The 5 days 4 nights expedition to Son Doong – the largest cave in the world located at Quang Binh province, Vietnam – has become the most fascinating experience that I’ve ever had. It’s not only true for me, but also for my friends who have been spending most of our life in big cities.
Five of us had 5 days isolating ourselves from ordinary convenient routine to experience lots of things first time in life, such as no clean water for drinking and for proper bath (but enjoying the cool streams or ponds), no comfortable bed (but still sleeping like a child in a tiny tent), no wifi for Facebook (but listening to the birds and sharing endless stories with friends & strangers who soon become friends), no electricity and convenient transportation (but trekking or climbing in the dark with just a headlight).
We have had many indescribable moments when we can only understand their value by truly experiencing them.
I still remember the wonderful feeling of every morning, when i waked up, looked at such a green and peaceful view out of my tent, listened to the sound of the nature, felt the wind, watched to fog flying in & out the cave. By that moment, all of my tiredness from the day before had just disappeared and it seemed that I got new powerful energy to keep moving forward.
Day 0: Dong Hoi town, join a briefing section and meet the team
We arrived Dong Hoi airport in the afternoon of the day before the trip and were picked up by a van from airport to Oxalis Home hotel, located next to the calm Son River. After taking a short rest, at 5pm we had a briefing section, meeting the team including 5 other guests, 2 tour guides (1 for English, 1 for Vietnamese), 2 cave experts and a logistic / porter group.
We were asked to separate our luggage into 2 parts: 1 large plastic bag with all clothes and belongings for the whole trip (it would be gathered and transported separately by the porters to the campsite) and our personal stuffs of what we wanted to use during the day (in a small backpack which we carried ourselves). We then had a relaxing evening and cosy dinner with the team.
Day 1: Phong Nha, Doong Village, En Cave
On the first day, we started easily with 45 mins on the van along Road 20 Quyet Thang, of the Ho Chi Minh Highway to reach the departure point.
The challenge began immediately since we had to descent a steep hill through the forest for approximately 1 hour. When reaching the bottom, we continued walking for another half an hour along a small stream to Ban Doong – a minority village of Bru Van Kieu. A simple lunch with bread and fruit was prepared for us in the main hall of the village. We had relaxing break, enjoyed local food while observing the life of this ethnic group.
After lunch, we continued trekking along a river for 2 hours under the harsh sun at noon with little shade. At the entrance of En Cave, the home of thousands of swifts, we received our helmet with a headlight and started heading to the inside. Climbing over big rocks, from top of the hill we saw our first camp site located deep inside En cave and were surprised by its massiveness.
Tiny yellow tents were well arranged by the side of a dark green pond, creating an astonishingly peaceful scene. We all jumped to the cold pond, refreshed ourselves after a hot day trekking. The first dinner at the spectacular campsite was wonderful and impressive.
Day 2: Son Doong Entrance, Hands of Dog, Camp 1
Listening by chance to the song “Alive” of Jennifer Lopez, I’ve realized that its lyric describes what I experienced on day 2 in Son Doong.
‘Time goes slowly now in my life, Fear no more of what I’m not sure. Feeling lucky just to be here tonight, And happy just BE ME and BE ALIVE.”
We departed after a nice breakfast, walking in the dark through En Cave for about 30 minutes to reach the magnificent exit where once again demonstrated its majestic scale. After scrambling down to the river valley and walking through the river for an hour, we started climbing a steep hill with big, sharp and slipper rocks. It was really tough as my legs were shaking sometimes.
At the top of the hill, we had our break for lunch, then a short briefing on how to use safety equipment. This was the most difficult part of the whole adventure since we had to descend 80 m into a dark cave by making a number of short climbs, using ropes and safety lines. Despite wearing a rope around my waist, it was still scary for me who never done anything like it before. I actually slipped, my body was bumped to the rock and my arms were scratched. For a long time, I haven’t experienced such scary feeling.
We continued with a few more climbs and cross two underground rivers inside the cave. The water level was around knee-to-thigh deep.
We stopped there for photo shooting and had unexpectedly amazing pictures. It was a team effort and I was just lucky to be the one who pressed the button.
On our way to the first campsite, we climbed over a number of big drops and bouldered along a rocky path. A grand stalactite named as Hand of Dog under daylight streaming through the cave from the first doline created a magnificent picturesque scenery.
After a tough day, when we reached the camp, I really got a feeling of being A L I V E.
Day 3: Watch out for Dinosaurs, Garden of Edam, Wall of Vietnam
It was the most wonderful day of the expedition when we explored and admired the mystic beauty of Son Doong cave. Departing at 9:00 am, we started with some rocky climbs out of the campsite, which were quite steep in some places. After about 1.5 hours, we reached the first jungle inside the cave at Watch Out for Dinosaurs. It is the most popular spot in Son Doong where the ground is fully covered by layers of green trees and eroded tectonic plates form enormous round gours in the middle, looking like a center stage. Standing there and turning 360 degree to admire the stunning massiveness of Son Doong cave.
Crossing Watch Out for Dinosaurs, we walked down mossy geologic formations which were surprisingly magnificent. And the wonderful scene of doline 1 reflected on the wet surface of rocky formations was magically sparkling. We had an impressive picnic lunch in this incredible backdrop, watching the fog flying in and out the cave, as if the cave was a lively creature breathing fresh air.
The journey was continued with a walk through the cave past gigantic formations and plenty of cave pearls. Following the path, we pasted the green foliage of ferns towards the giant doline 2. Garden of Edam was my favorite place in Son Doong. As its name, you can’t imagine that there is such a speechless fresh forest deep down inside a cave if you don’t see it yourself. Magical lights from a grand half-moon doline bring vibrant energy to this entire large forest.
Crossing the jungle for around 30 minutes, we passed the steep and sometimes slippery path down to the second campsite in Son Doong Cave at around 2 – 3 pm. After a short rest there, we continued heading deeper within the cave, admiring huge stalagmites and an incredible geologic formation with thousands of round stones in different sizes. The cave experts believe that the water drops from the stalagmites have gradually been transformed into such round stones after a few hundreds of years. There are many new creepy crawlies living within this passage including white spiders, fish, woodlouse and shrimp species.
Getting deeper, we were informed that we would explore the Wall of Vietnam by boat, as the water level was high enough, instead of trekking in the muddy passage. The whole team were very happy because it was less tired, and more importantly, we could take a bath there after the most tiring day of the trip. The image of a kayak with dim lights in dark cave created a magical and mystic atmosphere. The Wall of Vietnam is the last spot of the adventure and it is a giant rock with the length of a few hundred meters and the height ranging from 50m to 80m.
The third day completed perfectly. We got back the our campsite, relaxed, rested and enjoyed our cosy dinner.
Day 4 & 5: All the way back
We once again admired the beauty of Son Doong since we returned on the same way we got in. Passing by Garden of Edam, Watch Out for Dinosaurs, Doline 1 & 2, the majestic landscapes were still crushing. We wished to spend more time to enjoy to the fullest the wildness of this cave.
The last dinner in En Cave was so touching when everyone in the trip, including logistic team seating together, enjoying food and drink. Fun stories about Son Doong were shared excitedly. The songs were sung loudly, breaking the tranquility of En cave.
Heavy rain on the return day made the scenery a bit sad. Climbing on the last steep hill was my great effort as my whole body was tired and I hardly lifted my legs. Arrived at Chay Lap Home stay, we were welcome back by champagne, felt so proud of ourselves as we had completed the adventure sound and safe, and we had many new friends.
DIY or book a tour?
Son Doong is the largest cave in the world, located inside Phong Nha national park, Quang Binh, Vietnam. The adventure to the cave is considered highly dangerous, and not for self discover but you have to register through a tour company named Oxalis who is the exclusive organizer for Son Doong Expedition. To protect the natural environment, the company has limited number of tourists to visit Son Doong, max 500 guests per year. Due to weather conditions, the tour is only available from Jan to Sep every year.
What to bring to the trek:
Although there is a porter team who help us to carry our belongings, we suggest to keep it limited in 7 kg, just just to bring what you really need.
- 2 – 3 quick dry, full length pants and 4 – 5 (easy to dry) shirts (at least one long-sleeved shirt) to wear during the trek
- 1 – 2 pair of shorts and t-shirt to wear at campsite (plus your swimsuit for Hang En);
- Trekking boots/shoes which are well drained, waterproof shoes is not recommended
- Sandals/ Flipflop (for the nights)
- 1 medium size towel
- 4-5 pairs of calf length close weave socks (not ankle socks or waterproof socks – no neoprene)
- Dry shampoo & wet wipes (very limited bathing inside the cave!)
- Medium sized rucksack/backpack for daily belongings (must fit the helmet received from the tour which cannot be strapped to the outside (plus your water, camera etc); you will also be responsible for carrying your own tripod in your backpack)
- Water bottle at least 1.5 Liters
- Personal items – underwear, toiletries, medication, camera, tripod, spare batteries
- Sunscreen and hat
- Mosquito repellent
- Small head-torch for use around camp
- Dry bag in the event of rain (for camera, clothing, and personal items within your daypack)
Traveled in Jul 2016
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