VIETNAM: Phong Nha – Gradual Descent into Han Son Doong

Posted by on Feb 12, 2015 in Uncategorized | 14 Comments

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 was as supple as a granite slab with a comforter thrown over the top of it. Southeast Asia does have its fair share of firm mattresses, but 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 would 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 longboat 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’s the man who discovered the world’s largest cave while searching for timber in 1990. He lost track of it and the cave was subsequently rediscovered by him in 2008 when he was approached by a British Caving company.


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 postpone my Han Son Doong otherworldly experience. Finally, the dreams abated, I got digitally reconnected, responded to some blog comments, and started to return to planet Earth.

Good thing, I still had 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 for the long 7K exploration into Paradise Cave this time, but it turned out another regular tour. The people I was with were pleasant, and the tour operator threw in another good cave for ten bucks so no harm no foul.

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 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’ve hired a local guide to go trekking in the jungle as last-minute prep for the trip. During my time in Phong Nha, I’ve seen three groups leave for Son Doong. It’s been nice to live at Ho Khanh’s for two weeks and get a real feel for the neighborhood.

Being home to the World’s Largest Cave has really given a boost to the local economy. Even though many people don’t actually explore San Doong, it is the awareness of the giant cave that brings them to the area. Because of Ho Khang, Han Soong Don has really put this sleepy little hamlet 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 homes. I see new doors and good quality tile flooring that comes from a shop on the way into town.

Oxalis is 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. They had 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 and 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 Throughout 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


We exited 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.


Ho Khanh Inscription At Entrance To Han Son Doong Cave


Entrance To Han Son Doong Cave


My Intrepid Guide AN – Nephew of Ho Khanh

We pulled into our first campsite just short of Doline One at about five o’clock. A doline is a part of the cave where the ceiling has collapsed and allows light to enter thus allowing vegetation to grow as well as lighting some of the cave interior. A group of us went to check out the fossils before dinner. An unwelcome climb down some additional steep sharp rocks, but worth the trip.




 Fossils – Near Campsite One – Han Son Doong




Son Doong 1st. Campsite


Our Young Doctor Stitching Up A Wounded Porter In Our Field Hospital

There was some trouble with our water filtration system, and one of our overzealous porters sliced his hand trying to open one of the plastic filter cartridges with a sharp knife. Thankfully we had a pair of young Australian doctors on our tour who set up a little makeshift operating theater on our dinner table and stitched him up with great skill. With this act, they distinguished themselves as the first people to operate on a patient in Han Son Doong.


 Yours Truly On A Large Formation At Doline One


 Me Again Wearing My Lifesaving FIVE-TEN Canyoneering Boots


 Looking Back At Doline One


 Looking Ahead Toward Doline Two


 Doline Two Forest – Trees Reaching for the Light


 Han Son Doong – Campsite Two – Deep In The Heart Of Han Son Doong


Looking Back Towards Doline Two

A quick rest before pushing on to the far reaches of the cavern. I gathered my camera and tripod and got ready for the final push which was thankfully quite painless. We got a couple of nice shots using time-lapse photography and our headlamps. I took some time for myself as the others moved on to play around in the mud. I sat back and contemplated the cave while listening to Dark Side of the Moon. After that, I slowly made my way back to camp with a guide whose lamp was running out of juice. I shined my lamp on as many formations as possible since it would be my last chance to see them.


 In The Depths of Son Doong – Light Supplied By Helmets – 8 Sec. Exposure


 Cave Pearls – Near The Rock Where I Sat Alone Listening to Pink Floyd


Now Back The Way We Came

Now to make our way back to the Hang En Camp for dinner and a nice wash, but first there was a lot of climbing on sharp rocks, scrambling over boulders, and roping around to be done. They said it would be easier on the way back, but frankly, it seemed pretty much the same. I was glad to be pulling the thing off. I had worried about having stomach issues, but thankfully I was spared any of that foolishness. My muscles never really got sore the whole time. More than anything, I just ended up being tired out after some of the climbing. I was really dreading that last climb up to the pickup point on the last day.




Lunch Back At Camp One – Han Son Doong


 Hand Of Dog – Opposite Side


 Adam – Roping Us Up Sixty Meters Of Rock Face


Back At The Entrance


One Of About Thirty River Crossings

Our final day was all about river crossings and climbing out of the jungle.



THE GROUP – Including Howard, Adam, and Yung – I’m the cleanhead on the right-hand side.


I pretty much ran out of gas at this point and the final ascent was quite an oppressive slog.


A Good Rest Before Humping It Up The Hill For Seventy-Five Minutes


Refreshments Topside Before An Air-Conditioned Ride Back to Phong Nha




An and his Father – The Guys Who Helped Me Make It In One Piece


 Getting Our Well-Earned Medals For Conquering Han Son Doong

At this point, less than 300 people had been through the cave. In fact, even now, fewer people have explored Han Soong Don than have summited Mount Everest.


 Au Revoir Phong Nha – My Home Of Two Weeks


  1. Karen Devers
    February 15, 2015

    This is lovely and very peaceful. I’m looking forward to reading about your cave exploration. And photos, of course!

  2. BearCoon
    February 20, 2015

    OMG these are such amazing places!!! can’t wait to see more photos!! Call me when you get a chance. I tried a couple times but you aren’t accepting calls right now.

  3. The Travel Zealot
    February 23, 2015

    Karen, it is very rural and peaceful. People are very simple and sweet. Can’t make the 20 minute bike trip to town without 100 greetings from local kids lining the roads. It’s good to see this area before it goes through the inevitable changes. One good change is that in the national park roadways and areas near the cave entrances are immaculate. Normally these areas would be strewn with trash. This was a problem in the Sapa area where the streams were choked with plastic bags and refuse.

  4. The Travel Zealot
    February 23, 2015

    Hey Dina,
    Been off the grid here in the rural part of Nam. I might get a SIM card to call.

  5. BigD
    March 11, 2015

    Glad you got over the bug before your trip. The pictures look great, some of the terrain are otherworldly.

  6. The Travel Zealot
    March 11, 2015

    Yes D,
    Otherworldly was the whole point of the trip for me. I sat in the area in the farthest depths of Son Doong alone with the cave pearls, sitting on some smooth cool limestone, helmet on the ground shining on a enormous stalagmite as I listened to Dark Side of the Moon. How does that sound, Laddie?

  7. Jason B.
    March 12, 2015

    Seven days into painting a massive tract home in La costa. Came home tired as hell and ready for some beer and mindless T.V. Flipped on the telly and started watching Tropic Thunder starring everyone in Hollywood. There was Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and a water buffalo in what looked to be somewhere in Vietnam. That’s is when it hit me. THETRAVELZEALOT a.k.a. John Hollister I had completely forgotten to check my old friend’s whereabouts and how he was getting along. I knew he was planning on keeping us all apprised of his adventures and was hoping to get some intel on the trip. Never was I expecting to be so awestruck and inspired by the pictures and stories of your travels up to date. The caves are beyond my wildest imaginations. Thanks so much for sharing the photography. Breathtaking. Keep up the good work my friend. Cannot wait to see what is in store the the TRAVELZEALOT next! Jason B.

  8. The Travel Zealot
    March 12, 2015

    Hi Jason,
    Glad you remembered and made an appearance. Han Son Doong was a trip and a half, and the kick off event to my world tour. It was a serious challenge to these old bones I have to say, but I made it through unscathed except for a couple of leeches and a few scratches. A great life experience and accomplishment all rolled into one. I didn’t get as many pictures as I would have liked as I was busy trying to avoid falling and busting my ass wide open on some of those perilous rocks and boulders. Unfortunately not many shots of those as they had my full attention as I clambered over them. I’ll keep posting so try and pop on from time to time. Just remember out here the adventure never ends.

  9. Lynda
    March 13, 2015

    I’m speechless seeing your pictures of the cave/formations……….I need to process…….get caught up. Jawdropping!

  10. The Travel Zealot
    March 13, 2015

    That was the reaction I had to seeing far better examples of the subject matter on my iPad bored to death at work a year and a half ago. It literally inspired my new life of travel, and of course my completion of the challenge that is Son Doong, the Everest of caves. Now for some relaxing scuba diving!

  11. Z
    March 29, 2015

    Outstanding! Pictures from the cave look like another dimension – world inside out!

  12. The Travel Zealot
    March 30, 2015

    I think that’s one of the reasons they are trying to avoid the commercialization of the cave. To preserve that otherworldliness.

  13. Greg Knyper
    May 2, 2015

    Just insane and life changing…oh…not the Pink Floyd on mushrooms. Lol…enjoying watching and reading about what your doing. You the man!


  14. The Travel Zealot
    May 5, 2015

    Hey Greg,
    Glad to have you on board enjoying my little adventure. I’m doing Europe through the summer, but I’ll be back in San Diego in December. Hopefully I’ll see you then. Such a shame I didn’t get the chance to use my great new dive gear in Malaysia, but backpacking doesn’t afford one the luxury of toting around a lot of extra weight.

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