the massive passage, which eventually choked, and then finished off the other remaining leads.  With everything tied up and concluded, we had just enough time to survey a cave the locals had called the most beautiful cave in the world (Nguom Nam Lien).  We went in with full photographic fire power, and were dismayed to find a Burrington shite hole.  Photos, of course, had to be taken so that the villagers wouldn't lose face.

Nguom Nam Nam

On route to a resurgence which was prominently marked on our map, we stopped at the commune office for a courtesy call to show our papers.  We were somewhat distressed to be presented with rice schnapps "cyclos" (sickloads).  A few down in-ones with the rice wine is the last thing you want for breakfast.  It soon became apparent that these dubious lads were not your dedicated card carrying party members, but would be more at home in the Mafia.  Eventually we set off for the resurgence "Nguom Nam Nam", along with our newly employed guides.  We drove to within 5 km of the cave, then set off on foot across the paddy fields in the direction of some cone karst.  We were starting to get fed up with our dawdling drunken guides whom we were having to wait for every five minutes.  About half way to the cave, our three guides, who had now been joined by five of their mates, decided they would go on strike until we paid all eight of them four times the agreed rate or they wouldn't show us the way to the cave.  A few small flaws in their blackmail technique gave us the best poker hand in this industrial dispute.  Firstly, we could see where the cave was on our map, secondly we could see a river up ahead, with a well worn path leading to it, and finally (the real clincher) we could see a bloody big entrance in the distance.  The guides plus extras were duly sacked, and Dr. Bac informed them in no uncertain terms that they were not entitled to severance pay. The drunks did not, however, take kindly to redundancy, and we suffered a hail of abuse and stones for the rest of the route to the cave.

Nguom Nam Nam entrance was partially walled up.  Mr. Bac informed us it was an ancient fortification dating back to a ruling Vietnamese dynasty in the fifteenth century.  The cave entrance had also been used as a refuge when the invading Chinese Red Army burnt and destroyed the northern provinces of Vietnam in the border war of 1978.  A traverse dropped down to the river, wound its way through a large rift passage.  A series of wades and short swims eventually led to a boulder collapse and an open depression.  A short bash through the undergrowth found us in the continuation of the river cave. The passage regained its grand dimensions and bored its way into the hillside.  The passage split in two, a long deep canal glooped its way to a sump, whilst the draught whistled over a boulder slope and disappeared up a twenty foot aven.

A large sink was marked on the map further along the hillside, Nguom Nam Nam, was heading straight for it.  We decided to pay the sink a visit.  The river sink was partially dammed and contained a small hydro electric plant (made out of a bicycle).  We followed the stream into an immediate swim, which rapidly led to a sump (the other end of the canal).  However, a dry passage led off and eventually reached a large chamber.  At one end of the chamber, a large boulder choke was climbed to a twenty foot pitch - this was the connection point.  At the other end of the chamber, a complicated route through boulders led to another entrance.  We tied up all the remaining side passages and photographed the system. Whilst photographing the main chamber, Trevor had a lucky escape when the large flash bulb he was holding exploded. The chamber gained the name "Flash Bang Hall".

Lang Son Province - Just in passing

Hang Ban San ( Kawasaki Cave)

We departed from the Hang Ban Sein team, and headed up over the col towards Ban San.  MN DL and PM consulted the map.  It showed a river flowing into the cliff just over the hill; however, it also showed the province boundary running along the top of the hill. We asked Hieu if he was sure it was OK to go to Ban San, "No problem", came the reply.  On entering the valley, a review of the lie of the land looked promising, rivers running off non limestone hills straight to the base of a 100m limestone cliff.  We paid a courtesy call to the local police outpost.  Our luck was in, only the deputy was at home, he did ask to see our permits and allowed us to go to the cave.  Our permits were for Cao Bang province and the visit to the outpost had confirmed our suspicions that we were now in Lang Son.  However, it wasn't until we started surveying and wrote down the cave's address, that Hieu realised in horror we were in the wrong province.  He let us go in to check it out, but 1½ hours only, whilst he went back to explain the mistake.


After the initial scramble through boulders we popped out into a large stream passage.  We surveyed along the easy going flat gravel floored streamway.  The cave was pleasant and easy going, and we were making good time as every survey leg was 50m long.  The cave then started to look like it was going to sump, luckily we found a route through, "A duck without a bicycle pump up its arse".  The low air space was named because all the other ducks we had seen that week, had been in the restaurant causing a racket whilst being injected with a marinade.  The stream (river) passage enlarged to a grander scale, side passages lead off here and there.  A massive passage was encountered on the right, and we decided to explore it because it would be quicker than following the stream (we were very conscious of our time restraints).  We strolled along the flat sandy floored fossil passage (Bowling Green) surveyed our way in and out of the stal columns and eventually intersected the stream passage again, a similar passage was surveyed on the other side of the stream. We still had just about enough time to continue surveying downstream for a short distance.  The passage dropped to a low wide stoop with a howling draught blowing in our face.  We eventually stopped the survey at an obvious junction, with passage storming off into the distance.  A quick exit was made, but we managed to find time for a few photographs.  We had a successful trip exploring, surveying and photographing a mile of cave in 1½ hours.  The passage was so easy going that Mick is going to take his motorbike down it on the next trip.

Hang Trau

Whilst exploring Hang A, the village president informed us of a couple of other small caves in the valley. Out of politeness we thought it our duty to check them out.  First to be investigated was Hang Trau (cattle cave).  Its entrance is used as a cool cow shed in the summer heat, hence the name.  A short distance in, a climb ended the cattle’s forays into the phreatic tunnel passage.  The main way on eventually choked after a couple of hundred metres . Two passages led off the main route, the first we entered led down to a deep canal.  Hieu, keen to show off his new found swimming prowess, dived in with the survey tape, proceeded to swim to the middle of the pool, and with the buoyancy of a brick promptly disappeared from sight.  Deb dived in to the rescue, and pulled a gurgling and distressed Hieu from the pool.  After this little incident we decided to look for a dry bypass to "Drowning by Numbers".  A small draughting crawl was located, allowing safe access to the far side of the canal, which eventually led to a sump.

Hang Goi

Next on the agenda was Hang Goi (wind cave).  The entrance is located in a small thicket behind a villager's very steep vegetable patch. Half way up the 1:3 allotment the temperature dramatically dropped, and we continued up and on to find a low crawl from which issued a wicked draught.  The cave took it's time to grow in stature, crawl followed by low stoop, back to crawling then yet more stooping.  The draught, however, kept drawing us in.  Eventually, on intersecting a canyon, we gained passage dimensions worthy of a Vietnamese cave.  We followed the up-stream canyon noting several leads on both sides of the passage. The cave yet again changed character as we dropped into a stream passage. We followed upstream to a waterfall issuing from the roof.  A by-pass was soon discovered, so we continued our way up a series of climbs and shower baths.  Shorts and T-shirts were not the ideal caving kit for climbing up shower baths in an air-conditioned cave, so imagine our relief when we reached a 15m un-climbable waterfall.  A quick exit was made before the onset of hypothermia.  Returning the following day to check out the side passages, we dropped down the canyon and followed the passage through a complex series of tunnels and tubes, eventually ending in a draughting canal.  With the previous day's incident fresh in our minds, we left the swim for a future trip armed with wetsuits.  Our public relations exercise into a small hopeless looking limestone hillock had revealed nearly 2.5km as well as entertaining the villagers.

Quane Binh Province - Welcome to the jungle

The final fortnight of the expedition, a small team (HL, DL, DM, and PM) spent their time tidying up loose ends around Hang Khe Ry (the top sink to the Phong Nha hydrological system). Our base for ten days was a cobble island within the upstream entrance of Hang En, located 400m upstream from the Hang Khe Ry resurgence.  The 1999 expedition explored Hang Khe Ry to over 18 Km, encapsulating three major sinks. However there were still some interesting question marks, namely; where did the river in the fourth river sink go? What were the entrances seen in cliffs above the upstream Hang En Valley? Also, the 1994 Hang En exploration team was pushed for time, therefore missed the resurgence to Khe Ry, what else did they miss?



The route to base camp in Hang En was always an expedition in itself.  Our Vietnamese friends from Hanoi University and Dong Hoi Peoples' Committee had done us proud.  Our transport for the trip along the Ho Chi Minh trail to kilometer 14, was to be all singing and dancing 4x4 Vietnamese army jeeps with air-con and cushioned seats. (They must think we are getting soft). We normally travel on the top of a loaded six-wheeled rattan lorry, getting thrown around/out by metre deep potholes (bomb craters) whilst being dragged backwards through the jungle canopy. If that wasn't exciting enough, the contents of the jungle canopy are shaken into the back of the truck to share the ride (a snake landing in your lap can be a bit unsettling).  Our friends from Son Trach Peoples' Committee provided us with a guide, a committee man, and some willing porters to get the gear the day's walk from the Ho Chi Minh trail to Hang En. Best laid plans and all that, a US helicopter looking for MIA remains proceeded to fly into a limestone mountain (the US maps always did confuse ridges with valleys).  Needless to say, our all singing and dancing jeep had more of a pressing engagement ferrying US and Vietnamese military to the disaster zone. We caught a lift in the back of a bone shaker quarry wagon, allowing us to brush up on our Vietnamese flora and fauna. We were also wondering why our porters had such smug grins, with the prospect of an 8 to 10 hour carry through the forest ahead of them.  On approaching kilo 14, we prepared ourselves for demounting, but the truck just thundered on.  Ahead of us, as far as the eye could see, a swathe had been cut through the forest. A partially constructed dual carriageway bordered by workers and shanty towns, now occupied the once remote forest. Streamways and rivers (feeders for the Phong Nanh system) two years previously had provided welcome refreshment from the humidity of the forest, now ran red with spoil as the bulldozers used them as self emptying spoil heaps. Another rainforest bites the dust. Not content with our carry to Hang En now only taking 2 to 3 hours we proceeded to get lost for a few hours - caving in Quang Binh would be the same if you didn't have a long walk in.

Hang Ca

Whilst ridding himself of guano and sweat, after a disappointing investigation of the innermost recesses of Hang En, Duncan noticed that the water on the left side of the Hang En river was several degrees colder than the right.  Further investigation was needed, and wetsuit and gloves were put on to provide protection from the cold water and the poisonous plants that adorn the river banks.  We waded chest-deep upstream for 500m to the base of a cliff.  It was like a scene out of "Apocalypse Now".  Huge house-sized boulders concealed a crystal blue lake, large fish darted in and out of the shadows.  We had found the source of our cold water, we called the resurgence Hang Ca ( Fish Cave).  The phreatic river passage was out of our depth for all but 20m of the 300m cave. The passage was a series of lake chambers/tunnels interspersed with low, gloopy, sumpy regions, the cave ended unsurprisingly in a large sump.  We concluded that Hang Ca was probably the resurgence to the fourth sink.

Hang Doi

A chance meeting with a group of woodcutters camped in the other entrance of Hang En, provided us with a few leads high on the plateau.  The three lads told us they were going to camp for three nights in a Hang Ho ( Tiger Cave) and would pass Hang Doi (bat cave).  They agreed to show us Hang Doi, after they had finished their breakfast.  Breakfast was caught by waving a 3m stick through the air.  It consisted of swiftlets, plucked, then barbecued alive, and we politely declined the offer to tuck in.  The route to the top of the plateau led past the exit of Hang Khe Ry, followed by a steep scramble up a 100m cliff.  However, the route turned out to be a bit more severe than we expected, rickety ladders and vines were rigged on the VDiff. climbs traversing above Khe Ry's 50m high entrance.  An executive decision was quickly made - we needed ropes and harnesses to continue safely.  Duncan (being a climbing instructor) was not phased by the climbs, although he did free climb next to the fixed aids to be on the safe side.  He continued on with the woodcutters to check out the cave - it was miles away, over rough terrain and dense jungle.  Meanwhile, we checked out the river sink, it didn't go, but it did provide some entertaining route finding through an immense boulder ruckle with a full-on river churning through it.

We returned to the climbs and awaited Duncan's return.  He showed up just before dark, minus one penknife and torch which he traded in exchange for being taken back to the climbs.  We returned a few days later with harnesses, ropes and survey gear to conclude Hang Doi.

After our success with locating Hang Ca by the cold water detection method, we decided to try our luck further upstream.  Whilst drawing up surveys in previous years, we had noticed that the caves in this area followed lines of the major surface depressions; our map showed just such a line of depressions about 1 km upstream.  This needed to be checked out.  The vegetation in the valley floor upstream is secondary growth, thus the terrain is difficult to negotiate other than on woodcutters' paths or wading in the river. Limestone cliffs pen in the river, into a 300m wide flood plain.  Multiple oxbows and tributaries allowed us to skirt the edges of the cliffs in search of resurgences.  Our luck was holding, we detected another very cold water course and followed it for several hundred metres, until a wall of forest descended into our stream.  We now needed a machete to continue with this lead, and to gain access to a couple of visible entrances high on valley walls. The next day two porters, Mr Oih and Mr Nha, were dispatched to a Hmong tribe village, a couple of hours back towards Son Trach.  On return, they would blaze a trail to the two entrances high on the valley wall (unfortunately, both soon closed down).

Hang Lanh

Whilst proceedings had stopped due to lack of large cutting implements, we decided to go and check out the further upstream of the Hang En valley.  Our maps showed the river disappearing for 400m.  Along our way, whilst travelling in the river, we encountered twelve bemused woodcutters.  We introduced ourselves, Deb tried to explain what we were doing, and that we were looking for caves.  To which, they said, there was a cave 100m from here, but it will cost us.  Twelve of Howard's cigarettes later saw us standing in a freezing cold stream issuing from beneath a big boulder pile.  Closer examination revealed a small, insignificant entrance leading to large, significant cave passage.  The cave was known as Hang Lanh (cold cave) a source of fish and fresh water.  Hang Lanh was about 200m upstream from where the forest had stopped our passage the previous day, it also coincided with the line of depressions shown on our map.

We surveyed our way into Hang Lanh, through some beautiful river cave.  Our pace was occasionally broken by deep wading or short swims across turquoise pools.  It was sometimes difficult to determine the width of the passage we were traversing. The passage walls kept disappearing up huge slopes for 60 or 70m.  Many a time the survey was marked as a large side passage leading off, only to find later it was in fact just the passage wall.  The cave was liberally adorned with large, tropical stal.  Fossils of sand dollars covered the scalloped walls of one section of passage.  One of the most striking features of Hang Lanh was undoubtedly its gours - there are many huge gours coming into the streamway along its course.  We ended our first day's exploration by one such 20m high gour, and left the cave giggling wrecks, with 2km in the book.

With an early start and high spirits we began our second day's exploration of Hang Lanh.  First, we climbed the 20m gour using a human pyramid and the survey tape as hand line.  The passage at the top was big and led to a large aven.  It continued on, eventually leading back to the main stream. This was somewhat of a relief to us, as the prospect of a 20m abseil on a fibron tape measure was a bit daunting. We continued exploration and surveying up stream, constantly checking out possible side passages as we went. The cave continued to grow in size, with a very nicely shaped stream passage.  The steam eventually divided; we explored the left hand route first as it took the majority of the water.  We ran along a square passage, until some wades with low-ish air space were reached.  Nerves were a bit on edge on the far side of the wade.  Nobody wanted a repeat of the Hang Tien incident, when Trevor and Cal were trapped for 57 hours by a flash flood from Laos.  We were, after all, exploring one of the resurgences of Hang Tien, on Friday the 13th of all days.  Not hanging around, we continued surveying along the passage into a breakdown area. A climb through a loose boulder choke was eventually abandoned (Where Grabbers Fear to Tread').  The right hand passage was then explored.  This led to a complicated area of passages on three levels, the most spectacular of which was a 30m wide flat-floored oxbow, with a 15m high totem pole in the middle of it.  Another large chamber above contained rocket-like stal, but unfortunately reached the same conclusion as the streamway and choked.  We'd added another 2.7km into the book, and all that remained was to photograph our way out of this spectacular cave.


The Streamway. Nguom Nam Lao.


Results

 

CAVE NAME

DISTRICT PROVINCE

VERT

LENGTH

 

 

 

 

RANGE

 

Hang Phuong Tien

Vi Xuyen

Ha Giang

    (-6,10) 16

298

Hang Na Hau

Ha Giang

Ha Giang

-

90

Italian Job - The Sequel

Meo Vac,

Ha Giang

-122

136

Hang Ta Lung

Dong Van

Ha Giang

50.2

636

Pia Lung Xa

Meo Vac

Ha Giang

-75

157

Lo La Phin

Meo Vac

Ha Giang

-100

144

Hang Ca Ha

Meo Vac

Ha Giang

-55

150

Hang Pho Coa 1

Meo Vac

Ha Giang

6.25

60

Hang Pho Coa 2

Meo Vac

Ha Giang

-

69

Hang Rong

Dong Van

Ha Giang

15.7

385

Hang By Su Phin

Dong Van

Ha Giang

-41

123

Hang Two Years Later

Thach An

Cao Bang

60

473

Pac Lung

Thach An

Cao Bang

-64.5

3109

Nguom Nap Biu

Thach An

Cao Bang

(-9,2) 12

549

Nguom Nam Lao

Thach An

Cao Bang

(-21,19) 40

3360

Nguom Tong Long

Thach An

Cao Bang

(-17,2) 19

626

Nguom Ngam Darn

Thach An

Cao Bang

-58

1637

Nguom A

That Khe

Lang Son

(-51,26) 77

2970

Nguom Ban San

Chang Ding

Lang Son

-30

1660

Nguom Ban Sien

Thach An

Cao Bang

-129

776

N guom N am Lien

Thach An

Cao Bang

3

245

Nguom Nam

Quang Hoa

Cao Bang

72.5

2390

Nguom Ireby Fell

Quang Hoa

Cao Bang

21

323

Lung Chuong

Trung Khanh

Cao Bang

-6.6

87.1

Na Nguom 4

Trung Khanh

Cao Bang

15

431

Hang N ang Tien

Thach An

Cao Bang

56

525

Bicycle Cave

Quang Hoa

Cao Bang

24.5

331

Hang Coc Bang

Quang Hoa

Cao Bang

3

181

Cam Thon

Tong Cot

Cao Bang

-113

162

Pac Bo 1

Quang Hoa

Cao Bang

19

351

Hang Ban Hue

Quang Hoa

Cao Bang

-

60

N guom N a Giang

Quang Hoa

Cao Bang

10

191

N guom Cuom

That Khe

Lang Son

15.5

1126

Hang Trua

That Khe

Lang Son

(-18,3) 21

456

Hang Gio

That Khe

Lang Son

(47,-17) 64

1381

Hang Lanh

Bo Trach

Quang Binh

114

3753

Hang Doi

Bo Trach

Quang Binh

24

453

Hang Ca

Bo Trach

Quang Binh

14

361

Hang Thoc

Bo Trach

Quang Binh

19

123

 

 

    Total Length

2001 =

30338.1








Martin in Nguom Nam Lao.

Conclusion

We visited 4 different provinces on the expedition, each having its unique and diverse landscapes and styles of caving.  In Ha Giang, the caves were in high mountains and required alpine style caving. Although at times getting permissions for going underground was difficult, the reconnaissance expedition did turn up a number of good leads, with huge potential for future trips.  In Cao Bang we had a field-day bagging 24km of cave in less than 2 weeks.  These caves were mainly river caves, although some tying up of loose ends from 1999 provided some excellent SRT caves.  We ran out of time in Cao Bang; there is still plenty more to have a go at and lots of unfinished business.  Long Son: We barely glanced at it, loads of going caves to finish and lots more to find. Quang Binh was its usual full-on jungle experience, the caves are remote, to say the least.  However, when you get to them, they are awesome.  We pieced together some more of the Truong Son massif jigsaw, and in doing so we extended the Phong Nha hydrological system to 44.5km of underground passage.  We also found out about some future leads.  In total, the expedition explored and surveyed over 30km of new cave in 6 weeks.  There are ample prospects for another expedition and many more besides.  We all had an excellent time with our Vietnamese friends, and must thank them wholeheartedly for their kindness and hospitality.

Acknowledgments

Hanoi University, Peoples Committee of Ha Giang, Peoples Committee of Cao Bang, Peoples Committee of Long Son, Peoples Committee of Quang Binh,  Sports Council of UK, David Hood, Ghar Parau Foundation, Mount Everest Foundation, Pace UK Ltd., Mulu Expedition 2000, Dachstein 2000, Power bar, Lyon Equipment, Thai Airways