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Into the Abyss: Vietnam’s Son Doong Cave

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Located in Quang Binh province in the northern part of Vietnam lies one of the world’s largest caves – so large that it has its own localised weather system. Despite being discovered by a local named Ho-Kanh in 1991, this cave was only recently explored by the British Cave Research Association in 2009.
Text by Julian Rosario. Photos courtesy of Aidan Lyon.

Accessing the caves

Son Doong is located roughly in the centre of Vietnam along the border with Laos, situated within the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, itself a UNESCO site. A trip to see the cave system requires 4-5 days, trekking deep into the remote jungle of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park.

Getting there is no walk in the park and involves 50km of jungle and mountain trekking, traversing strong river currents, and abseiling 80m using ropes and harnesses.

The journey begins at Ban Doong village (pop. 40), where a two-hour (6km) hike takes you to the entrance of Hang En Cave. From here, the entrance to Son Doong Cave requires an 80m descent using ropes and safety lines.

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Son Doong’s Dolines

With millions of years to develop, the slow-dripping water from the Son Doong’s looming ceilings has formed large stalactites and stalagmites; the cave’s most notable stalagmite is the ‘Hand of Dog’, quite possibly the world’s largest at 70m tall.

As you progress along the cave, you will reach the first major doline, named ‘Watch Out for Dinosaurs’. It’s connected to the ‘Rat Run’,  more popularly known as the ‘Green Gours’, a great photo-op spot where water droplets have formed incredible structures over millennia – in this case, a magnificent set of step-like formations.

The second doline, the ‘Garden of Edam’, dwarfs the first, measuring roughly 160m wide and 200m tall. The opening allows plenty of sunlight and rain into the cave system, creating a perfect environment for the growth of a spectacular, vertical jungle.

After traversing through the jungle, you will set up camp at the eerie Passchendaele section. Completely desolate with no greenery, it is nonetheless home to some very impressive stalagmites, and hidden at the back of the cave lies the Lake of Son Doong.

You’ll have to paddle across the lake to reach the next – and final – point: ‘Great Wall of Vietnam’, a large 60m wall of muddy calcite. From here, the journey ends, as you make your way back to the first doline.

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Touring the Caves

The only tour operator licensed to guide visitors through this cave system is Oxalis Adventure Tours, who run both cave expedition and photography tours, led by members of the British Cave Research Association. The cave can only be tackled between February and August; unfortunately, all their 2016 trips are booked out.

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