Hiding in the jungles of central Vietnam, some of the world’s most spectacular caves are finally coming into view.
I have a newfound belief that caves are nature’s most underrated attractions. I’ve traveled far and wide for a good reef, woken at 3 a.m. to drag myself up a mountain for the sunrise, and shivered across glaciers. But I’ve never really considered going to lightless, muddy places to see various versions of rocks, for reasons I think are self-evident. However, I’d like to announce that my predilections have changed. I’ve joined the dark side.
What won me over was a recent trip to central Vietnam near Phong Nha–Ke Bang National Park, where in 2009 a group of British cavers became the first expedition to enter Son Doong, now considered the world’s largest cave. Soon after, Chau A Nguyen—a native of the park’s base town, Phong Nha—founded a tour company called Oxalis that not only specializes in caving, but also serves as the region’s guardian, employing and educating locals on responsible environmental practices (there’s a waiting list of 200 who want to work as guides, chefs, and porters) and striving to instill similar ethics with the local government and get jungle-protection laws put in place. It seems to be working; Oxalis is the only outfitter allowed to operate in certain parts of the region, resulting in a fantastic bunch of tours ranging from day trips to a five-day Son Doong adventure. Because the latter is in such high demand, I opted instead for Oxalis’ Tu Lan Expedition, a four-day trip covering 35 kilometers of jungle trekking and six different caves and guided in part by Deb Limbert, one of the discoverers of Son Doong.
Our trek began through dry open fields, poking fun at the lazy water buffalo bobbing in the Rao Nan River, whose many branches have carved through the limestone mountains over hundreds of millions of years, forming the Tu Lan cave system we were out to explore. But for better or worse, part of the thrill of being in the wild is that—to recall the words of Joan Didion—it changes in the instant. As soon as we reached our first hill, the jungle was in full force. Our flat stroll suddenly became a steep climb, requiring us to pull ourselves up and over rocks while trying to avoid the lime-green leaves that we were warned would leave us itching for five days. But just when I could nearly hear my quadriceps screaming in agony, the trees parted, and Secret Cave appeared. Short and compact with spectacular stalagmites, it would have been a highlight attraction anywhere else, but here it was just a shortcut to where we needed to go. Our guide—an enthusiastic young man from Phong Nha who calls himself Jungleman Ken—promised that better things awaited at our campsite, which he repeatedly declared was “The most beautiful campsite in the world!”
About an hour later, after bounding down the side of Mango Mountain over rocks and roots, we arrived just as it began to rain. Our porters had already built a small village of tarps complete with a dining area and bamboo-walled compost toilets, set on a riverbed in front of a towering wall of white limestone. On one side gaped a massive black mouth with a waterfall spilling out of it into a two-tiered lagoon. Okay Jungleman, you earned my trust.
One member of our group was a British caver named Martin Holroyd, a longtime friend of Deb’s who has been coming to the region since 1997 to find and survey new caves. It was Martin, in fact, who discovered this cave, Hang Ken, in 2010. While preparing a lecture about Son Doong, he came across a posting in a Vietnamese forum about a new entrance spotted in the jungle and came out to take a look, finding what he describes as an explorer’s dream. As we swam through the cave’s river, the enormous cavern quickly swallowed the outside light, and we were left playing I Spy with our headlamps, illuminating swaths of the water-sculpted walls each entirely different than the last. The most impressive formation was hidden in the back: a six-story-tall column, its surface like Braille with the drops of minerals that formed it one by one. With Martin jogging my memory, I remembered having seen it before in a National Geographic photo. But from the cliff where the photographer had stood to take his shot, it was clear that no device could ever capture what I was seeing.
Maybe it was the fantastic sleep I’d had in my hammock, or maybe it was because I’d already fallen in love with caves on that cliff top in Hang Ken, but I woke up blissfully clear-minded the next morning ready for day two of what I now refer to as adult summer-camp in paradise. At Tu Lan cave, we slipped into harnesses and absailed down a 15-meter rock wall into its river, then paddled in rafts to a waterfall deep in the middle, shutting off our headlamps to listen to its rush in complete blackness. We paddled back out through a Hollywood scene of the dawn of the earth, the sunlight illuminating stalactite silhouettes against the misty jungle behind. After a lunch of DIY fresh spring rolls—foraged jungle mushrooms included—we swam through a mountain via Hang Kim to a sparkling lake on the other side, where we floated on our life vests and sat under shoulder-massaging rapids before continuing to Hung Ton, the “Porcupine Cave,” with its dense sculpture gardens of enormous stalagmites.
Jungleman Ken had repeatedly warned us that our third day would be a doozy: a 13-kilometer hike to a campsite with “the best swimming pool” that was in easy reach of “the most beautiful cave,” opinions that by this point I held to be uncontested truths. But rather than counting the kilometers, we made our way from point A to point B quite leisurely, stopping at every river and lake along the way. It turns out those water buffalo had it right. Floating, walking, floating, walking, and soon enough we were diving into the pool’s cool waters and tucking into an incredible barbecue dinner prepared by our porters: pork, beef, chicken, fried tofu, boiled eggs in a fresh tomato sauce; egg drop soup with vegetables; sautéed morning glory and cabbage; and local rice wine.
Between the wine and the day’s endorphins, I was just thinking that I couldn’t be more content when the porters suddenly broke into a series of Vietnamese folk songs. One particularly animated young man was the lead, his expressiveness leaving us totally transfixed until suddenly, as if on queue, they all turned to us. Evidently, it was our turn to perform. Dumbstruck, we tried to figure out what songs our motley crew of an Australian, a German, six Americans, and three Brits had in common, eventually resorting to what you’d probably find on a ’90s cassette tape for kids: “Country Roads,” “Comin’ Round the Mountain,” and the “Hokey Pokey.” (For the record, the latter is a huge hit if you throw in the dance moves too.)