Nguyen Xuan Thuy, a 73-year-old war veteran, the oldest so far to conquer the world’s largest cave, said it would have been worth exchanging all the trips in his life for his once-in-a-lifetime expedition to Son Doong.
Thuy remains physically fit and mentally agile at such an old age.
He has traveled to nearly 20 countries throughout Europe and Asia and trekked his way up precarious peaks and through treacherous grottos across Vietnam, including Yen Tu Relic Complex, over 125 kilometers from Hanoi; and the Hua Ma and Nguom Ngao Grottos in the northern provinces of Bac Kan and Cao Bang.
In 2015, Thuy set his foot on the 3,143-meter-high peak of Fansipan Mountain, Indochina’s highest summit, located in the northern Vietnamese province of Lao Cai.
His latest feat is defying his age and leaving his footprint at Son Doong, the world’s largest cave.
Nestled in the heart of the UNESCO-recognized Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in the north-central province of Quang Binh, the montage grotto earned international acclaim after a group of cavers from the British Cave Research Association conducted a survey in the area in April 2009.
The cave has since been recognized as the largest cave passage cross-section in the world, according to the National Geographic.
A past life
With his robust physique, brisk mobility, and mental agility, few would believe Thuy is already in his 70s.
Outside of his adventurous lifestyle, the sharp-minded grandfather also runs wine-making operation called ‘Ngu Hanh.’
Many are also shocked upon learning Thuy is a war invalid.
Born in the former northern province of Ha Tay (now part of Hanoi), he volunteered at 18 years old as a vanguard to safeguard traffic infrastructure in localities approximately 20 kilometers from Son Doong Cave in Quang Binh.
In one of the U.S.’s relentless bombing raids during the American war in Vietnam, the young man’s leg was injured by a shell fragment.
Though the fragment has since been removed and Thuy is mobile, his wound gnaws on him in inclement weather.
Since the war, Thuy has spent his free time focusing on maintaining a healthy lifestyle. He often goes for long runs and difficult river swims to ensure he has given himself a strenuous workout.
Thuy returned to Hanoi in 1969, where he studied at the University of Transport before starting work at the Thang Long Construction Corp. after graduation.
By the time he retired, he had been deputy director of Thang Long No. 4 Joint Stock Co.
Looking back at his life, Thuy is convinced his fitness and stamina helped him pull through his overwhelming life crises.
When his wife died of malaria in 1991, their fourth child was only six months old and the widower struggled as a single father to raise their four children.
As relatives were financially unable to help, Thuy often entrusted his neighbor with the care of his youngest child during the day so he could work and provide for himself and his children.
Around this time, Thuy also began brewing wine and raising pigs as a means of earning an additional income.
Nguyen Xuan Thuy poses with a smile during his taxing excursion to Son Doong Cave. Courtesy of Nguyen Xuan Thuy.
Regular workouts, wholesome lifestyle
Thuy shared that the key to his remarkable fitness lies in his daily workouts, his healthy eating, doing his best at work, and living life to the fullest.
He spends 90 minutes each morning scaling four flights of stairs in his home before working on muscle groups and doing meditation.
His daily diet, consisting heavily of vegetables, fruits, and home-grown herbs, is also conducive to his bursting vigor.
Thuy shared that he increased his workout intensity from climbing the stairs in his home 12-24 times each day to 36 times per day before the excursion to Fansipan.
He took that number to 72 daily rounds ahead of his Son Doong expedition.
In early 2015, when he and four friends set their mind on hiking to Fansipan, two friends, however, gave up halfway through.
Of the four members of their group, only Thuy and one friend were able to summit Indochina’s highest peak, but shortly after the trip, that friend’s health deteriorated and he has not been able to join Thuy on such taxing excursions since.
Just three months after his successful Fansipan conquest, his daughter booked him a spot on the Son Doong tour, which takes only a limited number of expeditioners, each of which is expected to have previous outdoor experience such as trekking or camping over rough terrain.
“I’ve been to many European countries, China, India, and Nepal. I marveled at the splendor of Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan, which I thought would be unrivalled,” he said.
“I was awed by the montage grandeur of Son Doong. I think it would have been worth exchanging every other journey in my life for this one expedition,” the veteran hiker asserted.
He did not have any difficulty during the 50-kilometer trek on precarious terrain which took the expeditioners five days and four nights to finish and included steep, treacherous slopes towering 400 meters high, wading across streams and rivers over 40 times and covering 10 kilometers over rough terrain inside the cave.
Thuy and the other trekkers were pushed to their breaking point with other taxing activities such as canyoneering, rappelling to depths of at least 80 meters, and feeling their way with great caution inside the pitch-black chambers.
Thuy and the others were sometimes forced to crawl on their hands, feet, and buttocks to maneuver through precarious areas in one piece.
The porters said Thuy’s young companions were really impressed with his remarkable endurance and physical strength.
Thuy revealed that he is preparing himself physically and building his stamina for an excursion to the Tibetan Plateau later this year.