Story: YILKA


Join us as we enter the Kingdom of Caves, in Vietnam’s Quang Binh province

Linh, our trim and tanned 23-year-old Safety Assistant, had three years of experience guiding tourists through caves. “Each trip is a new experience and every group I accompany feels like a predestined encounter,” said Linh.

 Linh, who hails from Phong Nha, enjoys explaining the names and stories behind every rock formation. His love for Mother Earth keeps getting deeper, mirroring the feelings of many Vietnamese and foreign visitors eager to explore Vietnam’s caves in late spring or early summer – the best time for caving.

Declared a UNESCO Natural Heritage, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is located in Quang Binh province on Vietnam’s North Central Coast, in the narrowest stretch of the country, which is just 50km across from East to West. The park’s been dubbed “The Kingdom of Caves” as it contains three of the four largest caves in the world. To date, the exact number of caves in this area remains unknown, but estimated at more than 1,000. In the last 25 years, approximately 350 caves were discovered, ten percent of which are now open to tourists. According to experts, the caves were formed by underground waterways. Wet caves, which contain underground rivers, were formed two to three million years ago. Following stratigraphic changes, some caves turned up, and became dry caves. These are older than the wet caves, having formed  three to five million years ago. The limestone landscape in Quang Binh is estimated at 400 million years old.

Inside Son Doong Cave

In the past, Deer Cave, a limestone cave in Malaysia’s Gunung Mulu National Park, was considered the largest cave in the world. It was often said: “You can place another cave inside Deer Cave and still have space!”

In 2009, a new champion was discovered! A local woodsman named Ho Khanh discovered the mouth of Son Doong Cave in 1990 but it wasn’t surveyed until 2009, during an expedition undertaken by the British Cave Research Association and the Vietnam National University of Science. At that time Son Doong Cave was confirmed as the largest cave ever discovered by humankind. With a volume of nearly 39 million cubic meters, large enough to house 68 Boeing 777s, Son Doong is only part of a connecting cave system consisting of 150 interconnected caves and a river system at a depth of one hundred meters.

It is a unique world wonder full of natural sculptures. Inside Son Doong Cave, visitors discover a phenomenal primitive ecosystem. It’s not just the size that’s amazing but the beauty of the rocks and scenery: stalactites hundreds of meters high; an evergreen rainforest that resembles the Garden of Eden hidden in dolines; baseball-sized “cave pearls” formed as a result of dripping water and calcium concretion; and rare animal fossils from ancient times. For millions of years, Son Doong Cave has lain like Sleeping Beauty, just waiting to be awakened…

Not far from the mouth of Son Doong Cave lies the exit of Hang En (Swallow Cave). The third-largest cave in the world, Hang En Cave is embraced by the symphony of Rao Thuong Stream and the green Truong Son Mountain Range.

 Hang En Cave was once the home of the Van Kieu people. Traces of the tough tree vines they used to collect birds’ nests may still seen on the rock walls and the cave’s ceiling. From afar, Hang En looks like a miniature beach with colorful tents resting on a sandbar next to an emerald green lake. Even the strongest floodlights can hardly reach the cave’s grand 120 meters-high ceiling.

At night, in the quiet mountains, breaths of cool air fill the vast space. With no phone reception visitors are completely disconnected from their noisy urban lives. Now they can enjoy quality time with their dedicated cave experts and crew.

Va Cave - a natural palace in Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park

The tour’s crew and experts provide detailed insight into the terrain, iron stairs, and use of safety equipment. They also teach visitors to protect the ecosystem and water resources from contaminants. All tour materials, such as the gas stove, table and chairs, tents and tarps, and even the compost toilet are manually carried in and out of the cave at the end of the expedition.

Vietnam also boasts the fourth-largest cave in the world, Pygmy Cave, a sister cave of Son Doong. This cave was only opened to tourists in 2018. Less visitors have reached its interior than have attained the peak of Mount Everest. But while Everest is snowy all year, Pygmy Cave is painted in luscious green. The path to Pygmy Cave will lead you through the Kong Collapse and Tiger Cave systems, interwoven with Truong Son forests, to another old-growth rain forest located underground.

While Son Doong’s final challenge is a sleek 90-meters high calcite wall dubbed the “Great Wall of Vietnam”, the exit from Pygmy Cave requires visitors to abseil down a large stalactite wall called “Giant Spine” that is 80-meters high.

Bidding farewell to the windy Central Coast and impressive Phong Nha, I knew my memories of the Kingdom of Caves would last forever. I will not forget the icy chill inside the caves despite the burning summer heat outside, or the magical green of the crystal-clear spring glinting in the sun. I will not forget the radiant faces and peaceful places of war hero Mother Suot’s homeland, which are now on the world tourist map. Within the walls of these subterranean kingdoms lies a place I hold dear in my heart!