Son Doong Cave, Vietnam: The Largest Cave in the World

Son Doong Cave, Vietnam (photography by Chris Miller)

Son Doong Cave in Vietnam has opened it’s entrance to tourists for the first time, providing an exhilarating off the beaten track experience for those looking for adventure.

(Photography credit: Chris Miller)

In an age of accessible travel, in a world that has been extensively explored, the opportunities for off the beaten track adventures seem far and few between. 

So when newly discovered Son Doong Cave began its first tourist season, I wasn’t surprised to learn that an adventurous friend who shares my passion for travel and photography had already signed up.

Chris Miller has just returned from his adventure in central Vietnam, being only one of 220 tourists who will enter the world’s largest cave this year.  Whilst he admits it’s impossible to capture just how incredible the location is with words and pictures, his talent as a photographer helps convey it’s vastness, beauty and uniqueness.

And he’s kindly offered some of his photographs and thoughts about the experience for me to share with you on my blog.

But first: a little more about Son Doong.

Son Doong Cave, Vietnam (photography by Chris Miller)

(Photography credit: Chris Miller)

The discovery of Son Doong Cave

Once upon a time, a young Vietnamese boy named Ho Khanh was collecting firewood in the jungle, when he came across the entrance to a cave.  Not having ropes or light, he resisted the urge to enter it’s pitch black interior and returned home.  Tales of his discovery spread throughout his village. But despite many attempts to return, the location of the cave remained a mystery, concealed by the challenging dense jungle.

Although he had just stumbled across the entrance to what is now known to be the largest cave in the world, Ho Khanh would not see it again for eighteen years.

In 2009 he re-discovered the long-lost entrance and was finally able to confirm his childhood story.  Now a local farmer, Khanh joined an expedition with the British Cave Research Association, leading them through the jungle to climb into the entrance he first laid eyes on nearly twenty years ago.

 

About Son Doong Cave

“Son Doong” means “mountain river cave” and was created 2-5 million years ago by river water eroding limestone beneath a mountain.  It is located in the remote jungle of Phong Nha National Park in central Vietnam, 15km or so from the border of Laos.  It is part of a network of 150 or so caves, many still not surveyed, in the Annamite Mountains.   It is more than 5km long and in some parts reaches 200m high with a width of 150m.

It is the largest cave in the world.

Son Doong Cave, Vietnam (photography by Chris Miller)

(The far side of doline two, looking down into camp. The shapes you can see down on the sand along the base of the cave’s left wall are the group’s tents.  Photography credit: Chris Miller)

Within the cave are large jungles, a river and enough space to hold forty skyscrapers!  Two collapsed roof sections (dolines) provide pockets of natural light into an otherwise pitch-black area.  The cave is home to 30 metre high trees, giant stalagmites reaching as high as 80 metres, large rhinestone pools, giant cave pearls and fossils dating back 300 millions years.

Son Doong Cave, Vietnam (photography by Chris Miller)

 (One of the large stalagmites in the cave.  Photography credit: Chris Miller)

After a number of exploration expeditions in 2009/2010, the local Government recently opened up the cave to a series of “pilot” tours, permitting Oxalis Adventure Tours to take just 220 visitors through the cave in 2014.

Chris Miller was one of them.  And in his own words “I’ve been to a fair few places over the years and I have to say this ranks up there with the best of them.”

 

Tours to Son Doong Cave

Currently, Oxalis Adventure Travels is the only operator with permission to run tours to Son Doong Cave.

Offering what they describe as a mini expedition, each Oxalis tour is limited to eight tourists and costs USD3,000 per person.  Joined by twenty additional support staff including porters, cooks, caving experts and guides, the eight-day adventure includes jungle trekking, caving, river crossing, underground camping and meeting the Bru VanKieu minority people of Doong Village.

Chris describes getting to the cave as an adventure in itself, with nearly two days trekking each way.  “There was heat to deal with, hills to climb, jungle to tackle, rivers to cross, leaches and horseflies to avoid”.

Son Doong Cave, Vietnam (photography by Chris Miller)

(Trekking through the jungle towards the cave.  Photography credit: Chris Miller)

But with challenge comes rewards and arriving at the cave’s entrance signifies the beginning of an adventure very few people have had the opportunity to enjoy.

In Chris’s words “once we finally made it inside Son Doong we often just had our jaws on the floor or suspected it was a trick and we were actually on an elaborate movie set instead of a real place”.

As I looked through Chris’s photographs, I constantly found what I thought was my favourite, until I looked at the next one.  Not unlike, according the Chris, the experience of walking through the cave itself, where one seemingly unsurpassable highlight was matched or beaten around the next corner.

Son Doong Cave, Vietnam (photography by Chris Miller)

(Photography credit: Chris Miller)

Photographing Son Doong Cave

As a keen photographer, I was interested in the logistical challenges a location such as this presents.  Chris reflected on the photography experience as challenging but fun.

“There was usually very low or even no light, lots of mist and condensation, mud dirt and sand, harsh extremes between shadows, headlamps and sun, difficult and dangerous terrain, rapidly changing light conditions, unwanted movement during long exposures, limited battery power for the trip…and the list goes on.”

Carrying a Canon 5DIII and lenses ranging from 16-35mm, 24-105mm and 70-200mm he told me that at times, the 16-35mm didn’t even feel wide enough to capture the vastness of the great cave.

Including another person or tents in the shot helped somewhat to create  a sense of scale, like this photograph of one of the guides looking towards a small solitary figure standing in the distance on the stalagmite known as “Hand of the Dog”.

Son Doong Cave, Vietnam (photography by Chris Miller)

(Photography credit: Chris Miller) 

Is Son Doong Cave for You?

If you have a thirst for adventure, are reasonably fit, enjoy wandering off the beaten track, are motivated by the opportunity to visit a location very few people have seen or are inspired by the photos Chris has shared with us, then Son Doong Cave may just be for you.  But don’t wait too long – with only 220 permits granted in 2014, tours have filled up fast and it won’t be long before 2105 dates are also booked out.

As word is spreading, so will the popularity of this location.  And this provokes the next  question:

 

What will tourism do to Son Doong Cave?

We live in a world of conflicted values and Son Doong Cave is the latest prize in a struggle between tourism and conservation.  Restricting the number of travellers per year and only permitting access to a travel operator with very strong feelings about conservation and safety feels like a good start.  Oxalis tours are led by two of the very best caving experts from the UK, have equipment that meet European safety standards and employee local porters, cooks and guides.

Son Doong Cave, Vietnam (photography by Chris Miller)

(Navigating the initial entry into the cave,  involving an 80m descent down steep and sometimes slippery calcite formations.  Photography credit: Chris Miller)

But how long will it be before the attraction of more tourism income becomes too tempting and outweighs the importance of conserving such a special discovery.  Time will only tell and we can only hope that a healthy balance between tourism and conservation prevails.

 

I now have a new dream location to add to my wish list – how about you?

Me looking out into doline #1 just admiring the view.

Thanks to Chris  for sharing his experiences and photographs.  You can see his complete Son Doong Cave album here and more of his great photography on Google +.

 

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com

Comments

  1. Sounds impressive to me. A very interesting read – well done for the selection Kellie.

    • Thanks Rob. I confess I hadn’t heard of the cave until Chris told me about his plans to visit there, but after hearing about his experience…well, it certainly sounds bucket list worthy doesn’t it!!

  2. Great photos. Sounds like an awesome adventure! You just added this to my never-ending travel list!

  3. I read about the Son Doong Caves about 9 months ago and I was instantly captivated! This was added to my bucket list instantly! I was hoping to get there while I was here in SE Asia, but the slot filled up so quickly. I am keeping a close eye for 2015. I would love to get there before those tourism dollars just become too much for them to resist and it suffers 🙁 Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that! Brilliant piece and phenomenal photography!

    • Thanks for your comments Amy. I wish I could take credit for the photography, but alas no! You should check out the Oxalis website, I believe you can join a waiting list for the 2015 tours (they aren’t taking booking yet). This is what Chris did for 2014.

    • Hey Amy! We are absolutely committed to keeping Son Doong a very special and protected place and doing out best to convince the powers that be that small-scale adventure tourism is the best approach. Son Doong is so important for this very poor region from an economic stand point but the balance is very important to get right! We continue to try our best and I know everyone including Chris understands our main goal for running this tour.

      By the way, thanks for posting and we’ll let you all know when we have permission for 2015!

      Best,
      Luke Ford
      Biz Director at Oxalis

      • Thanks for your comments Luke. “Small scale adventure tourism” is the best approach – couldn’t agree more! Fingers crossed the decision makers also appreciate that and do their best to get that balance right.

  4. Great post; never heard of it and looks amazing. Great photos, really shows off how huge the cave is.
    Frank (bbqboy)

  5. The cave is really very big, with all it’s beauty its still not seen as a wonder… It’s just adds to the many beauty that lies in Vietnam.

  6. Look great and beautiful cave

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