Sunday, October 23 2016


Journey to the centre of Son Doong Cave

Update: March, 20/2016 - 09:00
What a sight: The first doline panorama view.

by Nguyễn Quang Huy


When Sơn Đoòng Cave in the central province of Quảng Bình made global headlines, as a son of the province, I naturally wanted to challenge myself and take the tour.  

Sơn Đoòng had become a regular topic in our family’s conversation. But a trip to the world’s largest cave was a remote dream since I knew that people who had registered long time ago might only take the trip in mid-2017 at the earliest.

So my heart skipped a beat a few weeks ago, when I got a phone call saying there was a vacant place in a team that was about to take off on March 1. I thought I was very lucky to get this place. On the phone, I said "yes" without any hesitation but a moment later the guy from a tour company cooled me down saying, “Only if you pass the health check.”

I had to fill in a very detailed questionnaire sent to me by Oxalis, the only authorised tour company that could take explorers inside Sơn Đoòng. I am neither an active athlete nor a frequent exerciser, so I had to put in everything physical I had gone through in filling out the experience section in the application form. I put in even my trip to Tibet many years ago to get myself qualified for the trip.

Just ten days before departure, I was accepted. Along came the confirmation letter with a pile of information on how to prepare for the trip. But busy works and New Year fests do not spare me much time except the last day and it was a bit late to get all the recommended gears.

Briefing day

On February 29 (a special day), I boarded the Vietnam Airlines flight and arrived at Đồng Hới Airport 90 minutes later. My nephew Nguyễn Thành Nam, who was also going on the trip with me, introduced me to other group members from Hà Nội: a married couple in their late 50s Nguyễn Mạnh Hùng, Trần Hồng Phương and a guy who resembled a heavy-weight lifter Nguyễn Đức Hùng. Two guys from Hồ Chí Minh City arrived earlier. One was Vũ An, a graduate from Hà Nội University of Technology, two years my senior, and the other, Lê Hưng, worked in the oil and gas industry. As we waited for the others to arrive, everyone voted for Big Brother (that was how we called the husband) to lead the tour.

The briefing started at 6:30pm and we met Adam D Spillane, the chief tour guide from the company and Thái Bình, his assistant. We also met the last three team members, two girls from HCM named Lê Thanh Huyền, Đoàn An, and Nguyễn Mai Trang from Huế.  We mingled a bit just to find out that the girls had travelled more than me.

Coming from Sheffield in the UK, Spillane is in his 40s. He seldom spoke during the trip. Later we found out he was a structural engineer building from ships to oil rigs. He had been caving for thirty years and his love for caves had led him to Phong Nha for 18 months. "I found out life has many more things other than work" — he told me — "and live rich means more than surrounding you with expensive things!"


Then I realised how challenging our trip was and became quite excited but nervous. We had to pass a 50-kilometre (km) forest, springs and rocky mountains on foot strictly on the pathway the guides directed. There were 80-metre (m) cliffs and an abyss to climb, and an underground river to swim across.

The normal trip takes five days and four nights. Our trip was one day shorter. That means we had to cover a two-day distance on day one. We had to cross 50 streams and keep our shoes and soaked clothes on all day as there was no time to change. We would spend most of the time in the eternal darkness of the cave and have absolutely no electricity or mobile signals during the trip. The satellite phone and walkie-talkie were only for emergencies. Even worse, we would have no water for cleaning, except for brushing our teeth.

We really felt as if we were leaving civilisation behind.

After a short dinner, our guide handed out to each of us a helmet, a 1.5-litre bottle of drinking water and a pair of military boots. The boots were not as comfortable as ours but we all needed two pairs for wet and dry walking. We divided our belongings into three parts. The first part went in our backpack including daily medication, cameras, a water bottle and a towel. The second bag contained all clothing for other days and was to be carried by 25 porters provided by Oxalis. All other unnecessary things were to be left behind at the company HQ and collected after the trip. Everyone went to sleep early, saving energy for the inspiring days ahead.

But it seemed no one had slept soundly the night before. The fact is everyone sat up anxious and ready at 6.30 sharp the next morning. After a quick breakfast, we travelled to the 35th kilometre of Road 26. The drop point was merely a tiny station with a roof. From there the hardship began.

We had the first break after 4kms of walking through a forest. It was mainly going down. Everyone was excited. After crossing several springs, we arrived at Đoòng Village, which the cave was named after. Some porters had arrived earlier and had gathered in a communal house sharing some ’happy water’ (that is what they called local wine made from maize or cassava).

Finding the gate

Leaving Đoòng Village we continued to Én (Swift) Cave. The road was less up and down as we moved on but thing got wet quickly. We had to cross a spring named Rào Mạ (Mother River) 47 times as Vũ An seriously announced later. I doubted this figure but quickly lost count after twenty.

At around 11am, after a 7km journey, we saw the giant entrance of Én Cave from afar. But it took some time to get closer and finally we entered the cave through a smaller gate.

We then arrived at a wonderful “beach”. The "beach” was sandy by a dark lake with a great view to the cave entrance. Above it was a 140m high dome. It was great to have lunch in such a luxury banquet ball room. We did not have much time to contemplate the scenery. After an hour, we were back on our feet again.

All the morning’s tiredness was nothing compared to the next session. We had to climb up a rocky uphill path to reach the entrance of Sơn Đoòng Cave, which was really tiring. Only when I thought of stopping, did I realise that the destination was only a few feet away. It was also the entrance of Son Đoòng Cave.

Safety equipment and overhead lights were put on. Now we had to relay down 40m with a rope to the eternal darkness below. There was no other way easier than that! I had a feeling of fear, excitement and pride while sliding down the rope to the cave floor. But above all, I felt safe.

The first doline

We went on about 2km through the sharp rocks in the darkness to reach the light of the first doline. This was a giant shoe shape hole created by a corruption millions of years ago. The rumbles of the corruption created a small mountain within the doline. Light, rain and bird droppings painted a part of that mountain with plants. We went up and down the mountain to our first base camp. Our tents were erected on the high and flat surface of the cave floor. There was no water for a bath so we had to clean our bodies with a towel before putting on dry clothes. I smelt the cooked food and suddenly felt starved. The food was far from what we expected!

The task on day two was to march to the cave’s end and back to the camp in the second doline. It was a 10km trip but we had to make two uphill climbs in the two dolines. Even though I carefully put on two socks to absorb the force, my toes started to turn purple.

Starting at 9am, we first climbed up the mountain in doline one. It was tiresome but easier than the way down. It took us an hour to reach the top. This is where all the great pictures were taken. Another hour was spent for taking pictures but it did not seem enough. An, our youngest team member, took this chance to show off her yoga master level poses. The girl was so energetic that she always tried some stunning yoga positions at all the stops while we just lay down and tried to catch our breath. At our camp sites she opened a short yoga course and had some students among us and the porters as well.

Our main photographer was Trang, a gentle girl from the former royal capital city of Huế. According to some Oxalis guide, she may be the first person from Huế to ever visit Sơn Đoòng Cave. She had a passion for photography and definitely got my admiration. We had to thank her for sharing thousands of pictures she took in our trip.

Another hour passed by the time we reached the foot of the mountain after much exertion.

The second doline

On the way down, instead of hard rocks, we saw a huge green area resembling a terraced rice field. We saw huge brown stones turning green in the sunlight and many more amazing things that we had never seen before. However, when we got to the other side, we were presented with a spectacular view when the sunlight shone through the giant hole to the doline bottom.

The surface was filled with quiet water pools resembling mirrors for taking ideal pictures. The path to this doline two was the toughest. Even with the headlights on we barely saw what was above or under. The rocks were so slippery that I could not avoid sliding several times even though I was very careful. And the slope, while being shorter, was much steeper, rockier and higher than that of the last day. We arrived at the next camp in the second doline at 15:00 with our shirt soaked with sweat.

The camping site looked tiny from above. The plain ground was paper white and lay on the edge of the cave bottom. The sand was as smooth as plaster dusts. It stuck to everything just as powder in tempura. The route from there to the cave’s end was easier. We followed it along an underground river. At this time of the year there was no water and the river was filled with sand. Our team set us up to take pictures. It was so huge inside that our whole team lined up 5 to 10 metres apart from each other so it could be viewed from atop. Another river, this time full of water, appeared at the end of the route, hidden after a narrow turn.

The water was crystal clear. Our boat forwarded slowly in the absolute darkness. With the headlight we saw the cave open wider as we sailed on. When the river turned to a big lake, we faced a big wall of a wet rock. It was 60 metres - high and marked the end of Sơn Đoòng Cave: We had reached the Great Wall of Việt Nam.

Spillane said all the water would run out of the cave through a small hidden underground tunnel. Future trips may let visitors climb this wall but for now, we could only take some pictures and we reluctantly got back to shore. After two days of walking and climbing without cleaning, the water was so appealing. We dived right in.

Our spirits were high at that time. Big Brother led us to singing all songs from all the musical periods after some drinking. We also gave Spillane some Beatles songs and he was happy to sing Hey Jude! along with us. Everyone then got back to their tents except An and me. He wandered from tent to tent chatting, playing cards with the porters waiting for others to sleep. I stayed back near the fire to dry my stuff.

My tent-mate woke up before me. Now, we were going back to Én Cave, the place we stopped for lunch at day one.

The way out was not exactly the same as the way in. But even when we were on the old path, we could not recognise it. Things were different from the other perspectives and the light also painted the scenery with distinctive colours.

After a quick snack on the spring bank, we chose to go by the waterway because my legs were already fed up with the slopes. Though we had to sail against the current, it was a good decision. Now we had more time to enjoy the great view of the forest instead of gazing at the rocks beyond our feet. We arrived at Én Cave late afternoon. The trip back was easier than we thought.

The night was so amusing. Everyone was happy that the difficulties had been taken care of. The men were cracking jokes over drinks and the women were playing with the camera’s slow exposure.

Mission accomplished, and opens new doors

It was the last day so I decided to push our porters a bit. I put all my belongings in their pack and left nothing in my back pack except the helmet.

We departed at 8:40am and immediately got wet when starting day four, wasting all my efforts drying my gear last night. The sun was shining early. The road back to Đoòng village was straight forward. Spillane was so quick on his feet that by the time I arrived in the village, he was about to move on. There was only one slope left, and Trang, An and I quickly followed him, skipping the break. I got tired very soon and had to stop at every turn.

I began to feel as if the thirst was slowly squeezing out of me whatever little strength I had left. Trang was very kind to offer me a little water she brought along. Then I met Spillane waiting for us midway.

"Only ten minutes more," he said and walked slowly along, giving me some moral support. I guessed it was much longer than ten minutes.

Just when I thought I could go no farther, I heard An’s voice. I was sure this was the merriest sound I had heard since morning. It signalled that the drop spot was close. My knee and back pain disappeared at once. When I reached the drop zone, the watch showed 11:45am. My days with Sơn Đoòng were over. I took off everything sticky on my body and rewarded myself with a can of Huda beer.

As I was cooling down, a strange feeling started to grow inside me. I was missing Sơn Đoòng but I did not think it would start so soon. My team members all told me they had a similar feeling the last night when we had dinner.

I visited my cousins and boasted about my experience. "What was your lifetime adventurous activities used to be our daily routines," one of them told me.

Our team made some records anyway: We were the first team full of Vietnamese, and the first tourist team to conquer Sơn Đoòng Cave in only four days and three nights. Mrs Phương was the oldest Vietnamese woman to finish the trip until now. Trang maybe the first Huế resident to visit the cave and An was probably the first woman to finish ahead of the team.


We heard during the trip that there was a plan to install a cable car across Sơn Đoòng. But as Mrs Phương bluntly told a local official upon hearing him boast about the project, "Once you have visited the cave, you would never want it to be spoiled by anything!"

This is because exploring Sơn Đoòng is much more than just a visit to see the cave. To me, it was an opportunity to make new friends and a lifetime’s experience to surpass my limits. VNS

Exploration: Cave visitors row a boat through a river.
Stillness: The entrance to Phong Nha Cave.
Stretching it out: An, the youngest team member, took this chance to show off her yoga poses.
Tread carefully: Crossing a monkey bridge inside Hang Én. VNS Photos Quang Huy
Expansive: Nguyễn Quang Huy at the gate into Sơn Đòong. VNS Photo Mai Trang

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