Son Doong, the world’s largest cave, Phong Nha national park, Quan Binh province, in the central highlands of Vietnam.
There’s a day’s trek from a road in the centre of the park before even reaching the caves. Down hill into a beautiful river valley, criss crossed by pure sparkling streams. Nothing but the noise of feet and birds disturbs the silence. Towering on either side are the jagged limestone mountains, harsh and inaccessible with thick forest foliage which used to harbour many more species than it now protects. If you are lucky you may see a monkey. I didn’t, but it was butterfly season and they were as prolific as flakes in a snow storm. White ones played tag along the water side. Others joined where there were tasty minerals along riverbanks. Congregated in masses of iridescent colour, transforming to a jumbled, flying rainbow if we moved close.
Only one small village sits on the edge of the valley with the villagers eking out a barely sustainable life. Small wooden huts and a school. A few enclosed fields of vegetables and buffalo cooling themselves off in the deeper waters is all you’re likely to see.
Hang En Camp
Hang En cave, one entrance seen high up in an imposing limestone hill, provides a convenient route through a mountain in the way, as well as a place for the first nights camp. We didn’t need to climb to the high entrance but followed the river in to a broad sandy beach. Flooded In the rainy season, the water had dropped to a hot and cold wash. Lingering in the cave was the turquoise blue cold, only separated by a single spit of sand from the flow from sun warmed rivers. The last splash of the day. A welcome soak before a night on a bed with whose comfort I had to become familiar with.
But before that food. The retinue accompanying each trip to the caves includes two cooks. But they are not the least nor the last. The full team consists of two British caving experts. Our main guides. An English speaking Vietnamese guide and two from the local area. Not speaking as much English but whose knowledges of the caves and mountains has to be more than we could ever hope to learn in 5 life times. They ran where we walked. Put our feet and hands in holds we would never of found, hoisted the ropes up and held on as we abseiled down cliffs. Moral support and wiping of tears needs no common language. A ratio of two clients to one guide may not have been needed at all times but it was welcome. Add to this 20 porters, two cooks and two park rangers and it becomes clear why the client numbers on the expeditions have to stay low.
Porters leaving Hang En
Every lunch time a picnic or plate of rice or noodles was produced and then in the evening large bowls of sticky rice with plates of spicy meat, veg and tofu. These guys packed up our camp after we left. Ran past us some where en-route. Produced lunch. Packed up again and by some feat of magic passed us again, set up tents and camp and with nothing more than a open fire produced another evening meal for the entourage.
Camping on this trip certainly not ‘glamping’. If you prefer 5* then this is not be the trip for you. Everything has to be carried in, and out, so there are no mattresses and down pillows. A thin foam mat for insulation, sleeping bag and blow up pillow. All inside your personal tent, your home for four nights. At each campsite are composting loos, basically a bucket with a seat. No flush, just throw over some rice husks. Washing facilities? The rivers! Night one and four in Hang En. Day two there is a cave river crossing almost at the end of the day. This is the last chance to wash for two more days and nights.
Hang En cave is home to swifts. Thousands of them. At dusk they swoop in to roost. A black mass swirls around the high entrance before they give up the day and land back in their nests. They don’t sleep quietly. There is a constant chatter through the hours of darkness. Just a soothing simmer of white noise. In the morning I expected them to leave in a flurry, as they arrived, but they just drifted out a few at a time. Some returning as if to report on the day outside.
Our day started not much after the swifts. We didn’t fly through the high entrance, but plunged back in to the river to leave with it, the other side of the hill. Fifteen minutes and a short scramble up and back In the open, walking along another rich green river valley for most of the morning. Clear blue sky and sunshine enticing the butterflies out once more.
A short rise up to lunch and a permanent camp of just a couple of porters. We were about to drop into Son Doong. Ropes are in fixed in place during trekking season. The camp there to deter any one from taking them. Without ropes it would be nearly impossible to get in or out.
So this was it! The big cave! No one knew exactly what to expect. It is suitably dramatic. Immediately after the camp a fairly steep drop down through rich foliage. Just a hand held rope to assist. The time could not have been better. Just after midday, the sun sliced deep grey lines through mist swirling up from the cave.
On the way to Son Doong
Harnesses then attached and one by one we made our way down the steep climb. There is little time to think beyond the next foot or hand hole, when to clip and unclip so it was only when looking at my photographs did I notice the magnitude of the formations we had climbed through and the pool we had ultimately landed at.
Entrance to Son Doong
Three more river crossing and much scrambling followed in a concentrated blur of boulders, water and my crash course in cave photography. Photography in the cave is a collaborative affair. All light power has to be coordinated. Head torches pointed this way or that, strategically placed, along with people, to give an idea of scale. With out a person, even a silhouette, in shot, a towering cliff or giant stalagmite is reduced to a few centimetres when framed by glass or screen. Had it not been for the advice and help from our guides and others most of my photos would be black or blur.
Climbing into Son Doong
The third river crossing is the last chance to wash for a few two days so shampoo was pulled out from packs and applied liberally to hair and already wet bodies and clothes. More scrambles up and over boulders to view one of Son Doong’s iconic, giant stalagmites, The Hand of Dog, silhouetted against the light from doline one.
It looks more like a witch than a hand or a paw, but whatever, the scale could not be realised without the odd body placed on and around.
Hand of Dog
That distant daylight from the doline was deceptively far away. The size of Hand of Dog, giving an illusion of proximity. Reality was to prove another half hour scramble down to our second cave. We spent night two perched on the edge of a ravine so deep we could hear but not see the water rushing underneath. Daylight lingered just ahead but not yet close enough to add life to the surrounding rocks.
First camp in Son Doong
Next morning, down into the ravine, clambering over boulders until the porters in the camp were just pinpricks moving on the rim. There were more tight passages to squeeze through and rocks to go under before the rope assisted climb into the doline arena.
Brilliant green ferns and low growing plants. From the top we could look back towards camp and the contrast of the stark rock and green. Then down into the sunlight where the two huge monoliths looked as small as Lego bricks. Time disappeared as we sat on and amongst them. Gazing at natures creations and trying to capture them on camera.
Out of this tantalising circus, onto an open area of light brown, smooth looking, but grippy calcite. I still find it hard to comprehend the array of different limestone rocks . Moving out of the light a sharp grey corrugated sheet faces up. Apparently hosting an acid producing algae which slowly eats away the rock in lines looking towards the light.
Sunlight swung a slowly moving spotlight light across the stage, playing with leaves floating down from the rim high about, then throwing a cast of fire over the brilliant green rocks. Seated on the folding calcite we had a perfect view.
Eventually we had to tear ourselves away and move on. Almost around the corner and the light from the second doline seeped into the black as we hiked up a hill of this grippy calcite. And then, even more green than before. A periscopic view of tall trees stretching up to a circle of light. Distances are deceptive in the dark. Only a line of porters lights realised the climb down, and up, needed before reaching the pristine garden of eden. Tall thin trees reaching up for the light with liana lashes softening the edges of the rock rim high above.
Lunch stop between dolines
As sunlight brushes the edges, moisture and raindrops increased the rocks were coated with first microscopic plants, increasing to small ferns and ultimately trees. It is not such a stable jungle. Care had to be taken as we scrambled up and over the fallen roof which created this eden.
Looking up to doline two, the garden of Eden
Everything had an air of untouched freshness. A newness. Colour with the lustre of new paint. All facing the same direction and straining to see the sunlight. The closer to the sunlight and water; height and density of these pristine plants increases, until you are walking through a virtually untouched jungle. So amazing I didn’t want to put my feet down. Plants strain their limbs to the light above. With a single light source they have a common goal, to reach up. Ancient bat guano their nutrition.
Plants in doline two
Up the jumbled boulders until the sky was a perfect circle of blue overhead and we could see through the trees to our final camp. A practical illustration in the basic ingredients of life, water and light. The invisible line which stopped growth. Though light filtered a little deeper into the cave, where water was unable to reach, the rocks were immediately bare.
Eventually we had to leave and scramble down to our final camp below. But we were not quite at the end. After dumping bags it was back into the dark. Past a few more aptly named formations and clear pools with tiny white spiders, woodlice and fish, just caught in the light from torches.
In the wet season there is, apparently, a serene and beautiful lake to glide over to the end of the cave, not so in the dry. Brown, sticky mud in steep sided sandy ravines, only wide enough to but one foot in front of the other, are more trouble than all the tunnels and boulders. It claws and at legs and shoes, pulling you down into the sticky mess.
The end, the Vietnam wall. Up another muddy mound with clean water dripping in to make a suitably, sticky, dark end to the trail. Far too difficult for us mere amateurs to exit over, we turned back to camp.
Next morning we rose with the mist, walking through the ‘garden’ before the plants had dried from their morning wash of dew. Leaves and ferns still unfurling. Signs of monkeys with piles of empty, giant snail shells abandoned under trees.
Having taken a multitude of photos on the way in, the return was done at a much faster pace. Taking a detour around and under the formations we had watched for hours in doline one, we plunged back into night with helmets and head torches. Down and up again. Light throwing shadows on the grey jagged boulder strewn tracks in tunnels and gullies. Roped in for a three stage scramble we moved out to the cloudy cataracts of morning and the barren landscape of the second nights camp.
In Son Doong
After lunch a detour to fossil alley. Frozen white creatures and shells in a back drop as black and shiny as coal. The route in pitted with man trap like, water filled holes, one wrong footstep leading to an unplanned dip.
Then the final scramble and climb to the end of the Son Doong, out of the misty cavern to trees waving from the rising air. Each person emerging looking suitably small and insignificant against the gaping mouth. So up and away, crossing the invisible boundary separating green from grey, dark from light, rock from plants. ‘How fragile we are’, as the song goes.
Back into Hang En
With one more camp to reach we trekked back through the calm river valley towards Hang En. Reaching the lime white cliffs by late afternoon and entering with a scramble down through the narrow slit river entrance. As usual our porters were there ahead. Their dark shadows reflecting in the shimmering blue water.
Leaving Hang En
So that was it. The final night spent back in camp at Hang En. Hot and cold plunge pools so welcome to rid us of three days of grime. Then a last half day of trekking through with shimmering butterflies and steaming rivers under crystal blue sky. A trek, which even without the caves, would be worth the journey.
It was the trip of a life time. An experience I shall never forget. A pristine environment so far seen by less than 800 people. Plans for a cable car have been stopped for the moment, and the current operator, Oxalis realises that increasing the visitor numbers would damage the environment to an unacceptable level, but who knows what the Vietnamese government will do to it in the future I just hope that international pressure holds things in check. Please join the campaign, sign the petition and visit the Facebook page, at the very least, to add your own small weight to the campaign.
Leaves falling from the doline