12 March 2018

My Son Doong Expedition Experience — Mar 2016

I started writing this post in late March 2016 and just finished it today. I've been busy... and lazy. I also felt a bit intimidated by the thought of choosing from the hundreds of photos. Now that they're chosen, I hope you enjoy them.

Son Doong Cave is just outside of Phong Nha, Vietnam and is currently the largest known cave on the planet.

Yes, we climbed down from the brightest opening at the very top...
It was first discovered in 1991 by Ho Khanh, a local farmer,  who found it could not find his way back to it when he brought others. It was only in 2009 that a team of British and Vietnamese explorers, led my Mr. Ho, found it again. The cave was opened up to the public through tightly-controlled tours in 2012.

I did the Son Doong Cave 5-day Expedition from March 13-17, 2016 and it took more than a month to recover from the plantar fascitis that reared its ugly head on the last day. Now that I'm 64 (62 at the time of the trip), it’s most likely the last major hiking/crawling adventure I’ll attempt. The average age of the other 9 participants was 30 (the oldest was under 40) and I managed to keep up and then some until the last day. Most groups average ages 45-50, so I’m unsure how I got with the youngsters… and it was awesome!

According to Watto and Dave, our cave rescue experts, as of 16 March 2016, the day our group left the cave, 883 had people explored Son Doong Cave as part of an expedition. Adding guides, porters, and locals, the total number of people who've ever been inside Son Doong Cave is well under 1300 as of that date. For comparison, according to Alan Arnette's blog, 4469 people have summited Mount Everest as of December 2016. I am not comparing the Son Doong and Everest experiences, because that would be ludicrous. I am simply showing the relative exclusivity of the Son Doong experience.

Since fewer than 500 tourists can visit Son Doong Cave per year and 641 summited Everest in 2016, Son Doong will continue to be a more exclusive trip. Add to this that the US$3000 Son Doong Expedition costs less than 4% of the cost of attempting to summit Everest; no one has died in Son Doong while through 2016, 282 people have died on Everest; the only special gear suggested (not required) for Son Doong is a pair of Canyoneer 5.10 water shoes; and it's warm in Son Doong; I saw a very clear choice.

The trip started with a flight to Dong Hoi, the closest airport to Phong Nha. The driver from Oxalis, the only company authorized to conduct tours to Son Doong, picked me up at the airport and took me to Phong Nha. Since I arrived a couple days before the tour (NEVER book the available last flight) they dropped me at Jungle Boss Homestay, Adventure Tours and Organic Farm where I'd made a reservation for two nights. It was a wonderful "home base" in Phong Nha.

Jungle Boss is a former lead tour guide for Oxalis who's started his family's Homestay and touring business a few years ago. The family is very friendly; the two small children, Toni and Ruby, are quite engaging; the food is very good; and the tours are top-notch. I'll stay there again when I return to explore Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park and some of the other caves.

The Oxalis driver picked me up again the afternoon prior to our departure for the caves (Son Doong was the biggest and most impressive; there are others one goes through to get to it). After checking into the Oxalis hotel and packing my essentials for the Expedition, I went downstairs to meet my fellow explorers, the ever-cheery Oxalis staff, our British caving experts, and our Vietnamese guide. Since, at heart, I am NOT a people person, this introductory meeting is always the most painful part of any new adventure. Even after many, many years of facilitation, it's literally physically painful to meet new people and make small talk while trying not to let on that I'd rather have dental surgery without anesthesia than be to go through these necessary get-togethers. I also usually have to bite my tongue not to offer an unrequested critique of the PowerPoint presentation. I didn't bite hard enough 'cause I failed... though they still let me go on the expedition.

A few screen captures of the slides:

"Hang" is the Vietnamese word for cave

That last sentence should read, "... and a BIG HILL to finish."

After the presentation, we had our first group meal:

Second from left is Dũng, our Guide--a GREAT guy! 
Photo supplied by Antje
The paying customers consisted of people originally from Cambodia, the Netherlands, Singapore, India, Germany, and the US, and included two of us Westerners living in Vietnam.

Only the first of the smiles...
Early the first morning we rode for about 45 minutes on an Oxalis bus into Phong Nha National Park and within only a few kilometers of the Lao border, where they dropped us off.

After a few minutes of re-organizing and donning our day packs (the bulk of the gear, tents, stools, food, etc. was carried by porters), we started on a slim dirt path down a steep hill toward the river and its flood plain 200 vertical meters below. As we were climbing and sometimes stumbling down the hill, I found myself thinking time and again, "This is the hill we get to climb up in 4 days..." Down is better.

We walked for most of the day, going deeper into the beautiful National Park; sloshing through creeks, over sandy or muddy banks, and getting to know our fellow participants.

Photo by Antje
None of us had any previous caving experience and it's unnecessary. Dave and Watto, the two British caving experts, and the Guide, Dũng, were noting our progress and any difficulties encountered because Oxalis's very clear policy states that if they decide you aren't up to what lies ahead, you get sent home after Day 1.

As a 62-year-old who's not seen the inside of a gym in 30+ years, I was a bit apprehensive about the last (bolded) paragraph on the web page above. The page is slightly changed from my tour, though it's the same last paragraph.

I was determined to keep up (and not dawdle), especially on the first day, because that is when they inform most of the people who get cut. No flippin' way I was getting 86'ed!

After a long day's hike, we arrived at the entrance to the cave system. I (and everyone else) was blown away.

Photo by Antje
Photo by Antje
Photo by Antje
Mid-afternoon we reached our first campsite, Hang En. This is our first look...
Photo by Antje--that's me in the center in the green shirt
The one-person tents are set up by porters who carry EVERYTHING for us except what we need in our day packs (water, camera, etc.). They also do all the cooking and cleaning up.

Due to a very heavy rainy season and flooding of the caves that can see water levels over 30 feet deeper than it is for tours (you can actually see the high water mark on the walls in places), tours are only conducted from late January through early October. Our guides told us that the big rock behind the tents in the photo above is well-covered at the height of the rainy season.

Our tour started on 13 March, so water levels were still up from their lowest point. Places where we had to swim (with life vests) were dry late in the season.

As warned in our pre-trip materials, shoes with grippy soles that drain well were very welcome. My Gore-Tex boots would hold the water in, so I went with the Canyoneer 5.10 water shoes recommended by the tour company and was very happy. They were pricey (US$150 purchased on the previous year's trip to the US), though when I'm spending $3000+ on a 5-day trip, it's worth an extra 5% to help ensure my comfort and safety.

They didn't glow in the dark, though it would've been cool if they did.

During the five days and four nights of the expedition, we climbed down then up; made many water crossings; slept in some of the most awesome campsites I'll ever see; took a rest break while sitting on a mound of 400,000-year-old bat guano; wriggled through tight spaces, and marveled at a cave so large that it could hold two 747 aircraft wingtip-to-wingtip. Of the hundreds of adventures I've had starting with a four-day canoe trip when I was 12, this was right up at the top along with hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and taking hang gliding lessons at Kitty Hawk.

As someone once said, "a picture is worth 1000 words" so here are 25,000+ words...

Camp at Hang En from inside (my tent was second from the right). After climbing down and crossing the bridge just above photo center, we waded through chest-deep water to get to the beach.
Can you see the lone person just under the opening?
A bit of a rest before heading out into the sunlight
The scenery was breathtaking in every direction
An example of why we needed grippy shoes that would drain
It's VERY important to make sure the red straps are around, not over, any valuables
Descending down, down, down
Stairway from sunlight
The long way down...
Break time
Sully, porters, and the National Park Ranger that accompanied our expedition
"King of the Hill"?
Approaching "Watch Out for Dinosaurs" a.k.a. The First Doline
First Doline
As many times as the Ranger has been here, there's still something new to see
Looking back up to the First Doline
We stood here and watched as the sunbeam moved from right to left.
Some wagered on where it would strike first.
I'm sure my jaw is somewhere near my belt in this shot
Natural terraces 
One of the porters watches as the others sit/stand on a mound of 400,000-year-old bat guano
300,000 years or so ago, this was inside the cave. The rock she's on fell from the roof in the collapse.
This forest has a few species of trees found nowhere else in the world
Looking back into the cave
Our guide, Dũng showing how big his heart is 
Watto, one of the caving experts, adding a rock to Dũng's backpack. 
Watto constantly harassed DG in ways that could easily qualify as bullying. 
While Dũng just took it in stride, while I wanted to punch this asshole hard and often.
One of the porters admiring the camp for Day 3
Day 3's camp. From here, we hiked and swam very deep into the cave to "The Great Wall of Vietnam" before returning here for dinner and a very good night's sleep.
I wish I had video of our hike/swim to the Great Wall of Vietnam. It was one of the most challenging sections of the trip and one I wouldn't've missed for anything. If you ever meet Sully, ask him about sliding down into what they call, "The Devil's Asshole". I still smile when I recall the look on his face.

From Camp Three, we headed back toward Hang En via a different route, sleeping in the same place on Day 4 as Day 1. Then it was back out into the sunlight and what passes for civilization.

I did finish under my own power on Day 5, despite the plantar fasciitis that I developed on Day 4—and received an ovation from my teammates as I was the last one to arrive at the pickup point. They even saved me a beer! The two guys on either side of me in the photo below were porters assigned to follow me and, if I went down and was unable to finish on my own, these brave lads were ready to carry my fat butt up the L-O-N-G final hill in a sling. They didn't tell me that, of course; I figured it out. When I asked Dũng about it, he confirmed.

Our Guide is one of the best, nicest, and most upbeat people I've ever met. I hope he lets me know when he and his beautiful new bride ever visit Da Lat; I'd love to take them to dinner.

Note: According to the Oxalis web site, the Son Doong Expedition is now 4 days and ends with a climb up and over the 90 meter-high Great Wall of Vietnam. I'm glad we turned back at the GWoV and took an extra day to return... though it would've been interesting to climb and see what is on the other side of that wall.


Click here for a brief introduction: Inside the jungle cave of Hang Son Doong

Hang Son Doong Drone Photography from Ryan Deboodt

A link to National Geographic photos of Hang Son Doong.

National Geographic's "Dive Into ‘Infinity’ With Dizzying Views of A Colossal Cave"

10 March 2018


Translation, "Oh, my god!"
More than a year's gone by SO QUICKLY and I've yet to publish any original material here. Apologies to the four who are still checking occasionally (Doug, Liz, Ray, and you); I'll do my best to publish at least twice a month from here on out. Yes, I know I've promised before, but, as I'm sure you understand, life happens—and as I get older, time compresses.

Am I now traveling at light speed?

Probably not.

Let's get to catching up... if you're not already subscribed to updates, please do it now. Just put your email address in the box at top right of the page. I promise NOT to give or sell your email to anyone AND stories and photos to make you go, "Hmmmmm..."

As much as I'd like to continue posting in chronological order, my inability to finish my Son Doong Cave trip post from early 2016 is one of the main reasons it's been so long since I posted. Enough! We'll travel back in time a bit later for that one; here's an easy one.

In mid-2016, I got a phone call from the editor of What's On Dalat magazine asking for information on my helmet initiative. After we talked a bit, he asked me to write a one-page article for the August issue.

It turned out well. 

Autographed copies are available in the Gift Shop.