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31 January 2020

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Asa boy I marveled at the sight of Mount Everest from a Nepali town in 1986 and as a younger man was enthralled by the scene of zebras and wildebeest jumping into a river full of crocodiles in the Masai Mara in Kenya. Amazing David Attenborough material! I’ve worked in various places around the world in the last 20 years, including my current location just outside the Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park in Quang Binh province of central Vietnam. Having already started Phong Nha Farmstay and having lived in Vietnam for 7 years, yet I still wasn’t prepared for this. A Son Doong cave tour took me inside and back out of the world’s biggest cave – “Hang Son Doong.”

“Wow it was a big hole!”

“Be warned, people! There is a big hole in the planet,” quipped a wise-cracking fellow adventurer near the entrance. “It’s a bloody big hole,” I corrected him, trying to fathom the immensity of what we were about to see. Six of us were on the expedition of a lifetime as the first tourists ever to enter and explore Hang Son Doong – a cave first discovered by local businessman, Ho Khanh, in 1990 by accident and one that he couldn’t locate again until 2009.

Howard and Deb Limbert and Adam Spillane were among the first foreigners to see the entrance to Son Doong Cave in Vietnam as part of a British caving team who had special permission to explore the natural wonders of the area. The British had been surveying and documenting the significance of the caves in Quang Binh since 1990 when Howard and Deb first ventured down from Hanoi in an old yellow bus. They are the real McCoy alright!

Howard Limbert and Ho Khanh
Howard Limbert and Ho Khanh

For the very first Son Doong cave tour open for tourists, I packed fairly light. A change of clothes, six pairs of socks, 2kg of chocolate for comfort, a machete, an Indiana Jones-style hat and an Australian flag for the photographs, me being the self-appointed photogenic type. Oh, and a hi-tech camera which I had no idea how to use, but hoped that, with at least three of the other members of the expedition being professional photographers, I might succeed in capturing some proof that I had indeed been into the largest cave in the world.

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Ben Mitchell at Son Doong Cave

For me, entering Hang Son Doong Cave was particularly significant. I’ve been exploring this area myself for many years when foreigners were still banned from the region. It seems like eons of time now but just 7 years before, I couldn’t even get within earshot of the gate to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park on my trusty Russian Minsk and the eco-tourism area of Bong Lai Valley was not a thing back then.

3 years prior, I started a tourism business with my wife and her family and we began encouraging foreign tourists to come and explore the local area – that’s why Phong Nha Farmstay was first created. Getting to Phong Nha by motorbike or public transport is now extremely easy, which was not the case back in the day.

It’s taken a great deal of effort but over these years, strong relationships have been forged with the government, park authorities and local community. Since word got out that the world’s biggest cave was in our vicinity (thanks to a National Geographic article published in January 2011) I had been very excited about the prospect of seeing the cave for myself. Finally, the dream became a reality.

Before commencing the trek, we met at the “Oxalis Home” Son Doong cave tour office with Howard and Deb Limbert who were accompanying us on our expedition. Besides myself (Australian) there were 5 other countries represented ready for a Hang Sơn Đoòng adventure: Canada, Norway, Russia, the UK and the US. We moved down to Ho Khanh’s coffee shop the site of his then new homestay on the Son Song river.

He had assembled 14 porters to carry food and equipment and our guide Thin was there too. We boarded 4x4s and dump trucks and headed into the jungle along the old Ho Chi Minh trail on the very first tourist Son Doong cave expedition. I felt like we were going on a colonial era expedition to the deepest darkest part of Africa with Doctor Livingstone.

Upon reaching our trekking departure point we left the vehicle and trekked down to a minority village deep in the Ban Doong Valley on the Rao Thuong River, a place that time has forgotten.

No motorbikes or electricity here. Only people living in a happily primitive way. Not people in poverty, just living in primitive conditions. We stayed overnight in a tremendous cave called Hang En (Swallow Cave in English). It’s a strange name as the cave is actually full of swifts, not swallows, but it’s spectacular all the same.

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Inside Son Doong Cave

The following day we trekked through the massive exit of Hang En and then downstream along the Rao Thuong River until we reached the end of an enclosed valley sealed at the base by a massive sump. The river in this valley can rise over 80 meters in the wet season and evidence of this is plain to see along the way. After this, we climbed and climbed, until we reached the foot of some lofty limestone cliffs and found the entrance.

We spent the rest of that day underground and making camp just short of the first doline (doline is a bloody big hole in the roof of the cave that lets in shedloads of light so the jungle can grow inside the cave 100s of meters below the surface of the Earth and create their own underground ecosystem).

The next two days were just indescribable! I won’t go into too much detail as I hope many readers will come to see the Hang Sơn Đoòng Cave for themselves now that it’s accessible to tourists, but I will say that standing in a cave and looking at another person over 1 km away in the same cave, can be quite hard to get your head around.

When we reached the Great Wall of Vietnam (100 meters high) at the end of the cave (160 meters high), we journeyed by boat. The porters have carried an inflatable boat and we rowed across the lake to where the cave is over 200 meters in height and then carried our expedition back out.

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Amazing Son Doong!

The expedition lasted 6 days and 5 nights but it felt like a much longer amount of time being away from my home in Phong Nha Farmstay. It was an unbelievable experience and a privilege to enjoy this adventure with people like Limberts, Ho Khanh and his merry men (the porters), in such an awe-inspiring cave and jungle environment. They are all true and dedicated professionals.

It also gave me the chance to get a deeper understanding of how the Son Doong cave was first discovered. Khanh informed us that he had originally found the cave entrance by accident. He was on his own, deep in Truong Son mountain range, on a hunting expedition. In those days – which at times can seem like centuries instead of decades in the fast-developing nation – people of Binh Tri Thien (the old name for the province of Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Hue) were very poor and going to the forest was a means to an end, as there were animals, plants and timber that could help alleviate their poverty.

Ho Khanh was in the mountains hunting and seeking timber when one afternoon a thunderstorm forced him to seek shelter at the base of the cliff. This was located at the enclosed end of the valley on the Rao Thuong River. As he sheltered in an overhang from the cliff he noticed clouds coming out of the cliff about 30 meters to his left. When the storm had passed and upon closer inspection, he discovered a cave entrance with a tremendous wind roaring inside of it.

Having no access to portable lights in those days and being detached from the rest of the kinfolk in his hunting party, Khanh only ventured in a few meters before he had to rejoin the rest of his party when it started to grow dark and the tigers would come out to hunt.

Years later, when Khanh realized how passionate the British were about the caves of Quang Binh, he remembered the cave with the noisy clouded entrance and went back looking for it. He spent most of 2008 and half of 2009 looking for the entrance before he finally found it. The Limberts and fellow cavers went there with him in late 2009 but only made it as far as the immense wall close to the exit.

They went back in 2010 with a National Geographic film and magazine team and finally conquered what they aptly called “The Great Wall of Vietnam”, also proving with a series of sophisticated equipment that this was in fact the world’s largest cave.

And now Khanh is the famous man at the end of the street in Son Trach village. He is a humble man and an interesting bushman with a wealth of knowledge of the jungle and the ins and outs of the Phong Nha cave system.

Besides harboring the largest cave in the world by volume – ahead of the Deer Cave in Malaysia which held the previous record – Quang Binh is also host to the longest river cave in the world, named Khe Ry. Both happen to be on the same river course and area within close proximity to each other. The reason this area has so many large caves – according to specialist Howard Limbert – is the depth and purity of the limestone and heavy rainfall. Another contributing factor is the large catchment for water over the Laos side of the border with a base that is not permeable limestone, but sandstone. This combination has led to the formation of such mammoth caverns.

Khe Ry was discovered and explored first in 1997 and followed up in 1999, again by a team from the British Caving Association. In the recent interview, Deb Limbert told me just how dangerous those first expeditions through Khe Ry were. The cave is 19.8km long and once you are in there it takes a number of days before you can get out, all the time heading downstream.

The catchment area feeding the cave is in Laos and subject to a different weather pattern so the water levels in the cave cab change dramatically – flash flooding is the norm rather than the exception. Two of the team got caught for days between sumps and a rescue team struggled to get them out on the first trip, while almost everyone else on both expeditions became ill from footrot and lack of food and clean water.

Khe Ry River
Khe Ry River

In addition to these caves, Quang Binh province has a multitude of rivers forming caves through the Western edge of the karst mountains.

The more notable cave system on these rivers are:

  • Phong Nha cave System, home: to Hang En, Khe Ry, Hang Son Doong, Hang Toi and Phong Nha Cave.
  • The Vom system which is home to Vietnam’s new and most spectacular tourism attraction, the “Paradise Cave”.
  • The Nuoc Mooc System which finishes at the swimming and bushwalking tourism site as a massive spring pouring up beside the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the “Nuoc Mooc Eco Trail.” Very little is known about this system and the British Caving Association are planning a concerted effort to explore it in early 2014 with expedition members coming from all over the world.
  • The Tu Lan System in the district of Minh Hoa in the north of the province has recently opened up to tourism. In January 2012, a Dutch tourist named Kim found a cave there. The cave is now officially registered and locally known as Hang Kim.

The caves in Vietnam mentioned above or part of them are now available to be visited by tourists. And while the area is new to foreign tourism, it is rapidly opening up and gaining more publicity through guidebooks, magazines, and blogs from intrepid travelers. There are now numerous guest houses and homestays in the villages of the buffer zone surrounding the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park; a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Area.

 

Phong Nha Farmstay is run by my wife and myself with her family and half the village around us. It is a colonial style villa in a rural setting with modern amenities like a pool, bar and restaurant. It’s located on a small track just off the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the Southeast of the national park and overlooks immense rice paddies with an epic sunset over the Annamite Mountains.

 

If you want to see something new and exciting in the world, there are caves and jungle excursions for all levels and it’s an amazing feeling to get off the usual tourist route through Vietnam. We are here and waiting to show you what this unique area has to offer! My personal favorite day out is a bike ride to Moi Moi Restaurant or  “The Pub With Cold Beer” in Bong Lai Valley. This involves a home-grown, home-cooked farm to table lunch, tubing down the Bung River and heaven forbid, a cold beer or two!

By Ben Mitchell

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