Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park’s Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest cave, was discovered — or perhaps rediscovered — by local villager Ho Khanh. Ho Khanh was born into poverty, and responsible for his family after his father’s death, he would roam deep into the jungle to source aloe wood to trade. In 1991 Khanh got caught in rain and sheltered in a cave entrance; he forgot about the cave until 1996, when he met Howard and Deborah Limbert from the British Cave Association.
The couple had first visited Phong Nha in 1990 as part of a British Vietnamese caving expedition following a tip-off from geology colleagues in Hanoi, who had highlighted the massive potential of the Quang Binh area for long river caves after the discovery of Phong Nha cave; Phong Nha Cave opened to tourists in 1992, and since those early days many more caves have been discovered and opened to the public. Ho Khanh learned that the wind he noticed while sleeping outside the cave meant that it must have been a large cave. After a failed trip to re-find the entrance with the team in 2007, Khanh went into the jungle, using his own money and time to track it down alone. Khanh found the entrance on his lone trip, and also spent two days clearing an easy path to get back there for the cavers. He then waited for their return in 2009.
During the first expedition the team were only able to explore less than three miles of the cave, as a 200-foot-wall the team named the Great Wall of Vietnam prevented further exploration. They could see a light-filled space above the wall, but had no idea what lay behind it until their return a year later.
The team had fun naming each part of the cave, from The Garden of Edam, through to the miscommunicated Hand of Dog (should have been God), a very large stalagmite within the cave. Hang Son Doong, which means Mountain River cave, was finally put on the tourist map in mid-2013, when several cavers signed up for a six-day trek through the jungle and cave with local outfit Oxalis Adventures, and Howard and Deborah, who plan to go on each expedition and now live in the town. Oxalis managed to secure government permits for 220 people a year to gain entry to the cave. Due to winter flooding, the tours run from February through to August for seven days, six nights, with March/April being the best time to go. The 2014 tour sold out in days so Oxalis have released extra dates, though they still need government permission for these to go ahead. The price per person is a cool $3,000. Khanh now assists with guiding some of the tours and has opened a beautiful homestay by the river. If you really want to get the low down on the National Park and all its caves from the man himself, stay at his homestay.
If you can’t afford a trip to Son Doong, a more accessible alternative is Dark Cave for a day trip. It takes in Paradise Cave before a jungle trek to swim in the rapids where the river meets the cave water, then you take a canoe into Dark Cave (which is what it says — dark). It’s an excellent tour with a few surprises at the end which we are not allowed to tell you about. The tour price was $40 when we did it in 2012. For those who want to do a longer, two- to four-day trek, Tu Lan is the one. This jungle trek takes you through forest, waterfalls and valleys before a night camping out in the mouth of Hang En cave. The price for a two-day trek is $226.
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 27th November, 2013.