*Note: For an amazing set of Hang Sơn Đoòng photos, please check out my photographer friend Kiwi Chris’ photo album here.
My story goes below:
We left Đông Hà on Thursday, April 24 via local train to Đồng Hới for our Phong Nha transfer. They were sold out of the hard seats with air conditioning, so we had to take the shittiest seats possible – the hard seats with fans. It was a hot, sweltering day, but with the windows ajar and the fans at work, it was barely tolerable. If you think BART or Caltrain sucks, think again. Most locals brought straw mats to lay out on the floor so they could sleep through the misery. It also wasn’t uncommon to see a cockroach scurry by.
Now on to what you’ve all been waiting for – THE LARGEST CAVE IN THE WORLD! I’m going to start with 2 things:
1. Hang is the Vietnamese word for cave.
2. Pictures never do justice.
Hang Sơn Đoòng was discovered by Khanh Ho in 1991, but wasn’t thoroughly searched and surveyed until 2009 by the British Cave Research Association, led by Howard and Deb Limbert who are now in Phong Nha full time to help run the Sơn Đoòng tours. Its first year of tourism began in August 2013, with the limit of ~200 tourists per year.
One would think that the jaw-dropping price tag of $3,000 per person is ludicrous, but after experiencing the caves and learning more about the time and energy that goes into each tour, one will wonder whether or not the costs are even sufficient. In addition to a large up-front cost to the government, ~25% of the $3,000 again goes to the government. And who else is involved with the tour, you may ask? As of now, Oxalis is the only tour company that runs tours to Sơn Đoòng, so it gets a portion of the cost. 2 scientists (including Deb Limbert herself), 2 National Park rangers, 1 Vietnamese English-speaking guide, Khanh Ho (the discoverer of the cave), and 24 porters (like sherpas) are all there to accompany the 8 tourists on the expedition. In sum, there are 30 others needed for the 8 tourists, for a total of almost 40 people! For 6 days and 5 nights the 24 Phong Nha Vietnamese porters, wearing $3 sandals, carry 35-40 kg sacks on their backs (filled with food to feed everyone, tents, sleeping bags, and our belongings), traverse the uneven path, climb and crawl over and under sharp rocks and steep hills, and have the campsites ready for us upon arrival. Despite their undaunting size, their strength was remarkable.
DAY 1: HANG EN
After we bid farewell to our last breath of air-conditioned air from the van, we trekked about 10 km through jungle and river valley to our first campsite, located in Hang En, aka Swallow Cave. By Swallow, I mean the bird (they’re actually Swifts, but the name stuck), and the reason why it is called Swallow Cave is because tens or hundreds of thousands of swifts fly in and around the cave (fun fact: they use echolocation — like bats — to fly in the dark cave). We nicknamed it Hang Cut En, which means Swallow Shit Cave, because bird shit literally dropped every minute or so all around and on us. In order to get to Hang Sơn Đoòng, you actually have to go through a cave (Hang En) to get there! It’s basically a cave within a cave. =)
There is 1 village in Phong Nha National Park. It is an extremely poor village of 28 people, half whom are children. They build their own homes, raise their own livestock, and grow their own crops. Occasionally they can hitch a ride into the nearest town of Phong Nha, which is about an hour away.
And finally, our destination: Hang En! It is not the largest cave in the world, but its size is still magnificent. You can easily book a 1 day or 2 day/1 night tour to Hang En if you are unable to do Sơn Đoòng. Check out Hang En below.
Day 2: Sơn Đoòng
After breakfast, we trekked through and exited Hang En to make our way to Sơn Đoòng!
The entrance to Sơn Đoòng, the smallest cave entrance into the largest cave in the world! There was a lot of crawling, roping, and some real downward vertical caving involved. Fortunately the guides were there to help us descend into the dark cave.
We trekked through the dark for a while, slowly climbing over large and small boulders and crossing small rivers. Finally, we arrived at our second campsite of the trip, which was located near the first roof collapse of Sơn Đoòng. This is what the campsite looked like from a distance:
We spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out and exploring the campsite, anxiously waiting for tomorrow’s famous views and photo opportunities.
Day 3: Sơn Đoòng’s Jungle
The first and second days were “wet” days, meaning we crossed many streams and rivers so our shoes, socks, and feet were wet the whole day. The third day was a dry day – no rivers to cross! However, there were many sharp rocks and boulders we had to climb over and under, but we were rewarded with some of the most amazing landscapes imaginable.
Up and up we went! We were rewarded with lush greenery along beautiful “terraces” carved out by flooded rivers. During the rainy season in the fall, there are no tours in Sơn Đoòng because the flooded rivers practically fill up the cave, carving out wonderful but sharp rocks and boulders. The rivers later recede, and sunlight pours in from the collapsed ceiling to give life to the jungle within the cave.
After we finished climbing up and over these formations, we turned around and were treated to the climax of the whole expedition, one of the most famous views of Sơn Đoòng. Those mounds that we just hung out on? Well, those mounds are the tops of the hills in the photos below. We enjoyed our lunch here.
We spent quite some time here, admiring the scenery and taking more photos. Mist would quickly appear and dissipate, creating an eery atmosphere. We continued with the trek through the dark cave, and when we saw another sliver of light in the distance, we knew we were nearing the second roof collapse, the site of our final campsite. See the tents below?
Day 4: The End of Sơn Đoòng
The plan for Day 4 was to trek to the end of Sơn Đoòng, turn around, and then trek all the way back to the campsite from Day 2. From the campsite to the end of the cave was not very scenic at all. In fact, it was dark and mostly muddy. And I mean MUDDY. Squishy. And gross.
Day 5: Back to Hang En
This is Linh, a 20 year old porter born and raised in Phong Nha. Not only does he carry a 35-40 kg sack for us, he is also one of the cooks for the tour. His 29 year old brother, Minh, is also a porter and has a baby on the way. He was the nicest porter to me and we shared conversations almost every evening. He will be quitting his job as a porter soon as he will be going to Huế to go to culinary school.
Day 6: Back to Phong Nha, Beds, Running Water, and Toilets
And THAT concludes our Sơn Đoòng tour! For many of you who hope to go next year, I hope all this information gives you a better understanding of what to gain from the experience. If you have any more questions, just ping me and I’ll be glad to answer them. =)