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Caving in: cable car a threat to longest grotto

Update: November, 09/2014 - 23:07

by Nguyen My Ha

Quang Binh People's Committee has agreed to let the Sun Group build a cable car within Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Viet Nam News Sunday interviews Howard Limbert, a member of the British Royal Cave Society, who has spent the past 25 years studying the lime karsts of the province and played a pivotal part in discovering the world's longest cave, Son Doong.

The committee told a press conference on Tuesday that if UNESCO disapproves of the project, they will not proceed. An e-mail sent to UNESCO information centre on the same day from Viet Nam News has not yet been answered. Limbert, who is heading back to Britain, said he will follow the matter closely.

Inner Sanctum: How did you feel when you first heard the news that a cable-car system would link various caves within the park and actually end up at the door of the world's biggest cave?

It was disappointing. I hoped Quang Binh felt more strongly about conservation.

Inner Sanctum: What are your biggest concerns if the project does go ahead?

Obviously, the key concern is losing world heritage status and lowering Viet Nam's reputation. The damage to fauna and flora inside and outside the cave would be very high. Inside, the damage would be irreversible.

Inner Santunm: A provincial representative recently told the National Assembly that while the cost of opening up Son Doong would be beyond the reach of most Vietnamese, he favoured the installation of a cable car as a safe way to transfer tourists into the hills. What do you think?

About 10 per cent of Son Doong tourists are Vietnamese so they do not agree with him. Viet Nam had the highest percentage of visitors to Son Doong apart from the United States. All Vietnamese tourist who have gone on the tour support conservation.

I know many of them are involved taking up petitions to protest about the cable car on various media sites, including Facebook. No bookings have been taken at all yet for 2015, so all spaces are available at the moment.

Inner Sanctum: As a person who has spent more than 20 years exploring karst caves in the area, what are your warnings, if any?

I think this is a high risk option because of the storms Quang Binh receives and the flooding likely to occur.

Geologists have stated that the dolines* are very fragile and any construction could be dangerous. My main concern is that cable cars would takes away much of the adventure. If we have a cable car to Son Doong where do we stop? A cable car up Mount Everest?

Inner Sanctum: On a personal level, are you for or against this project?

I understand that the people of Quang Binh need investment. The idea of a cable car is for short term gain and I believe that this is the wrong way to go about long term development of the park. If the park loses World Heritage status, the whole Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park will be in grave danger.

I have worked hard to try and develop tourism in Quang Binh and I believe it is going well. The number of tourists is increasing rapidly and next year there will be large numbers. The Son Doong tour is one of the best adventures in the world. It could all change - very sad.

Inner Sanctum: What's your message to preserve the current status of Son Doong?

Viet Nam is fortunate to have such a unique wonder of nature. The World Heritage status for the park is a great honour. But no other natural World Heritage site on the planet has a cable-car system.

Son Doong as it is now, is the best advertisement for Quang Binh. The positive publicity for the province and Viet Nam will ensure tourism increases in central Viet Nam, both Vietnamese and especially foreign.

I expect Quang Binh to become one of the top three sites visited by foreign tourists next year. Son Doong is a new wonder of the world and being very fragile, conservation is vital. Conservation of the forest around Son Doong is crucial for wildlife and the caves.

I have spent 25 years trying to help the people of Quang Binh and I will continue. I will respect the decision of the people of Viet Nam, whom I trust to do the correct thing.

Inner Sanctum: In your capacity as a world's expert on the cave, would you write a petition to the Prime Minister asking him to reconsider the cable car?

I have a presentation about the caves to the Prime Minister in 2012. If I had the chance I would love to take him down Son Doong where he would develop a greater understanding of how precious the cave and the surrounding jungles really are. He would realise jut how unique and valuable Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is.

Inner Sanctum: Have you heard from any people who have been inside the cave? What do they say about the cable-car project?

I have heard from many people who have been down the cave. They are all shocked at the news. Many of the Vietnamese who visited Son Doong are involved in petitions using various media outlets. The response is staggering and it is very interesting to see the opinions of Vietnamese people.

If any of your readers wish to see unbiased accounts of what we are doing in Son Doong at the moment, the following is a report from a Vietnamese teacher from Ho Chi Minh City. — VNS

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Dream come true

July 21, 2014

I fell in love with Son Doong the first time I read about it in National Geographic in 2011. I couldn't believe such a wonder existed in my own country. After three years of working out (the expedition does require you to be physically fit) and saving up US$3,000, I finally signed up.

The cost is cheap compared to a trip to Mount Everest for example, but it is not the most affordable one-week trip for a Vietnamese teacher like myself. And, oh my gosh, it didn't disappoint me at all. In fact, I loved every single moment in the cave. I was usually the first one to wake up, just to stare at the mesmerising doline or simply listen to the birds and the river.

Oh yes, you read right! There are birds, and rivers, and waterfalls, and lakes inside the cave. Even "rain" – water dripping steadily from the roof. The biosystem in Son Doong is mind blowing. It's like an entire world underground. Think Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne.

The biosystem has been preserved naturally, thanks to the hard work of Oxalis, the only company that has had permission to go inside the cave up to now. Without them, I doubt conditions will remain the same after five years.

The trip was made complete by the amazing team I worked with. Besides the seven other tourists, the Oxalis team, including two British experts, a tour guide, and porters, are professional, and friendly.

Son Doong is totally incredible. I hope this national treasure will be protected for other generations to see. I hope authorities in Quang Binh Province will work hand in hand with Oxalis to preserve it like how it is now. At the end of the day, Son Doong Cave is not just Viet Nam's treasure. It's the new wonder of the world! — VNS

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