A complex of caves has started attracting hundreds of tourists daily to the northern province of Son La, as word of mouth is spreading about its unimaginable beauty. Amongst endless fields of maize and beaming sunlight lies an entrance to a mysterious set of caves with a rich past and soaked in legend that has just recently been tapped for its tourism potential. Hundreds of tourists daily are now flocking to Yen Son Commune, Yen Chau District in the northern province of Son La to have a look at what everyone is talking about: the eerie beauty and mystery of the Chi Day caves in Dan Village. While the series of caves has been known for centuries by locals, it was only last year that word of mouth started to spread to the general public, pulling in a great number of visitors throughout the country. The visitors are entranced by the incredible sites of the variously shaped stalactites as if paradise has appeared in front of them. Getting there The magical site can easily be found from the base of National Highway 6 passing Yen Son Commune, where a signpost shows the way. Led by the chief of Yen Chau District’s Culture and Information Bureau, Le Hong Phong, we decided to check them out for ourselves and drove along twists and turns of the 15-km route that circled the mountains, then passed through maize fields to reach the caves. "The local people have planted corn near the caves for years before they were considered a destination," said our guide Phong. "The area is remote and peaceful." The caves aren’t news to everyone. The Thai ethnic elders of Dan Village say their community has known about the caves. It wasn’t until last year, however, that the caves were considered as anything but big holes leading inside the mountain. They had never thought about exploring inside. The series of Chi Day caves includes five separate caves, although only three are open to visitors, according to Kieu Duc Nam, head of the site management board. He imagines that the two remaining caves will be open to tourists soon. In the recent drive for tourism, the caves were fixed up to receive visitors, although the site has yet to be officially recognized as a destination for tourists. Nevertheless, hundreds of people are now coming to the site daily. The caves can thank simple word of mouth for their recent popularity. After the first tourists visited the caves and enjoyed them, they introduce the caves to their friends. Gradually, more and more people came to know about this recent discovery, and the caves now receive thousands of visitors on its busiest days on holidays and weekends, according to Nam. "The caves are estimated to be nearly 1,000m above sea level," Nam said. "Over millions of years, the vicissitudes of time and the deformation of the earth’s crust created these caves with multiform stalactites." On our visit, we climbed nearly 300m to visit the highest cave, which is 500m in depth. "Hoping to keep the cave’s natural beauty, we have only made several simple steps and handrails to help visitors reach the caves," said Nam. Stepping into the caves is like stepping into another world; leaving the bright green fields and forests behind and entering into the cool, damp grey of a mystical world. Visitors may be drenched in sweat after making the climb up, but that sweat evaporates in the cool atmosphere inside the mountain. The effect is reverse in the summertime, when the caves offer an escape from the chilly winds. "The caves are warm in the winter, but cool in summer," confirmed Phong. Nguyen Bich Thuan, who works for the provincial Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, was happy for the cool-down after making the trek to the cave. "The feeling of fatigue disappears," exclaimed Thuan. "I just feel cheerful and satisfied because I reached my goal." Not only do the caves offer a break from the heat, but the wonderful sites of variously shaped stalactites dripping from the ceiling. Staring at the formations can be like staring at clouds, looking for animals or fruits or objects in the randomly shaped visions. The strongest vision is the thousands of white stalactites that come together into a giant elephant, which is why locals call this spot the Elephant Cave. The elephant even has the root of a tree winding around its nose. "Legend has it that the giant elephant once devastated the village," explained Phong. "Then God caught and punished it by putting it on a chain in the cave." One look at the elephant and the story is almost believable, especially as the sun dances over the creature, making it sparkle and seemingly come to life. In addition to the grandesque of the elephant, this cave also offers four large rooms linked to each other by narrow doors just big enough for one person to squeeze through. "It’s such a wonderful view. A large space full of secrets behind a narrow door is a perfect arrangement of the Creator," said Truong Dai Chien from Hanoi after wiggling through one of those passages. "The mysteries of the cave encourage me to explore." In local Thai language, chi day means ‘possible’. During the resistant war against the French, Vietnamese soldiers built a base deep in the cave. "They believed that they would be safe in the cave, helping them to win the resistance war," Nam told us. The next cave we entered was a switch from the grandeur of an elephant to the small scale, as we walked into some kind of miniature world. Countless perfectly round stones were scattered all over the floor, taking the shapes of various living and non-living things. Visitors searched around, sifting through the various shapes, discovering a sea of animals including tortoises, crocodiles and seals. "I’m impressed with the pure, wild and magnificent beauty of the caves which haven’t been hurt by the human touch," said Hoang Gia Bao from Hanoi. "The caves should be recognized as natural heritage of the country, and they are a gift that Mother Nature granted Son La Province. "The caves are an excellent asset for tourism, proper attention should be paid to them as well as proper investment." Changing lives Dr Vu Van Phai, member of the Viet Nam Cave Association, said that the association is certainly interested in checking out these new caves. "My colleagues and I plan to come to Chi Day Caves as soon as we can," Phai said. "The management board and local authorities look after the natural environment as all the tourists heading to the cave will likely affect the lives of the villagers. "Tourism promotion should be carried out provided that it doesn’t impact local lives and the environment," he added. "The authorities have to set a limit on tourists to avoid disrupting local society and the landscape." Since Chi Day Caves began attracting tourists, several villagers have switched from farming to catering to tourists. Vi Van Cu used to work solely on his maize field like many other farmers, but now he sells soft drink and looks after tourists’ vehicles. While he’s kept his farming job, Cu and his wife’s small kiosk brings in a welcome VND1 million per month. "When the cave system is officially recognized, I can only imagine the number of tourists who will be coming here," he said. "I plan to open more kiosks to sell food and build huts for rent." A board, including 13 people from Yen Son Commune, has taken charge of managing and protecting the cave system. They’re currently asking the provincial Department of Culture and Information to recognize the caves as a tourism site. "We all joined the board voluntarily, receiving no guaranteed salary but only 10 per cent of profits from ticket sales," said the head of the cave management board, Kieu Duc Nam. "We have already contributed VND160 million of our own money and worked several days to build the steps leading to the caves and suspend lights above the stalactites to serve the tourists," he explained. "We mobilized all the men in the village to work with all their might. "Although the caves have just been discovered, they have attracted tourists from many provinces such as Binh Dinh, Thanh Hoa, Nghe An and even a group of Chinese sightseers," said Nam. "However, it has yet to be visited by any team of scientists or surveyors." The management board now wants the caves that they’re so proud of, and have put so much work into, to be officially recognized and to receive the investment it deserves. "If we are allowed, we will set up more tourism services," said Nam. "As locals, we have been strongly attached to the caves for many generations. We are in the best position to nurture both sightseeing and the environment." One visitor Chien agrees that investment is needed, but advises that nothing should be done that would tarnish the natural beauty of these caves. "The path that leads to the community of caves should be kept natural, only hazards should be removed," he said. "Many tourists, myself included, enjoy the challenge of the climb." The beauty of the butterflies and violet wild flowers that line the trail help encourage visitors along. The virginal beauty of nature surrounding these magnificent caves are an ode to the magnificent creations of nature that lie inside the caves. With their evident potential for tourism, it’s only a matter of time before investment begins to flow. In this respect, I agree with the other visitors that the area’s natural beauty must be kept sacred.
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