Story: Huong Quynh
Photos: Nguyen Hai, Archive
Follow tourism promoter and keen caver Hoang Bui into the “Kingdom of Caves” in Quang Binh province
I first worked with Hoang Bui (Bui Van Hoang) when I commissioned him to write an article about trekking routes in Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park for Heritage Magazine. The lively experiences described in Mr. Hoang’s engaging writing surprised me. When a second opportunity arose to trek with Mr. Hoang in Western Quang Binh, I was even more amazed by his expertise in negotiating diverse terrains and his cultural knowledge of the caves in his homeland. Mr. Hoang has traversed most of the caves open to the public in Quang Binh. Here, we invite you to explore the “Kingdom of Caves” alongside Heritage Magazine and Hoang Bui.
When did you first venture into Quang Binh’s caves?
In March 2011, a photograph of En Cave taken by Peter Carsten was published in National Geographic (the magazine of the United States National Geographic Society), stunning the world as one of the most beautiful nature photos of the year. Ideas began to grow about creating an extreme adventure tour to explore the caves and trek beneath the primeval forest cover. A survey team was quickly formed, and I was lucky enough to be put in charge of the development and marketing of tourism in Quang Binh province. It was the first-ever forest trip for a white-collar guy like myself. At the time, all of my knowledge about adventure tourism, trekking, and the tropical rainforests of Phong Nha came from the Internet. I looked like a recent graduate at that time, so my companions were worried. Yet, with all of my youthful pride and zeal, I believed I would finish this journey. So, off I ventured, into the wild.
From the edge of the forest, we traversed steep trails covered in dried leaves and rotten branches. At some points, we had to sit down and inch our way forward. Fortunately, after Ba Gian Slope, the rest of the journey was much easier, with a lot of wading through streams. The clear emerald Rao Thuong Stream, playing peek-a-boo from the thick forest cover, led us straight to the Doong Valley. Here lay a small Van Kieu village of people who had migrated from Quang Ninh province. They lived in self-sufficient isolation, free of worries. Their stilt houses dot the massive primeval forest like musical notes on the score of nature’s symphony. Leaving Doong village, we followed Rao Thuong Stream to arrive at En Cave. Formed as the floodgate to the Doong Valley, En Cave is dubbed the third largest cave in the world and is located in Quang Binh. Standing in the vast space of En Cave, humans feel immeasurably tiny.
How many caves have you explored in your homeland so far? Which impressed you the most?
That first trip marked the beginning of my love and passion for exploring the underground paradises of Quang Binh. Now, I just explore them whenever I can. I’m truly blessed to have visited most of Quang Binh’s caves before they were opened to tourists. These include En and Son Doong Caves; the Ho cave system, consisting of Dai A, Over, and Pygmy Cave, which is the fourth largest in the world; Va and Nuoc Nut Caves; the Tu Lan cave system, including Chuot, Ken, Hung Ton, Kim, Song, Tu Lan, Tien 1, and Tien 2 Caves, the mysterious depths of Thien Duong, and Phong Nha Caves; and the cave systems in the south of Quang Binh in Ngan Thuy commune, Le Thuy district, such as Cha Loi, Khe Sung, Kieu, and Van caves.
Among them, Va Cave left the biggest impression on me, even though it’s quite small at only 1.7 km long and over 100m wide, located quite near Son Doong Cave. Va Cave is in the core of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, which was unexplored at the time it was found. Luckily, Ho Khanh discovered this masterpiece thanks to his experience in searching for the largest caves in Quang Binh. Explorers from the British Caving Association find this cave remarkable for its vast and interesting collection of stalagmites. They spring up like bamboo shoots from the cave floor and line up like chess pieces. In the heart of Va Cave, an underground river makes its way through cracks to create different spaces. Parts of the cave resemble massive auditoriums with 30-40m tall ceilings, but some are just barely wide enough for a person to creep through. The final part of the cave is where nature freely explored its creativity by combining wind, water, and calcium to form vistas like terraced rice fields or serene lakes.
In the Quang Binh cave system, which cave do you think is suitable for first-timers, and how would you rate the others, should people want to advance to greater challenges?
In Quang Binh, Phong Nha and Thien Duong Caves are suitable for the average traveler. The rest of them are operated as extreme adventure tours. The difficulty of conquering these caves is rated according to how many days it takes to journey through the cave. The Quang Binh caves range from Level 1 to Level 7. Newcomers can choose Tra Ang, Chuot, Hung Ton, Nuoc Nut, and Tien 1 Caves for a one-day or overnight trip. More difficult trips include Cha Loi, Tien 2, the Tu Lan system, Kieu, Va, En, Pygmy, and Son Doong Caves. In particular, for tours to Son Doong Cave, the largest in the world, and tours to the gigantic Kong Collapse in the Ho cave system, visitors must be screened for cardiovascular conditions and receive training to familiarize themselves with safety gear and zip-lining skills, among other requirements.
A jaunt through the caves is no easy task. Which skills are the most important, and what should visitors bring with them?
To truly enjoy and complete each adventure, participants must ensure they are healthy and fit and follow the warnings and instructions of the tour’s safety experts. In addition, you should make a list of what to pack, such as light and breathable long-sleeved clothing that dries quickly and protects you from insect bites in the forest; and light jackets and long pants to keep warm at night. In particular, choose appropriate shoes for the difficult terrain, which is full of sharp rugged rocks and requires constant stream-wading. Tour providers will supply sandals with straps, or thick-soled rubber boots. Remember to bring along one or two pairs of long socks to protect your ankles from dangers, such as rocks, roots, and insects, as well as other items like sunscreen and mosquito repellant.
It’s time for you to explore and appreciate the beauty of your homeland and country!
Thank you and best wishes for more fascinating trips in the future!