Monday, October 24 2016


Discovering the wonderland below our feet

Update: September, 18/2016 - 09:00
Preparing on top: Tạ Nam Long practises rope-climbing on the top of Mã Pì Lèng Mountain Pass in Hà Giang Province. Photo courtesy of Tạ Nam Long
Viet Nam News

Across the globe, most people would say that Việt Nam’s greatest scenic wonder is the UNESCO Natural Heritage site of Hạ Long Bay. However, some experts are saying that there are even more beautiful geological creations worth travelling to - the caves in Việt Nam.

Individuals who have travelled through the caves swear by them.

“If you have seen inside [the caves I have explored], you will know that the world beneath us is even more breathtaking than the one we are living in,” says Hà Nội-born Tạ Nam Long, who currently leads the first Vietnamese cave exploration group.

“It is easy to spot which mountain is the tallest because mountains are visible to the eye, but nobody can say for sure how deep the world is under the ground,” says Long. “That in itself is already very exciting to me.”

British cave expert and explorer Howard Limbert, a member of the British Caving Association for 25 years and discoverer of Sơn Đoòng Cave, agrees, saying that the caves are the “best, most amazing things it is possible to do in Việt Nam.”

Limbert has mapped 300km of caves across the country including 10 per cent of the caves in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park.

Limbert is certainly not exaggerating. According to National Geographic, Việt Nam’s Sơn Đoòng Cave currently stands as the largest cave in the world and is estimated to be “between two and five million years old”.

Lonely Planet says that Oxalis Adventure Tours, the official tour operator that guides travellers into Sơn Đoòng, sold out their 2017 tours in only 20 hours.

Frozen in time: To Tạ Nam Long (in the photo), there is something magical about exploring caves. The soft echoes of water and the absolute darkness make him feel like time has stopped. Photo courtesy of Tạ Nam Long

Today, there are various professional groups exploring the hundreds of caves in Việt Nam. One famed cave enthusiast is Tạ Nam Long (Long Icon), 31, who has conquered over 20 large caves across the country.

“My passion for cave exploration began unintentionally around two years ago. A friend of mine from Thanh Hoá Province invited me to explore a cave near his hometown,” Long recalls.

“When I had finished exploring the cave and reached the surface,” Long continues, “I felt such a sensation of satisfaction, pride, and happiness. That is when I realised that I wanted to explore caves for the rest of my life.”

“I returned to Hà Nội, and seeing the lack of discussion about cave exploration in Việt Nam, I created a Facebook page to bring together people who shared my passion,” says Long.

“At the time, there were no official and independent cave exploration groups in Việt Nam. There were only local groups who offered services to assist foreigners during their cave expeditions.”

“My exploration group was one of the first Vietnamese groups at the time. Looking back, we were still amateurs. We were still using handheld flashlights, and other very basic equipment.”

“When our group began to do research online, we started to discover better techniques and equipment for cave exploration. Now I have thousands of dollars’ worth of professional equipment to assist me through my travels.”

“That is when Trần Tân Văn, head of the Việt Nam Institute of Geosciences and Mineral Resources, reached out to me. He has been researching caves in Việt Nam and assisting many foreign and local cave explorers since 1996.”

“He was impressed with our efforts, and encouraged us by supplementing the information we might need during our trips. He provided me with a thick book filled with all the maps, measurements and dimensions of caves in Việt Nam — collected since the beginning of his career.”

Văn asserts, “Currently, there are more than 400 caves that have been discovered in Việt Nam — and we are sure there are more to be found. The deepest one to date is Cống Nước Cave at 602 metres in Lai Châu Province.”

Self worth: “I feel such a sensation of satisfaction and happiness when I finish conquering my goal," Long says. Photo courtesy of Tạ Nam Long

Furthermore, to pursue his passion for cave exploration more seriously, Long even went so far as to quit his studies towards becoming a doctor.

“Initially, my family was not supportive of my decision because cave exploring is extremely dangerous. They kept telling me to stop — until they realised I wouldn’t give it up.”

Their worries were certainly justified. Long’s recent trip to Cống Nước Cave left him hospitalised for several months needing treatment for his spine, arms and legs.

“I fell 40 metres into complete darkness. My helmet was cracked, but thankfully my head was fine. I still retained my knowledge from medical school, so I treated myself as best I could. I lay in the dark for almost a day before the rescue team arrived.”

“I’m currently doing physio therapy. The fall left me with multiple, critical injuries, and I’m incredibly lucky I can still walk.”

Long’s expedition to Cống Nước Cave took six months to prepare for because he needed to order the necessary equipment and map out his path.

Văn says, “We visited Long at the hospital and we are very happy to find he’s recovering fast. I hope he’ll get back on his feet soon so he can continue his journey, and I wish him all the best in the future!”

When asked if he will continue, despite his injuries, Long smiles and replies, “Of course! I am already preparing to go back to Cống Nước Cave again!”

Lê Thanh Lợi, director of the Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng Tourism Centre (under the management board of the Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park) says, “It is thanks to these courageous cave enthusiasts that we can discover such ancient gems. It is also amazing because these caves have boosted the tourism industry in the region — because it never fails to provide an unforgettable experience.”

Indeed, people may now safely enjoy the beauty of these caves thanks to those who have bravely ventured into them before.

Long asserts, “I’ve taken many people on their first time exploring caves, and it’s interesting to see how people react. It is life changing in a way, because the experience stays with you for a very long time.”

He continues, “Additionally, as cave exploring becomes more prominent, it is important to educate visitors to be mindful about these sacred spaces.”

“For example, from the smallest thing like touching the caves with our hands, to manners regarding waste disposal, it’s very important that we do not carry bacteria from the outside world into the cave.

“My hope is to attract more people to try out cave exploration, and to encourage those who are interested by providing the necessary support and information when needed. In my group, I try to capture the beauty of our travels through photographs to allure people to join us,” he continues.

Referring to the 2,000 members of his Facebook group, Long says, “Members of the group vary. There are people of all ages, genders and occupations.”

Hải Nguyễn, a student studying engineering says, “I go exploring every two weeks, and the last time my friends and I went to Quảng Ninh. I have so much respect for what Long does. When I become better and stronger, I must go explore Cống Nước too.”

Kitted out: Tạ Nam Long has thousands of dollars’ worth of professional equipment to assist him through his journey. Photo courtesy of Tạ Nam Long

Mai Anh Vũ, a start-up entrepreneur, says, “Pictures don’t do the caves justice. You have to be there to smell, touch and feel the surroundings. I love it when it is night time, because the moonlight creates these wonderful shadows in the cave.”

Long also agrees that there is something magical about exploring caves.

“It’s beautiful because it feels like a different universe down there. The soft echoes of water and the absolute darkness makes me feel like time has stopped - even if it is just for a very short moment,” he says.

“There are around 50 people in the group who go regularly. The rest, I hope, will slowly make the time to go more often.”

Cave expert Limbert stresses, “I have something to tell the youth in Việt Nam. Turn off the TV and take trips to explore your country… Your country is beautiful, [and] TV and couches can never give you the true feeling of that beauty.”

Long remarks, “Around the world, deep caves like the ones in Việt Nam are extremely rare. I simply hope that people recognise that our country holds something extremely unique for the rest of the world.” VNS

Anyone can go: Tạ Nam Long says, “Members of the group vary. There are people of all ages, genders and occupations.” Photo courtesy of Tạ Nam Long
Rocky display: Tạ Nam Long poses in front of an impressive display of stalactites in a cave in Ngọc Lặc District, Thanh Hóa Province. Photo courtesy of Tạ Nam Long
Underground lake: Tạ Nam Long explores the 300m deep Địa Ngục Cave in Hà Giang Province. Photo courtesy of Tạ Nam Long


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