My dream of exploring the world’s largest cave is soon to come true, after touring Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The lure of Han Son Doong is what drew me out of a dead-end job and a life of tedium. All of that is behind me now that I am fully immersed in my five-year mission to see the world.
Paradise Cave – Phong Nha – Feb. 13th. 2015
Gradual Descent into Han Son Doong
The overnight bus pulled into Phong Nha at five-thirty in the morning emptying out its bleary eyed contents onto the sidewalk. My hotel was only a hundred meters off, and there were people stirring in the reception area. They offered me a room to be available at 6 am so I went off in search of an omelet. I found a little open air place with plastic chairs and competing Asian talking heads blaring out of adjacent TV sets. The ambiance was challenging, but the omelet and baguette were first-rate.
Returning to the hotel I was greeted by a mattress that bore a remarkable resemblance to a granite slab with a comforter thrown over the top of it. Southeast Asia does have its fair share of firm mattresses, by this one would definitely compete with the cavern floors I would be sleeping on in the coming weeks. I decided to transfer over to the homestay I had booked for the Tet holiday in a week’s time. My arrival in Phong Nha was earlier than planned in order to get physically prepared for the Son Doong Expedition as well as become more skilled at using my newly acquired camera. Also really getting to know the people, my newly adopted neighborhood and the area were quite appealing after bouncing around from place to place.
After my autopsy slab nap, the room was settled up, and I was transferred to Ho Khanh’s Homestay where the remainder of my time will be spent. The only room available was the river view bungalow at fifty dollars a night. It was worth the splurge. The bed was firm but nowhere near as bad as the rest of the beds in town. Believe me, I checked a bunch since I didn’t want to be rendered incapable of conquering Han Son Doong which is truly the Mount Everest of Caves.
Ho Khanh’s Homestay – My Riverside Bungalow
It was morning when I realized the value of my choice. As I blinked the sleep out of my eyes, the softly flowing Song Con river came into focus as a long boat drifted lazily by, framed perfectly by my picture window. Aside from the setting, the thing that makes Ho Khanh’s such a special destination is that he is the man who discovered the world’s largest cave in 1990 while searching for timber. It was lost track of and subsequently rediscovered by him in 2008.
Ho Khanh – The man who discovered the World’s Largest Cave.
The trip to town by bicycle is about fifteen minutes with the river to your left and people greeting you as you make your way to town. This is a kinder gentler Vietnam than the streets of Hanoi with its endless sonic assault on your ears and attempts to relieve you of your money through endless overcharging and deception. The only interruption to the serene trip was some horrific booming techno from across the river which I suspected to be coming from a youth hostel, but in fact, was a Vietnamese wedding party.
With the Tet holiday approaching, there is sure to be more of the same. I have already received an invitation to the home of a local to celebrate. I don’t drink but plan to make the bus trip to Dong Hoi to pick up some whiskey as gifts for the locals for such an occasion. After all, I can live vicariously, sing some karaoke, and skip the hangover in the morning.
Traditional Peach Blossom Tree for Tet Holiday
I made it to Dong Hoi to pick up supplies for the Tet Holiday including a nice peach tree for my hosts. This is basically like our Christmas tree except for Tet. Managed to cram it into the rear of the cab and wrapped some plastic to protect the blossoms and lit out for Phong Nha in the wind and rain. The tree made it fine minus some blossoms and my hosts were very pleased with the gift. Ho Khang is upgrading the landscaping in his yard and will add the tree after the holiday season.
My Hosts – Ho & Nghia Khanh
Then Tet took a turn for the strange. I felt a bit of a sinus thing coming on and picked up some meds in town. I must have had a bad reaction to the meds as well as some bug because for the next four days I slept almost all the time. The dreams resembled some sort of hyper-realistic acid trip that lingered into the waking hours like a bad taste in my mouth I just couldn’t get rid of. So here I am in the middle of nowhere, wifi on the fritz, in an otherworldly culture with an increasingly tenuous grasp on reality. And I thought I was going to have to wait for Han Son Doong for that being on another planet sensation. Finally, the dreams abated, I got digitally reconnected, responded to some blog comments, and started to realign with planet Earth.
Good thing I still have a week before the big expedition to get into shape, and make preparations. The Tet holiday is coming to a close, and restaurants in town are starting to open up again. I booked a trip to the long 7K exploration into Paradise Cave this time, but it turned out to be the same trip as the last time. The people I was with were nice though, and the tour operator threw in another good cave for ten bucks.
Phong Nha Cave is accessible by boat and they oar the long boats through about 2.5K of the cave and then drop you off inside the cave to see some formations on foot. You eventually emerge from the cave where you meet the boat and take a leisurely trip back to town.
Long Boats to Phong Nha Cave
Phong Nha Cave Entrance – Phong Nha’s Answer To Venice
Beach inside Phong Nha Cave
Some Nice Formations In Phong Nha Cave
It’s just three days until the big expedition into Son Doong, and I’ll spend this day learning my camera functions so I can capture some good shots in the cave. I moved out of Ho Khanh’s today to another local hotel close to town. Then I will spend the final night at Oxalis after the safety briefing. Tomorrow I have hired a local guide to go trekking in the jungle as a last minute prep for the trip. In my time in Phong Nha, I have seen three groups leave for Son Doong. It has been nice to live at Ho Khanh’s for two weeks and get a real feel for the neighborhood.
The World’s Biggest Cave has really given a boost to the local economy. Even though many people don’t actually visit San Doong, it is knowledge of San Doong that brings them to the area. This cave has really put this sleepy and rather poor little town on the map, and it has been very gratifying to ride my bicycle into town and notice all of the improvements people are making to their houses. I see new doors and good quality tile flooring that comes from a shop on the way into town.
Oxalis, the company that runs the big tours, hires an army of porters as well as a number of other Vietnamese support staff. They also do their best to help the community in a number of other ways. It is so refreshing to see this kind of unselfish behavior by a group of people more dedicated to a love of discovering caves than anything rather than trying to exploit the locals. Oxalis is also publishing a coffee table book of Han Son Doong with the proceeds going to a fund to help the local children.
Two days before departure, and time for my prep trek into the jungle. Wy will guide me through the jungle, up a tall mountain, and across a number of rivers. I reckoned on 2-3 hours. We never really discussed it and it turned out to be a 13K six-hour trek with no lunch since the wild boar farm wasn’t serving food when we arrived. Regrettably, they were closed for Tet. At least I felt confident about my abilities for the coming adventure. Little did I realize what awaited me.
Jungle Trekking with Wy – Prep for Son Dong Expedition
Another Jungle Trekker
A car picked me up the morning before the expedition to transfer me over to Oxalis where I would have my safety briefing as well as dinner and a room for the night. These proved to be some of the nicest food and accommodations in town. A number of us met each other the night before at the Bamboo Cafe. The group was pretty young. Seven in their twenties and thirties. One early forty, and two of us over fifty.
We gathered for breakfast at eight and piled into our minibus for our rendezvous at Ho Khanh’s pictured above. Then up Ho Chi Minh’s Victory Highway for forty-five minutes to our drop off point. Our first hour involved some nice downhill trekking while dodging the leeches on the moist trail. We made a quick tea break at a minority village, then on to a lunch break about a half hour down the trail.
The remainder of our day involved about thirty river crossings some jungle trekking until we reached the first campsite near the entrance of Hang En Cave.
Entrance To Hang En Cave – Third Largest Cave in the World
Hang En Cave Campsite
What a welcome sight this was I can tell you. A very scenic spot to get out of wet boots, check for leeches, and have a good wash before dinner.
What We Climbed Down To Get Down To The Campsite
Pretty Much The Same Terrain We Had To Deal With Through Half Of The Cave
Took a nice nap in my tent after the day’s exertion, and then woke up to our first cave dinner of five different Vietnamese entrees and french fries.
Cave Cuisine Au Vietnam
Exit From Hang En Cave
Departed Hang En Cave on what would prove to be one of the toughest days of the trip. Lots of river crossings in Son Doong and scrambling over sharp rocks and slippery boulders consumed a good portion of our time. An 80 meter descent down a rock face secured to a rope was the highlight of the day.