Where it Began
2015 ended badly for me.
An important work relationship went sour and nastiness ensued.
I found myself wanting to escape the city and my daily life.
I needed to get out and gain perspective. I needed to change my reference point and see the world through new eyes.
What I really needed was an adventure…
What follows is the story of my trek through the largest cave in the world – including photos, video and the notes I wrote down in my phone over the 5 day journey.
If you need an escape and want to experience something you’ll never forget, and something very few people will ever get to do, than this trip is for you.
How I Got the Caving Bug
In 2013, I traveled to Belize and was fortunate enough to discover and travel through the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave (aka ATM) near San Ignacio.
ATM was one of the most incredible places I have been so far. It’s about an hour drive from the closet town, then a 45 minute trek into the jungle, at which point you jump into a river and swim up stream into the cave’s mouth. Then you climb, swim, walk and crawl deep into the depths of the mountain for a few hours, travelling approx. 4 miles (6.4 kms) inside the mountain round trip.
At the end of the trek you get to look down on the crystallized skeleton of a Mayan teenager who was ritually sacrificed.
The cave is beautiful, quiet and unlike anything I had experienced. I knew then that I would explore another cave – the next adventure had been planted in my mind, but I had no idea what was coming…
Getting Ready for the Adventure
Fast forward to March 2016.
Internationally discovered in 2009, 2016 marked the 3rd year that entry to Hang Son Doong was available to tourists.
I knew that spots would fill up quickly as the cave was getting coverage on Facebook and YouTube. With more and more people becoming interested, and only 500 permits issued per season, the wait list was growing. The same month I heard about it, I signed up and started planning.
The only legal way to enter the cave currently, is by paying the one government approved tour company to take you. Their name is Oxalis Adventure Tours and they took great care of my friends and me before, during and after the adventure. If you have any interest in the cave, head over to their website and get on their waiting list now. The staff is friendly (you’ll likely be dealing with Mo (sounds like “mer”) and they can give you a heads up as to when the next tour will be available.
Before I go any further, I want to point out that when I say “tour” you shouldn’t think this trip is a walk in the park. This is not for the faint of heart nor the unprepared.
The trek takes place over 5 days and 4 nights.
You will be hot, sweaty, dirty, and at points maybe even scared. There is some strapped in climbing and repelling with ropes and some incredibly slippery and steep slopes and passages to navigate. All of which contributes to an exciting adventure.
Although the trip is reasonably safe, there are some dangerous sections, and you only need to be in decent shape to finish it… this is no ordinary tour.
To enter Vietnam you’ll likely need a visa. Canadians can apply here and Americans here. Although the embassy seems to process Visa’s pretty quickly it’s always good to have a buffer. Make sure you give yourself about 4-5 weeks leeway.
Getting to Son Doong
There are several ways you can get to Son Doong, but the easiest we found was to fly from Hong Kong to Da Nang, Vietnam.
We took the opportunity to fly to Hong Kong early and spent 4-5 days there doing a bit of partying and sightseeing and just exploring the city. Lots of great food and tons of places to check out. I will definitely go back, as the city is huge and has something for everyone.
Once in Da Nang, we spent a couple of days exploring the city and enjoying the local clubs, food and beaches. We even took the risk of renting scooters and it was a total blast. The city is busy but easy to get around if you’re not afraid of the traffic. Tons of places to eat, friendly people, and inexpensive compared to Hong Kong.
From Da Nang, with Oxalis’ help, we had a driver pick us up in an SUV and take us 6 hours north to Phong Nha (sounds like Phong Nia).
I fell in love with this little town immediately.
It’s situated in valley that has mountains on both sides and a large river right in the middle. The town is split into two sides: the poorer side on the north side of the river, mostly made up of farmers and fisherman, and the south side that largely serves tourists.
It’s a tiny town in a stunningly beautiful little area.
If you visit, definitely have a coffee by the river and a beer in the evening at the Happy Tiger Hostel and Bar as there are lots of colorful characters from around the world to meet and trade stories with.
Because Oxalis headquarters sits right on the river, we were table to take kayaks out and get fairly close to water buffalo and all sorts of interesting birds – some local kids even swam out to say hi to us – it was a great start to the adventure.
After an overnight stay in Phon Nha, which includes a group dinner and a briefing where you meet your fellow travelers, we packed up our gear and got on an air conditioned bus.
The drive takes about an hour and depending on your guide you might be treated to some stories of the Vietnam War. We traveled along the Ho Chi Min trail, which saw a lot of skirmishes, and our guides shared several tales of locals who lost their lives fighting for their country along our route.
DAMN WAS IT HOT!
At the end of the bus ride we hopped off and left the air conditioned environment only to get hit with 38 degree Celsius heat (100 Fahrenheit) and probably the most intense humidity I have ever experienced.
Welcome to the jungles of Vietnam!
What came next was a hike down the side of the mountain and through the jungle.
Along the way you’ll cross some streams and dried river beds – if you’ve seen the 1980’s movie Predator – the jungle pretty much looks just like it did when Arnie was roaming around that classic sci-fi.
Being in the jungle is a great experience, but the most memorable part of the journey at this stage was our stop at a little village along the way.
The tiny village is made up of one of Vietnam’s last remaining aboriginal tribes.
About 25 families settled the area soon after the Vietnam War had ended and today there are only 8 families left.
The conditions are harsh with no running water or air conditioning and small patches of farmland that do not look like they very easily produce crops.
Our tour company Oxalis helps this group of people as best they can by providing supplies and by building a school and library.
Teachers hike in for 11 days at a time and teach the 5 students for 10-12 hours per day in intensive stretches, then head back to town for a break.
It’s not an easy place to get to but the system seems to work.
After we left the village, it took us another 2-3 hours (total 4 hour trip from the road) to reach the first cave where we would stay for the night.
Hang En Cave: Jaw Droppingly Massive!
The first stop of the tour is Hang En Cave.
Locals have known about Hang En for decades.
It’s relatively easy to get to and used to be frequented by hunters and other locals on their excursions into what is now a national park.
Inside the cave it’s cool (but not cold) and in the evenings and morning you can hear thousands of tiny birds who nest in the roof of the cave, 140 meters above.
It often has a small lake (as it did during our visit) which is made up of water from the river and water left over from the previous wet season when a large section of the cave floods with up to 40 meters of water.
A few of us took the opportunity to have a swim 🙂
This is truly an amazing spot, and the first time on the trip I felt completely mentally disconnected from the outside world.
It was almost as if we had entered another world and I was 100% present in the moment.
Those of you who meditate or do yoga will know what I mean.
Our Fearless Guides
At this point I should introduce you to another aspect of the tour: our guides and the porter team.
When you head to Son Doong with Oxalis, not only are you accompanied by 2-3 professional guides, you also bring along a 25 person porter team including 2 cooks.
And let me tell you, these guys know their stuff! Tough as nails, friendly, and strong as mountain goats, our porter team took extremely good care of us.
We ate like kings, always had fresh hot coffee in the mornings and generally had help with anything and everything that cropped up during the trip.
On our excursion we were particularly lucky as we had Adam Spillaine – the first man to fully explore Son Doong, Ruth (from the U.K) and Binh, a university educated local guide who was trained by the British Caving Society.
All three of them told us stories, helped us at each step of the way and were a blast to talk to and hang out with.
Having the three of them guide us was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
Back to the cave….
After a 1 night stay in Hang En, we got up at about 6 AM (seems you naturally wake up this time in the cave) and after a hearty breakfast, we set off for Son Doong.
Day 2: Heading to Son Doong Cave
The cool thing about the start of Day 2 is that you get to explore more of Han Eng.
The cave is absolutely massive and on the morning of day 2, we climbed the back wall (easy hike) and through a tunnel which took us through a patch of pitch black darkness to the other side.
Here’s a photo of what you see after you make your way to a giant rockfall in the middle of the cave:
If you look closely at the daytime photo you can see a ledge on the right hand side, at the end of the cave leading outside.
That ledge is about 40 meters high and from what we were told it’s the height that the water rises up to during the wet season.
Basically the entire area floods and the caves fill with an unimaginable amount of water.
To my knowledge no one has ever been there to take pictures of the area during that time due to the extreme danger.
On our way out of the cave we stopped to skip some rocks, play with a baby tree frog and have a snack before continuing on back into the jungle.
Back Into the Jungle
From here we walked at a leisurely pace down a dirt path cut into the side of the hill by our guides and then crisscrossed the river, wading waist deep in the stream (which was the perfect temperature).
It’s here that I started to feel just how remote we were – cut off from civilization by caves and jungle – totally remote and totally all on our own.
It felt awesome.
After stopping for a lunch time feast and strapping into harnesses, everyone started to get a bit excited – you could feel the energy in the air because our guides told us we were about to enter…..the biggest cave in the world!
SON DOONG CAVE
It’s easy to see why Son Doong stayed hidden for so long.
It’s extremely remote and the jungle and rocks and canyon like area that the entrance sits in completely camouflages the opening from view.
You have to climb down a steep and slippery jungle covered slope to get the opening and even once there, plenty of huge rock formations cover the entrance.
But when you finally see it… let me tell you, it’s breath taking.
Entrance to Son Doong
The first thing you notice is the moisture.
On our trip there was literally a cloud pouring out of the entrance – like a vast stream of smoke.
It was so thick it looked like dust but we quickly realized it was millions of tiny drops of water.
The cave is so large it has its own atmosphere and you immediately begin to sense how different this is from anything else you’ve ever experienced.
In we go!
I have to admit that the descent scared the crap out of me.
I have the typical fear of heights that most people have and I don’t like not feeling in control (can you relate?). I got a good dose of both of those emotions as I was half lowered / and half climbed down the first 80 meters from the mouth to the cave floor below.
It actually didn’t feel like 80 meters (anyone know the exact distance?) but it was scary and thrilling none the less.
This part takes a little while as everyone has to go slow – a fall would be deadly – and we had 10 people plus 3 guides and some of our porters helping out.
I would soon find out that going slow through the cave is the best bet and also the way you’ll take in most of the sites – if you rush you can literally die in certain parts not to mention that you’ll miss all of the neat things you see day by day.
The Hand of Dog
The Hand of Dog is a tough spot to capture on camera because you are basically shooting in pitch black conditions.
When you’re in the cave though, the view is something else to behold.
After traveling for some time through Son Doon we crossed the fast moving river that snakes through the cave. At this particular point, just off to our right the river appeared to go over the edge, into an abyss – hence the guide rope.
After a steep ascent immediately beyond the river, you get your first glimpse of the light from camp 1 (camp 1 in Son Doon but our 2nd camp of the trip) and you can see the outline of the Hand of Dog.
Our guide Adam had us wait while he trecked over to the Hand and climbed it so we could take photos.
It was amazing how small he looked and how far away he was once he got over there.
Again, it was hard to capture using an iPhone with no extra lighting, but hopefully the photos give you a sense of what it looked like.
Camp 1 inside Son Doon is simply awe inspiring.
The area gets a lot of natural light from the 1st do-line (an area of the cave where the roof has collapsed) and it is often filled with a mist that gives the area a supernatural glow.
It’s here that you get your first sense of how big the cave is which in my opinion is impossible to show now matter how good your camera is – you simply cannot comprehend it without being there in person.
Camp 1 has lots of sand so it’s easy to dry your feet off and we had a much needed feast and settled in for the rest of the day / evening.
At night we sat around a campfire here and chatted with the porters who could speak English. Some people played card games and others just huddled around the fire telling stories.
For me this was one of the moments I came here for.
I love sitting around a fire, especially while camping, and to do so inside the biggest cave in the world was an experience I find hard to put into words.
Watch Out for Dinosaurs
The next day we woke up early.
I found myself waking up at around 6 AM every day of this trip, probably due to the jetlag but also in part due to going to bed around 7 or 8 PM.
The trip is tiring and with the light dying out so early my natural tendency was to hit the hay nice and early.
Watch Out For Dinosaurs was easily my favorite part of the entire journey.
You start off by walking down to the lower levels of the cave where huge, house sized boulders are piled up.
You go under and around the boulders and then come out on the other side about 500 to 700 meters from camp where a steep, slippery, and somewhat dangerous scramble awaits.
We scrambled up in pairs of 2 + a guide to minimize the chance of a rock slide taking out the whole group.
And when we got to the top….my mind was absolutely blown.
It’s here that you see the deepest / tallest column in the cave – I believe it’s around 400 or 420 meters at its highest point.
This area is absolutely stunning.
I would easily go back just to spend more time here and soak it all in again.
Way above you is the jungle tree line, and down below, you look down into darkness in what appears to be a never ending abyss.
There was a slight breeze and incredibly green, untouched vegetation.
It was like an oasis.
I climbed the natural moss covered spire a bit warily and posed for some photos.
The drop behind me was about 80 meters nearly straight down to the bottom of the cave.
We spent about an hour there posing for photos, taking it all in and enjoying this absolutely unique space.
Backside of Watch Out For Dinosaurs
Little did I know we were in for another treat almost immediately.
Once you leave the top of WOFD, you treck down to the bottom and enter the next part of the cave, but as you look back you see the image that hundreds of people have not photographed and made famous.
The backside of WOFD is truly stunning.
We stopped for lunch here and took the view in over an hour or so.
I took some time to sit alone, in the dark to meditate.
I’ve found that when I travel to a new place that I find inspiring, if I sit and meditate and burn the image of the area into my mind, I can then revisit that place during stressful times when I’m back in the city. It has a calming effect and insures I never forget the awesomeness of the experience.
The Garden of Edam
Next up is the Garden of Edam which is the 2nd do-line.
In a lot of the photos you see this area looks flat but it’s actually fairly steep and a bit of a gnarly hike to get through the dense jungle.
We were told there was another cave that opened up there but it was blocked with rope to prevent people from entering.
The government ordered it closed as it has tons of stalagmites and stalagtites that would be damaged by regular traffic as they are so close together.
Apparently that part of the cave has yet to be fully explored.
The Great Wall of Vietnam & The Flying Beast
After the GofE you enter the final section of the cave.
You can see from my photos just how massive it is. I had to zoom in on my iPhone to catch a photo of one of the tents – again it’s really hard to capture the scale on a camera but the pictures should give you some sense of just how big this place is.
We stopped there for the night and had the usual feast. I have to mention again that our porter team fed us so well – I was blown away by how much tasty food they made for us every day!
After setting up camp and having some food we trecked on into the far reaches of Son Doon.
I think it took an hour for us to get to the final reaches of the cave where a giant lake was awaiting us.
The lake looks more like a river as it winds and bends through the cave and stretches far beyond the reach of our lights.
At this point we got into small boats in groups of 2 and began paddling out to find the Great Wall of Vietnam.
The Great Wall is an 80+ meter high massively wide rock face that was thought to be the end of the cave for some time after it was discovered.
Later on explorers finally made the ascent and discovered the way out.
It’s incredibly steep and dangerous to climb the wall so we had to be content staring up at it, a lone rope hanging down in the darkness.
We were also told that once you exit the cave from this area, you are faced with being miles from a normal trail and have to deal with some of the most dangerous and dense jungle you can imagine. Poisonous snakes, jungle cats, and other nasties await and more than one person has been seriously injured trying to make it back along this route.
So we took in the view and did our best to keep our little boats upright (they are tippy) as we paddled back to shore.
The Flying Beast
That night, back at camp 2, I ended up waking up at 2 AM with a sudden need to hit the bathroom.
As I slowly woke up, I heard what sounded like a giant Teradactyl – or flying dinosaur overhead.
Whatever this creature was, it literally roared as it flew overhead.
My sleepy brain suddenly came wide awake as I braced to get eaten by some long lost creature of the past.
The thing roared again and then flew off.
The next morning I’d find out that another traveler had heard it and our guide said that they were aware of the “beast”.
Apparently no one has ever seen it but it managed to eat several chickens the guide brought along on one of their original expeditions through the cave.
It may sound ridiculous but there you have it: There Be Monsters Here!
We Made It!
And So Ends My Trip Through The Biggest Cave in The World
Actually there is more…but I’m going to tell you about it in another article where I’ll recount a piece of our exit from the cave and the lessons I learned on this amazing adventure.
For more Son Doong fun, checkout Son Doong 360, an interactive story of trecking through the world’s biggest cave.
And if you’d like to see the cave for yourself, visit Oxalis and get on the waitlist.
It’s an experience you’ll never forget.
***If you have an Adventure story you think is Civilian Strong – please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, we’d love to share it***