Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Funny Expedition To Hang En And The Largest Cave in the World - Son Doong

By Romping & Nguyening
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.


Son Doong cave 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 Son Doong tours. Its first year of tourism began in August 2013, with the limit of ~200 tourists per year.

Our tour consists of 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 these days, the 24 Phong Nha Vietnamese porters 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.


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). In order to get to Hang Son Doong, you actually have to go through a cave (Hang En) to get there! It’s basically a cave within a cave. 

The porters begin the journey first:

Son Doong tour 1

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. 

Son Doong tour 2

Son Doong tour 3

These villagers were TINY! Look how giant I look next to this woman:

Son Doong tour 4

Some nice rest stops:

trekking Swallow cave 1

trekking Swallow cave 2

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 trekking Swallow cave tour if you are unable to do Son Doong. Check out Hang En below. 

trekking Swallow cave 3

trekking Swallow cave 4

trekking Swallow cave 5

Chris brought a cord so he could turn it into a clothesline for our wet clothes. Yay!

trekking Swallow cave 6


After breakfast, we trekked through and exited Hang En to make our trekking Son Doong!
Here are some photos exiting Hang En: 

trekking Son Doong 1

trekking Son Doong 2

A short break after hiking uphill in the tiresome heat: 

trekking Son Doong 3

The entrance to Son Doong, 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. 

trekking Son Doong 4

trekking Son Doong 5

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 Son Doong. This is what the campsite looked like from a distance:

trekking Son Doong 6

trekking Son Doong 7

We spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out and exploring the campsite, anxiously waiting for tomorrow’s famous views and photo opportunities.


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.

Here we are exiting camp toward the first roof collapse. 

trekking Son Doong 8

Look at how sharp these rocks are. We had fun going under and over them! 

trekking Son Doong 9

trekking Son Doong 10

trekking Son Doong 11

Up and up we went! We were rewarded with lush greenery along beautiful “terraces” carved out by flooded rivers. During the rainy season, there are no tours in Son Doong 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.

Son Doong expedition 1

Son Doong expedition 2

Son Doong expedition 3

From the top of the hill, you could look down to the side where you last stood before the climb: 

Son Doong expedition 4

Son Doong expedition 5

Son Doong expedition 6
Or look up:

Son Doong expedition 7

Walk a bit further up past the trees, and there’s more playthings: 

Son Doong expedition 8

trekking Son Doong 12

trekking Son Doong 13

After hanging out on these mounds, we proceeded to finally go DOWN. Below the mounds were amazing formations carved from the flooded rivers:

trekking Son Doong 14

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.

trekking Son Doong 15

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?

trekking Son Doong 16

Going down is kind of scary, more so because of my fear of heights.

trekking Son Doong 17

trekking Son Doong 18

Our third and final campsite! 

trekking Son Doong 19

The tents lit up at night:

trekking Son Doong 20


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