Journey to the heart of Son Doong cave (Part 1)

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Diary of a Son Doong explorer.

>> Son Doong as an international tourism brand

When Sơn Đoòng Cave in the central province of Quảng Bình made global headlines, as a son of the province, I naturally wanted to challenge myself and take the tour.

Sơn Đoòng had become a regular topic in our family’s conversation. But a trip to the world’s largest cave was a remote dream since I knew that people who had registered long time ago might only take the trip in mid-2017 at the earliest.

So my heart skipped a beat a few weeks ago, when I got a phone call saying there was a vacant place in a team that was about to take off on March 1. I thought I was very lucky to get this place. On the phone, I said “yes” without any hesitation but a moment later the guy from a tour company cooled me down saying, “Only if you pass the health check.”

I had to fill in a very detailed questionnaire sent to me by Oxalis, the only authorised tour company that could take explorers inside Sơn Đoòng. I am neither an active athlete nor a frequent exerciser, so I had to put in everything physical I had gone through in filling out the experience section in the application form. I put in even my trip to Tibet many years ago to get myself qualified for the trip.

Just ten days before departure, I was accepted. Along came the confirmation letter with a pile of information on how to prepare for the trip. But busy works and New Year fests do not spare me much time except the last day and it was a bit late to get all the recommended gears.

Briefing day

Son Doong: largest cave on Earth @ Youtube

On February 29 (a special day), I boarded the Vietnam Airlines flight and arrived at Đồng Hới Airport 90 minutes later. My nephew Nguyễn Thành Nam, who was also going on the trip with me, introduced me to other group members from Hà Nội: a married couple in their late 50s Nguyễn Mạnh Hùng, Trần Hồng Phương and a guy who resembled a heavy-weight lifter Nguyễn Đức Hùng. Two guys from Hồ Chí Minh City arrived earlier. One was Vũ An, a graduate from Hà Nội University of Technology, two years my senior, and the other, Lê Hưng, worked in the oil and gas industry. As we waited for the others to arrive, everyone voted for Big Brother (that was how we called the husband) to lead the tour.

The briefing started at 6:30pm and we met Adam D Spillane, the chief tour guide from the company and Thái Bình, his assistant. We also met the last three team members, two girls from HCM named Lê Thanh Huyền, Đoàn An, and Nguyễn Mai Trang from Huế.  We mingled a bit just to find out that the girls had travelled more than me.

Coming from Sheffield in the UK, Spillane is in his 40s. He seldom spoke during the trip. Later we found out he was a structural engineer building from ships to oil rigs. He had been caving for thirty years and his love for caves had led him to Phong Nha for 18 months. “I found out life has many more things other than work” — he told me — “and live rich means more than surrounding you with expensive things!”

 Then I realised how challenging our trip was and became quite excited but nervous. We had to pass a 50-kilometre (km) forest, springs and rocky mountains on foot strictly on the pathway the guides directed. There were 80-metre (m) cliffs and an abyss to climb, and an underground river to swim across.

The normal trip takes five days and four nights. Our trip was one day shorter. That means we had to cover a two-day distance on day one. We had to cross 50 streams and keep our shoes and soaked clothes on all day as there was no time to change. We would spend most of the time in the eternal darkness of the cave and have absolutely no electricity or mobile signals during the trip. The satellite phone and walkie-talkie were only for emergencies. Even worse, we would have no water for cleaning, except for brushing our teeth.

We really felt as if we were leaving civilisation behind.

After a short dinner, our guide handed out to each of us a helmet, a 1.5-litre bottle of drinking water and a pair of military boots. The boots were not as comfortable as ours but we all needed two pairs for wet and dry walking. We divided our belongings into three parts. The first part went in our backpack including daily medication, cameras, a water bottle and a towel. The second bag contained all clothing for other days and was to be carried by 25 porters provided by Oxalis. All other unnecessary things were to be left behind at the company HQ and collected after the trip. Everyone went to sleep early, saving energy for the inspiring days ahead.

But it seemed no one had slept soundly the night before. The fact is everyone sat up anxious and ready at 6.30 sharp the next morning. After a quick breakfast, we travelled to the 35th kilometre of Road 26. The drop point was merely a tiny station with a roof. From there the hardship began.

We had the first break after 4kms of walking through a forest. It was mainly going down. Everyone was excited. After crossing several springs, we arrived at Đoòng Village, which the cave was named after. Some porters had arrived earlier and had gathered in a communal house sharing some ’happy water’ (that is what they called local wine made from maize or cassava).

Finding the gate

Wandering around the cave @ Explore Son Doong Cave

Leaving Đoòng Village we continued to Én (Swift) Cave. The road was less up and down as we moved on but thing got wet quickly. We had to cross a spring named Rào Mạ (Mother River) 47 times as Vũ An seriously announced later. I doubted this figure but quickly lost count after twenty.

At around 11am, after a 7km journey, we saw the giant entrance of Én Cave from afar. But it took some time to get closer and finally we entered the cave through a smaller gate.

We then arrived at a wonderful “beach”. The “beach” was sandy by a dark lake with a great view to the cave entrance. Above it was a 140m high dome. It was great to have lunch in such a luxury banquet ball room. We did not have much time to contemplate the scenery. After an hour, we were back on our feet again.

All the morning’s tiredness was nothing compared to the next session. We had to climb up a rocky uphill path to reach the entrance of Sơn Đoòng Cave, which was really tiring. Only when I thought of stopping, did I realise that the destination was only a few feet away. It was also the entrance of Son Đoòng Cave.

Safety equipment and overhead lights were put on. Now we had to relay down 40m with a rope to the eternal darkness below. There was no other way easier than that! I had a feeling of fear, excitement and pride while sliding down the rope to the cave floor. But above all, I felt safe.

To be continued…

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