|Fowl shape: A bird head-shaped rock seen at the "Heaven gate" in the front section of Thien Ha Cave. — Photo vtr.org.vn
by Khanh Chi
Thien Ha Cave in Ninh Binh Province was named Galaxy by its first explorers. They found a sea of stalactite needles filling the heart of the underground wonderland. The sight is truly heavenly, like something out of space.
It takes a pleasant half an hour rowing along the Ben Dang River through horizons of paddy fields and wild grass to reach the site of the cave on a steep hillside in the Tuong mountain range. The mountains form a natural wall that protected the ancient capital of Hoa Lu for centuries.
The Trang An scenic landscape complex in Ninh Binh, recognised this June as Viet Nam's newest UNESCO World's Heritage Site, includes Hoa Lu , Tam Coc karsts and the Thien Ha Cave. The cave, opened in 2010, still draws many adventurers.
After a short walk through the forest from the river, I found myself at an opening leading down into the cave. According to our guide from Star Travel, Tran Ngoc Tien, the 12,000sq.m cave is nearly a kilometre long, much of it with running water and the rest dry as a bone.
It's possible to hop on a boat at the cave entrance and thread one's way into the water-filled part of the cavern. However, most visitors stay to explore Heaven Gate, the opening to the cave.
|Remarkable: Stalactites coming out from the ceiling and sides come in such a great variety of shapes and colours that each feels unique in appearance.
I leaned my head back and looked upwards to contemplate the heavenly sight. Sunlight poured through the entrance of the cave, casting shadows on the walls. I struggled without success to keep my feet dry.
"This is the jaw-dropping hidden utopia that some locals chanced upon when hunting for snakes some time around 2006," said Tien, the guide, as we climbed winding stone stairs that lead to an upper floor.
"Archaeologists have found the remains of various species of molluscs, such as mountain snails and oysters," said Tien. "This shows that the cave was a living place for the first Vietnamese people".
Under the guidance of Tien, myself and three other tourists sat on a boat rowed by a villager. As he skillfully steered the wooden boat through the "wet" portion of the cave, he constantly reminded us to watch our heads. The sharp stalactites can be dangerous in a cave with ceilings at most 1m from the water.
Stalactites from the ceiling and walls come in a great variety of shapes and colours. Every one is unique. "Soda-straw" stalactites are not as common as "dew-drops", finger and petal-shaped tubular growths.
|River trip: Half an hour spent rowing the Ben Dang River, which winds through horizons of paddy fields and tall wild grass, will take visitors to the main entrance of the cave. — Photos Ha Huy Loi
Stalactites lend themselves to strange and fancy names. I was particularly impressed with those that reminded me of firm young breasts.
We stopped constantly to take photos of the breathtaking scenery, forgetting about the time. We returned to reality only at the sound of the boatman's voice as he rowed through the heart of the mountain.
"When boating through the wet part of the cave, it's hard to take one's eyes off the ceiling. There are so many forms and shapes jutting out from all sides," said Thanh Lam, a tourist from HCM City.
"I lost count of how many times I've visited this cave. Whenever I stay in Ha Noi I go to Ninh Binh to explore the vast cave system here," he said.
"I enjoy sitting on the boat, catching droplets from the stalactites above and letting the cool water caress my face and hands," another said.
"What I find striking here is that the system of stalactites are still ‘alive' and continue to grow."
As we neared the end of the cave, the murmurs and flash-lights from other boats behind us suddenly woke hundreds of bats hanging on its wall - a fitting end to a magical tour. After half a day of exploring, we headed back to the boat jetty for a well-deserved rest and a bite to eat.
There aren't a lot of options, but Star Travel's restaurant offers a diverse treat of local dishes, such as steamed mountain snails, chicken wrapped in lotus leaves, fried crabs, young bamboo shoots and stir-fried mountain goat. — VNS