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Exploring ‘Son Doong’ in northern Vietnam

Monday, September 05, 2016, 08:41 GMT+7

A ‘replica,’ nestled in the northern province of Bac Kan, of Son Doong, the world’s largest cave, will no doubt have visitors in awe.

A group of Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters recently took a trip to the Tham Phay cave system of Hoang Tri Commune in Ba Be District, shortly after locals were said to have made the discovery.

After more than four hours of climbing their way through the system, the reporters were overwhelmed by the grotto’s natural beauty.

Its grandeur is strongly reminiscent of Son Doong Cave, the world’s largest, which has catapulted to the public spotlight in recent years.

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Rainwater from cliffs inside the cave tumbles into a spring. Photo: Tuoi Tre

The high-profile marvel is part of the UNESCO-recognized Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in the north-central province of Quang Binh.

Local authorities also joined the reporters’ exploration of Tham Phay.

The group departed at 5:30 am from Bac Kan City, at the heart of the province, and reached Hoang Tri Commune two hours later.

After being driven by motorbike to the forests’ edge, the group trekked across uneven terrain, crossed a mountain pass, then traversed natural springs and lush vegetation for another two kilometers.

Only one trail leads to the mountain on which the Tham Phay cave system is perched, about halfway up.

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The currents inside Tham Phay Cave, also known as ‘Cave of Fire,’ are a major source of water for locals. Photo: Tuoi Tre

It should be noted that the group would not have located the entrance without being guided by two local leaders.

At 8:45 am, the trekkers gathered by the caves’ entrance, and began surveying its access.

The entrance itself, which spans around 20 meters, was quite slippery, with water constantly dripping from the arch above.   

Stalactites shaped like teeth were attached to the ceiling of the cave, hanging over a moderately shallow, but fast-flowing current.

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A view of the entrance to Tham Phay Cave from the cave mouth. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Uniquely shaped rock faces lined the entrance, with more stalactites of various shapes and sizes hanging above. Flocks of bats were also present on the caves roof.

The spring beneath was only knee-deep in some sections, revealing spotless white rocks in its bed.

There are also waist-deep sections, the bottom of which were mostly sandy.

The group members continued wading through the cave system and were amazed at the sight of the spectacular stalactites.

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The cave is barely one meter high in several sections, making trekking painstakingly difficult. Photo: Tuoi Tre

One kilometer further into the cave, the group came across a split in the road, with the left side cutting deep into the mountain and the right forming a deep channel.       

Decided to venture left, the group trudged on, with more resplendent stalactites unfolding before their eyes.

Currents of water also cascaded down the rocks at several twists and turns.

As they continued along another kilometer and the undercurrent gathered speed, the group, none of whom were experienced climbers, made the decision to return to the entrance because of flood warnings.

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Thousands of ‘rock silk’ threads hang from the cave walls. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Meeting the Tuoi Tre journalists at the entrance around noon, Hoang Van Uyen, a 60-year-old farmer, proudly said that he was among the few who had successfully hiked the cave system’s total length, estimated at five to six kilometers.

He said that he generally enters the grotto at around 6:00 pm and does not re-emerge at the other side of the mountain until the following morning.

Hoang Van Quan, a Tay ethnic minority resident and secretary of the Hoang Tri Party Committee, revealed that ‘Tham Phay,’ as the cave system has been named by locals, translates to a ‘cave of fire’ in the Tay dialect, despite the fact that the inside of the cavern is filled with water.  

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Spooky rock veins have been formed due to erosion. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Approximately 1,400 residents of the commune use the currents from the cave as their daily source of water.

It is therefore vital that the water source be well protected, which explains why locals show such reverence to the cavern, he added.

Ha Van Truong, director of Bac Kan Province’s Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, told Tuoi Tre that the agency had conducted a preliminary survey on Tham Phay in early August, following news that a tour operator from Hanoi would launch adventure tourism services there.

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The deeper one ventures inside, the faster the currents flow, hampering trekkers’ movement and progress. Photo: Tuoi Tre

The province is home to an array of caves and grottos, but permission for tourism activity has only been granted to six or seven of the biggest ones, according to Truong.

He added that the provincial administration had recently given the nod to his agency’s proposed geological field survey on Tham Phay.

The upcoming survey is intended to better assess the structure’s esthetic, geological and geomorphological values, on which proposals on how to capitalize on the cave for tourism activity will be based.

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Incredible stalactites hang from the cave roof and walls. Photo: Tuoi Tre

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Incredible stalactites hang from the cave roof and walls. Photo: Tuoi Tre

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Incredible stalactites hang from the cave roof and walls. Photo: Tuoi Tre

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Lush vegetation outside the cave. Photo: Tuoi Tre

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The cave roof towers around 20 meters at the highest point. Photo: Tuoi Tre

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