A land of breathtaking landscapes, where cascading rice terraces pave the way to limestone-isles and smooth golden sand dunes. Where rivers and water bodies crisscross in a bewildering maze, and rice paddies abound amongst the flowing streams. A land rich with cultural and historical complexity, Vietnam is home to dynamic megacities and lesser-explored hill-tribe villages. Amongst the many hidden wonders of this diverse, awe-inspiring country is the secret wonderland of Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest natural cave, with many secrets of its own, waiting to be uncovered.
Located in the Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, in the Quảng Bình Province of Vietnam, Hang Son Doong has been the dream travel-destination for adventurers and tourists since being opened to the public as recently as 2013. Its name translates from its original Vietnamese as ‘cave of the mountain river’ or ‘cave of mountains behind Đoòng’. The formation, which is estimated to be between 2-5 million years old, stretches for over 5 km, with cathedral-like ceilings that stand up to 650 feet high. The main cavern of the cave is large enough to house an entire New York City block.
A Journey to the Center of the Earth
Those lucky enough to venture within are greeted by an astounding sight. Underground jungles and rivers lay enveloped by a veil of mist and clouds, while a rich culture of microorganisms grow and thrive in the darkness of the caverns. Discover a window into another world, where the Earth exists as it did a million years ago, where nature thrives proud, devoid of human intervention.
A UNESCO protected site, Hang Son Doong is a marvel of nature and is ruled by its own weather system, complete with cloud formations and a flowing river. Thick foliage grows over openings created by collapsed ceilings, known as dolines, while somewhere in the dark, rushing water babbles and gurgles. The cave walls are formed of soluble limestone and are home to the largest stalagmite known to man, hanging at 262 feet tall, surrounded by fossils that date back millions of years.
Local man Ho Khanh would spend weeks charting his way through the dense thicket in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, in search of food and water to satisfy his modest income. It was in 1990, when out on a hunting expedition, that Ho Khanh stumbled upon a discovery that sent his mind reeling; A secret opening in a limestone cliff, with billowing mist, carried on a strong wind that seemed to emanate from within. Moving forward to investigate, Ho Khanh was met with a bewildering sight. Within the cavernous mouth on the cliff-face hung fluffy white clouds and the distant sound of a raging river. Taken by surprise, Ho Khanh returned to his village to spread the word, without venturing further within. By the time he arrived at his village a few days later, the mysterious wonderland and its exact location were both lost to his memory.
Years later in 2008, Ho Khanh found himself on the very path that led him to his discovery. Taking note of his location, the man led Howard and Deb Limbert of the British Cave Association to the cave for what would become the first-ever expedition of Hang Son Doong. Their progress was halted by a large, 200-foot-high flowstone-coated wall, which was subsequently named the Great Wall of Vietnam. It was only traversed in 2010 when the group reached the end of the cave passage. While their expedition is the cornerstone for the scientific discovery of the cave system, it wasn’t until the year 2018, when a subsequent trio of British divers, led by Howard and Deb, made a groundbreaking discovery of their own, which would serve to change everything they thought they knew about the area.
The three divers– Jason Mallinson, Rick Stanton, and Chris Jewell – who are famous for being a part of the rescue team that came to the aid of the Thai soccer team in 2018- were tasked with exploring the extensive, unexplored network of waterways that run through Son Doong, Diving deep into the darkened waters, the team discovered a previously unknown tunnel linking it to another giant cave called Hang Thung. This new discovery added an additional 1.6 million cubic meters of volume to the existing 38.5 million of the caves. As Limbert explained to CNN, this is the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest’s 8848m and discovering a mound that made it 1000m taller.
A Forbidden Exploration
A trip into this mysterious marvel of nature is not one that is easily undertaken. Currently, expeditions are allowed only through one company, Oxalis, who have the sole legal permit to run tours. The five-day expedition will set you back about 3000 USD and is not for the faint of heart. The governing bodies of the region give out a measly 300–500 permits yearly, and the waiting list stretches on for about two years.
However, the tour is one that is easily worth the effort. With only 10 guests per expedition, each party includes 2 caving experts, 3 local guides, 2 chefs, 2 park rangers, and 20 porters to help carry belongings and luggage. The journey to the cave itself is one that is both physically taxing, and a pleasure to behold, with at least two days spent trekking through jungles and crossing rivers before arriving at the mouth.
Once finally within, tourists must climb, crawl and swim through obstacles and underground rivers before setting up camp inside the geological wonder of the cave, where they are free to capture their surroundings on camera, eat and make merry with their fellow tourists. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity calls for patience and determination and rewards the same with an unrivaled experience of one of our planet’s few remaining pure, and natural wonders.
Would you take a trip to Hang Son Doong? Let us know!
All the media used in this article is courtesy of Oxalis Aventure.