I’d read about this place years ago in the Times, forgot about it, then read about it again — huge caves with beaches & flying foxes. Caves so big they can fit skyscrapers. Lush paradise jungle, sunlight gleaming in through an opening in the cave. Tourbooks hype the cave and the Phong Nha Farmstay. People rave on TripAdvisor and WikiTravel.

So I come expecting magic. Do the national park tour, they said. It’s phenomenal, everyone said. I thought we’d spend the day in a lush jungle paradise. We were, after all, going to “Paradise Cave.” But there was also “Dark Cave.”

First, yes Paradise Cave is majestic as promised. Well-lit and huge, reminding me of an underground Sagrada Famiglia. 1.5 km of gorgeous trail, like being on the moon. Stalactites hang from the ceiling like shark fins. Stalagmites grow up, huge boney fingers (yep I learned my cave geology names).  There are rocks that look like giant jellyfish and 20 ft tall curtains of rock. Lunch has us hand-rolling delicious spring-rolls and sticky rice. We’re lulled into a false sense of security.

And then it’s time for Dark Cave. To get to this cave you first zipline 300 m over a river. So a fun 30 second zip, then swimming to the cave in a helmet that’s too big so it falls down and you can’t see. Then wait in the river for awhile because someone else appears afraid of water or the ladder out of the water.

Then, walk barefoot into the cave. Overcome your claustrophobia to clamber over some slippery but still incredibly sharp rocks. Walk through some murky water. Walk some more. Feel the mud oozing into your pores. Walk further and it gets deeper. This it it. The famous mud bath. Fall over because mud has a strange buoyancy, neither air nor water. Fall some more. Watch as children splash around gleefully. Everyone else’s face says “When will this end?”

Make your way back out over the rocks. Rejoice when you hit the clear water after the cave. Swim 10 minutes back, trying to get the mud out. And then glorious land and clean clothes. I’ve never been as happy as I am when the tour ends.

Later I read Jane’s notes and see that she’s calling it “like the Shawshank Redemption when the man is crawling through the sewer.”

Here are some pictures from Paradise Cave: