Since Son Doong, the world’s biggest cave, opened to visitors in 2013, tourism has soared, but locals around Phong Nha are keen to protect the area and promote community homestays and tours.
Uy Jang Jong doesn’t look much like a caveman. Instead of a stocky, hairy figure in animal skins, he is slim and sharply coiffed, in hi-tech sportswear. But this smiley 27-year-old is one of the luminaries of Vietnamese, and therefore world, caving.
“I discovered that cave,” Uy says casually, indicating a photograph in a cafe in Phong Nha town. “Wow,” we say. “Is it named after you?” “Nah,” comes the reply. “The first one I found is called Uy cave, but I’ve discovered more since.”
Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park in central Vietnam has long been popular with cavers but made news in 2013 when the world’s biggest cave, Son Doong, was opened to (limited) visitors. At 9km (5.5 miles) long, 200 metres (650 feet) high and 150 metres wide, the cave is a mass of gobsmacking statistics: it’s big enough to swallow a street of tower blocks; a jumbo jet could land in it; it has beaches, a river, jungle, even clouds. (Sunlight gets in through spots where the roof collapsed thousands of years ago.)
Sounds amazing, but it isn’t really why we’re here.
Like most visitors to Phong Nha, my daughter Laura, 21, and I couldn’t do Son Doong, even if we wanted to: for one thing, it’s a gnarly five-night wild camping trek over pathless terrain, open only to those who can prove they’re scarily fit and won’t freak out if lowered by rope into pitch-black yawning chasms. For another, visits are limited to 500 people a year, and sell out faster than Beyoncé tickets. (For 2018 dates, see oxalis.com.vn.) Locally based, British-run operator Oxalis this year got permission to lead a two-day expedition to two other recently discovered caves in the same area: Hang Va and Hang Nuoc Nut.
Like most visitors, we’ve come for all the other things the national park offers: high limestone peaks, waterfalls, deep river gorges, virgin forest – and at least 400 more caves. (The number keeps rising: it’s said 57 have been found this year.)
In an area where tourism is still finding its feet, arrivals are also rising: visitor numbers for 2015 were around 3 million, double that of the previous year, and the growth has brought prosperity, as well as electricity and better roads. In 2008, there were four hotels in Phong Nha town; today there are more than 100 – mostly small, hostel-type affairs, or homestays.
And that’s how the Jungle Boss wants it to stay. He is Le Luu Dzung, another towering figure in Phong Nha, though he’s small and slight. Passionate about this slice of wild Vietnam, he acquired his nickname when working as a national park ranger, but he now runs a three-room homestay on the edge of town. It’s the sort of place where you can play with the baby, join in family dinner, or borrow a bike to ride into town for a US$1 bowl of noodles.
But Dzung fears that as the park’s star rises (it is already Vietnam’s third-most popular UNESCO site), it could all go horribly Halong – as in the bay in north Vietnam, where high-rise hotels and casinos crowd the shore opposite the famous archipelago. To try to keep things sustainable, he runs the Phong Nha homestay community and, whenever he hears of a local being offered big bucks for their land by a developer, he offers to help them set up their own homestay instead, so that income stays local.
A scheme to set up an 11km cable car capable of whisking 1000 visitors an hour up to Son Doong was initially supported by the government but, after a flood of local and international protest, is on hold – for now.
Laura and I have our own gnarly adventure arranged for a few days’ time, but our first cave experiences are very different. The nearest one to town, Phong Nha cave, is reached by tourist boats that putter along the Son River to where it disappears into a mountain. Cutting the engines and removing the roof covering, the boat woman propels us inside with her single oar as we gaze at hundreds of spot-lit stalactites and stalagmites.
Our next cave was first explored in 2005 by the British Caving Association, and was thought to be the park’s biggest (at 31km, it is still the longest). It is now run by one of the conglomerates Dzung worries about, the owner of a luxury beach resort. Souvenir stalls line a coach park where golf buggies wait to run the mostly Vietnamese visitors the 1km to the cave entrance. Large group holidays seem to be the thing here: a smiling woman called Anh, pitying our little twosome, invites Laura and I to join her party of 70 colleagues from a Saigon fertiliser company. We tag along for a while but, oops, somehow get separated.
It probably takes a lot to impress a speleologist, but the ones who surveyed this space immediately called it Paradise cave. As we descend (on wooden steps, not ropes) into caverns 100 metres high and often half as wide again, we struggle to take it all in: rock formations resemble meringues, dinosaur scales, velvet curtains, moss, broccoli, coral, bones, lace, icicles, mushrooms … Ripples of gold on high white expanses put me in mind of baroque cathedrals. But where they took only decades to build, this lot was formed over millions of years. We’re in the bowels of the Earth and it feels like it: the linked chambers could be the innards of something organic.
At least we’d got here under our own steam, sort of. As part of his sustainability effort, Dzung arranges for local rice farmers to earn extra income (and be less tempted by poaching or illegal logging) from ferrying tourists around on their motorbikes. Hieu and Luan, both in their 30s, appear at the homestay with motorbikes and spare helmets. Suppressing thoughts about insurance, liability and what I’ll tell my husband if Laura’s in an accident, we climb on and are off into the jagged green hills.
After the cave, Hieu and Luan take us to a place that, aiming at the backpacker market, calls itself The Pub with Cold Beer. Though the beer is cold, it’s not a pub, but a farmhouse, and the food on offer is chicken – as we’ve never had it. Out the back is a large shed from which the young owner extracts a bird. Within minutes he has neatly slit its throat, plucked it and gutted it. It’s all accomplished swiftly, without seeming distress or violence, and I feel this is probably a kinder way of consuming chicken than I’ve experienced before. Barbecued with chilli and lime and served with rice and a fantastic peanut relish, it’s chewier than Western chicken but makes a fine lunch for four.
Next day, it’s time for less-trodden caves with an expedition to the Abandoned Valley, a trail Dzung devised last year, though we’re being led today by our old friend Uy. I soon see why we had to sign a disclaimer: the first stretch is an hour’s vertiginous scramble. As I struggle inelegantly – on my bottom over big drops – I spot Uy strolling down, oh so coolly, literally hands in pockets.
A narrow jungle trail over several streams – wet feet are a given – takes our group of 12 Westerners to the “back door” of Hang Toi, or Dark cave. Its main entrance, on the other side of the mountain, is now a backpacker attraction, with mud bath, zipwire and kayaks, but this end is wild and quite challenging. Pulling on helmets, headtorches and gloves, we follow Uy into the darkness. A jagged gash in the hillside, the cave doesn’t have a floor as such, just sheets of sloping rock, black pools and barely a centimetre of level ground. The mouth is soon hidden from view and I’m thankful for the helmet: my scalp would otherwise be cut to ribbons. It takes almost an hour to clamber and wade the half-mile to the back of the chamber.
Once we’re all there, Uy gets us to switch our headtorches off. Whoa! The darkness is shocking and made blacker by the thought that daylight is so far away.
That evening we meet another Ho, Ho Khanh, the man who first came upon Son Doong cave, almost 25 years ago, and Howard Limbert, the former biochemist from Bradford who, in 2009, asked him to try to find the spot where he’d sheltered from a thunderstorm and heard wind and rushing water deep in the rock. As I snap his picture, Ho Khanh wryly comments that if he had a dollar for each time that’s been done, he’d be rich. As it is, he makes money from his own homestay, in a peaceful riverside spot.
The park recovered from bombs and herbicides, but now that news of its wonders is out, it seems all that stands between Phong Nha and potentially more lasting destruction is this handful of doughty cavemen. They deserve our support.