T.R. Diamond - Han Son Doong, Vietnam
Border Crossing, Laos & Vietnam
Sometimes you need to be alone. After a bout of food poisoning, the breakup of a two week relationship, and the dismal failure of my eggs-related podcast, I needed true solitude. Now I am near the border of Laos and Vietnam. My satchel is on my lap, my water bottle is clipped to my belt, and my passport is in my Flight Underwear. However this time, I hope I don’t have to use it.
My destination is Han Son Doong, the largest cave in the world, in Vietnam’s Bo Trach District. It is closed to the public except for occasional tourist groups, where guided tours cost upwards of $3000 American dollars. I don’t have the scratch or the patience for a guided tour, but I also know that attempting to sneak in is highly dangerous. That’s why I mustn’t hand over any documentation. The less of a footprint I have in this country, the more likely I am to get in and out of the Han Son Doong undisturbed.
The bus lurches to a halt on the dusty road, which must mean the border guards will soon board to check everyone’s papers. As unobtrusively as I can, I sneak from my aisle seat to the bus lavatory. Friends, if you’ve never been inside a bus bathroom in 90 degree heat crossing from Laos to Vietnam, you don’t know what you’re missing. The cramped quarters offer only one way out of sight, but I am resourceful.
“Giấy tờ, xin vui lòng,” I hear the driver yell. Present your papers, please. The bus shifts as the bulky armed border guards climb aboard. I open the lid of the toilet, but only to intensify the chamber’s putrid smell. Bracing one foot on the right side of the lavatory, the other foot on the left, I climb high and freeze in place, praying not to be noticed.
A burly guard quickly opens the door and exclaims whatever the Vietnamese or Laotian expression is for, “It smells unpleasant here.” Blessedly, without spotting me, he closes the door. Cat-like, I drop to the ground. Also cat-like, I quietly vomit (residual food poisoning, plus the smell in there). In a moment, our bus is moving again. I get off at the closest stop to Bo Trach and begin the journey to Han Son Doong.
The majestic cave is more than 200m high, 150m wide, and 5km long. The mouth of the cave is fenced and guarded, so I crouch in nearby trees until shift change, sometime in the middle of the night. The guards chatter as one team relieves another. From my satchel, I withdraw a CD of Lindsay Lohan’s sophomore album, A Little More Personal (Raw), and I throw it to them with a whoop. As expected, the guards are puzzled by the effort, and soon begin debating the merits of Lindsay Lohan the singer vs. the actress vs. the troubled public figure. The tired guards seem to believe her career will have no resurgence, but the more rested team seems to think she could still surprise us. The argument intensifies, the guards come to blows, and I stealthily run past.
I keep running until I know I am at least a kilometer into the cavernous space. I stop and fall to my knees. I am in pitch darkness, and the only sound is my ragged breath and beating heart. It is in this solitude that I am reminded why I travel. There are so few aspects of our lives uncluttered by obligation or expectation. Rarely can we exist without pretense or judgement. If we never push our limits, test what we are made of, or seek our solitude, we never know our own strength or appreciate our own company. In this moment, I am one with the earth.
My commune is shattered by flashlights and yelling from behind me. I know before I turn around that police have found me. I hang my head and raise my hands. “Hộ chiếu! Hộ chiếu!” they yell. Passport. I unbuckle my dungarees, and unzip Flight’s patented zippered pocket, when all flashlight beams suddenly hover around my crotch.
“Flight Underwear,” says a policeman, accented but understandable. I nod. He considers.
“We send you to prison for a long time,” he says, haltingly. “Or… give us Flight.”
I blink. Hands at my hips, I caress the soft waistband. These are a literal “Get Out of Jail Free” card. But I came here for solitude, and I know one way to get it. I pull my pants up and put my hands out to be cuffed. “No deal,” I shake my head.“A cell by a window, if you have it,” I request later at the booking station, before starting to plan my escape…