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Vietnam’s Son Doong Cave, the world’s largest, in close up

Tuesday, October 07, 2014, 19:30 GMT+7
Vietnam’s Son Doong Cave, the world’s largest, in close up
The magnificent Son Doong Cave – the world's current largest – in central Vietnam's Quang Binh Province

Son Doong Cave, currently the world’s largest, emerges even more resplendent and proves an incredible challenge in the eyes of a female Vietnamese reporter, who recently joined a local film crew to make a documentary on the grotto.

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Ho Cuc Phuong, a local reporter, embarked on the perilous, punishing journey to Son Dong Cave, which was conducted by a team dispatched by national broadcaster Vietnam Television’s VTV2 channel.

The cave is part of the UNESCO-recognized Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Quang Binh Province, located in central Vietnam.

She then wrote a Vietnamese article on the cave’s stunning magnificence and the team’s immense difficulty during the trip.

Phuong shared that 11 out of 13 members, who were in the process of making a documentary titled “Ban Hoa Tau O Son Doong” (The Symphony in Son Doong), were in for a shock at the grandeur of the cave and the perils they faced during the trip. 

Nguyen Hoang Lam, the director, and Nguyen Tai Van, the main cameraman, were the only two members who knew the place quite well.

Half a year ago, the two joined a US$3,000 tour, which was launched on a pilot basis, to explore the resplendent cave with eight other adventure-seeking foreign tourists.

Awed by the cave’s splendor, the idea of making a documentary crossed their minds then.

The VTV2 team’s trip, which lasted some ten days, started from Km 30 of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and covered some 9km to reach En (Swallow) Cave – another of the complex’s resplendent caves –that is home to thousands of hovering swallows.

The team members traveled the cave’s length of roughly 1.7km, and then another 6km, before approaching the entrance to Son Doong Cave, with painfully slow progress being made.

After rappelling from a height of 80m down to the cave floor, the team continued to the 8km-long “super cave” of Son Doong, and repeated exactly the same ordeal on the way back to their starting point, Phuong recalled.

The team members trekked across a total length of 50km in nine days across treacherous terrain, and the members’ visualization and expectations of the cave fell remarkably short of the reality which unfolded, she stressed.

Burdensome, hi-end equipment

Son Doong Cave has welcomed filmmaking groups from internationally-famed television channels including National Geographic, BBC, and NHK, and world-renowned photographers such as Germany’s Casten Peter, and Australia’s John Spies.

The groups and photographers carried tons of hi-end equipment to best capture the cave’s beauty.

However, Dr. Howard Limbert, a 57-year-old expert from the British Cave Research Association, expressed his delight and surprise at the VTV2 crew’s one ton of equipment, including eight daylight torches, four cameras, an underwater camera, and three flycams, in addition to 400 liters of gas to run the equipment, Phuong added.

At peak times, up to 65 people provided services for the crew of 13.

“It’s the first time I have witnessed such a large-scale film crew with such hi-end equipment to capture the Eden-like cave,” Phuong quoted Limbert as exclaiming.

Limbert is the head of the British exploration team that has operated in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang area over the past 24 years. The expert has detected hundreds of caves in Quang Binh and taken steps to put 200 kilometers of local caves on the world list.

Limbert and his colleagues have taken hundreds of thousands of beautiful photographs of caves in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang area, drawing special attention from many major film companies throughout the world, such as BBC, NHK, and National Geographic, as well as some of the world’s leading news agencies such as AP, AFP, and Kyodo.Technical challenges

The cave’s terrain posed numerous technical challenges to the team, who are seasoned professionals themselves, Phuong noted.

For the first time, Mai Duy Phuong – a cameraman – maneuvered flycams without any GPS signals, which caused him to rely totally on his years of experience.

He stood precariously on a narrow cape amidst sharp stones.

Lighting technicians also faced unprecedented difficulties, as for the first time ever, four of them had to hold the lights from precarious spots.

Eight 1.2KW torches, which are typically used to imitate daylight, could also illuminate patches of the vast cave, Phuong observed.

National Geographic filmmakers have proved that the cave can house a 50-floor skyscraper or the Statue of Liberty. It is also spacious enough for three small planes to perform together.

Life-threatening situations

Phuong shared that her and others’ hearts seemed to jump out of their chests, looking up at the porters, who were climbing and crawling against the stiff, slippery terrain to carry the heavy equipment to the filming locations.

The team had no cellphone or Internet signal whatsoever, and they could not use the satellite phones either, leaving them totally isolated from civilization for almost 10 days. “One week ago, I saw the team off before they ventured into Son Doong Cave – the world’s largest – to make Vietnam Television’s first-ever project on the wonder. We have had absolutely no contact with them since. In case of floods, no one could say what will happen to them,” Do Quoc Khanh, head of VTV2’s Education Department, told a recent conference.

Phuong said that a flood did happen during their trip, and fast-rising water levels suspended supplies for one day. Luckily, nothing went wrong, she sighed with relief.

The reporter noted that she and other male members of the team knew well that 243 tourists, mostly foreigners, who “beat” others from a long waiting list to land a trip into Son Doong Cave, were absolutely safe, and Quang Binh Province has recently officially launched tours to the cave.

However, they could not help feeling uneasy and insecure when putting on a troublesome safety kit and dangling from a rope 80m from the cave’s bottom.

Injuries, discomfort

Phuong shared that there were times that the team waded through areas infested with “vat” (terrestrial leeches).

She and several male members suffered dozens of bruises, cuts, and back and muscle aches every day.

Most members also found drinking directly from springs (with a small filter), eating pungent dishes, bathing in natural ponds without shampoo or soap to avoid polluting the water sources, and using primitive restrooms to be unforgettable, first-time experiences.

Right when they returned to their starting place on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, several members posted photos of the trip on their Facebook, with a blunt status: “Alive!”

Seeing is believing

“The trip helped me understand why many tourists find the tours to Son Doong Cave well worth their money. After the ordeals of each leg, as Mother Nature’s intentional rewards, we were treated to incredibly stunning spectacles,” Phuong shared.

Countless stalactites of diverse shapes and “cave pearls” make the Eden-like cave resemble a theater, with its arches and chairs.   The 80m-tall “wall of Vietnam,” which cuts across the cave, strongly resembles a cascading waterfall, with the currents paused forever.

A pristine, litter-free Son Doong

Phuong shared that she was most impressed with the investor and management board’s painstaking preservation and their strict compliance with the stringent environmental rules set by the British Cave Research Association.

She could not find a single piece of litter during her trip.

Wasted items such as plastic bags and bottles which cannot be treated on the spot will be brought outside for disposal.

Tourists are allowed to touch the stalactites only with specialized gloves.

Wood is also used in a limited amount while cooking to prevent adverse impacts on the cave.

Dr. Limbert stressed that each experimental tour could admit eight tourists at most, both to ensure environmental protection and give the tourists the feeling that they are the first person to conquer the cave.

He also expressed great concerns over the rejected rumor that a cable car system might be built in the area, as it would taint the pristine landscape and cause adverse environmental impacts to the “pearl” of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

The Vietnamese cave, which has a large, fast-flowing underground river inside, was found by a local resident named Ho Khanh in 1991.

It became public after a group of British scientists from the British Cave Research Association, led by Howard and Deb Limbert, conducted a survey in Phong Nha-Ke Bang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in April 2009.

According to the Limberts, Son Doong Cave is five times larger than Phong Nha Cave, previously considered the biggest cave in Vietnam.

The biggest chamber of Son Doong is more than five kilometers long, 200 meters high and 150 meters wide.

With such large dimensions, Son Doong overtook Deer Cave in Malaysia as the world's largest cave.

The cave has been named one of the world’s ideal tourist spots by The New York Times, Business Insider, and The Huffington Post.

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