The New Wonder Of The World You Haven’t Heard AboutLess people have reached the Sơn Đoòng Cave in the Vietnam jungle than the number of those who’ve summited Mount Everest
It’s almost as hard to pronounce as it is to find, but Vietnam’s Sơn Đoòng Cave is the all-new eighth natural wonder of the world, and arguably the most spectacular. Discovered eight years ago in the Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng national park and only made accessible to the public in 2013, the largely unknown cave is a three-million-year-old cavern so big it has its own ecosystem, waterway and weather pattern, so it’s little wonder it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003.
With the entrance being so difficult to reach – you have to descend nearly 210m – its exploration has largely been exclusive to a handful of researchers and adventurers willing to spend weeks of their lives just trekking to the cave’s opening. In fact, more people have stood atop Mount Everest than have witnessed the beauty of this 5km-deep cavern. To put that into perspective, with a width of almost two football fields, Sơn Đoòng is big enough to house a New York City block of 40-storey skyscrapers, evidenced by the 25-storey stalagmites that permeate the cave.
Getting there requires a four-day hike with guides and sherpas through the unforgiving Vietnamese jungle – you’ll need to persuade the authorities to issue you with one of only 600 permits doled out each year, too. But Sơn Đoòng is in danger of becoming commercialised, with government and private bodies looking to capitalise financially by constructing a cable car through the cave that would allow more visitors in a single day than have explored Sơn Đoòng during its entire three million years of existence.
As a result, the #savethecave social media campaign was set up by groups of conservationists. A community-minded media company called RYOT lent its support to the cause, sending journalists and filmmakers to Son Phong Nha to shoot the cave in 360/VR and bring awareness to the cave’s precarious situation. We caught up with two of the brains behind the project, RYOT’s Tarik Benbrahim and Averie Timm, to find out more.
THE RED BULLETIN: Other than its sheer size and inaccessibility, what makes Sơn Đoòng unique?
TARIK BENBRAHIM: There are two dolines [areas where ceiling has collapsed], so it lets a lot of light into the cave which is extremely unique from a visibility standpoint. That’s what makes the cave so remarkable. It’s not only the largest cave in the world, but there are several areas where there’s a lot of light in the cave which actually allows you to see the full scale of it – which is quite rare. It’s the biggest cave in the world by volume.
So far, there’s no evidence of any previous inhabitants — man or mammal?
AVERIE TIMM: They found some remains recently but they’re said only to be about 100 years old. There have obviously been cases of people going in there over the years without guidance and falling and dying. They have found some ancient artefacts dating back thousands of years, but the cave is three million years old.
TB: It’s one of the most preserved ecosystems in the world. The only inhabitants so to speak are insects, birds and flying foxes with five-foot wingspans.
Now the cave is in danger of becoming a tourist attraction.
AT: Exactly. The problem is that the local government is letting surveyors come in to potentially build a cable car, and that’s the story that we wanted to tell in our videos. That this rarest of untouched caves, this millions-of-years-old pure ecosystem, is in danger of having a cable line built straight through it and bringing in 1,000 people an hour through the cave — as opposed to 600 per year.
Is that not something tourists should be allowed to experience?
AT: For sure. If they’re prepared to get the permits, do the preparation, hire a team and do the five-day trek. It’s the same as climbing Everest or diving the Galápagos Islands – they’ve remained largely preserved because of the inability to easily access them without the right training, gear, knowledge, will and assets. We haven’t built a cable car up Mount Everest – yet – because it’s to be preserved, and that’s how we feel about Sơn Đoòng cave. If we want to preserve it and maintain it, then it can only be a select few willing to make the trek and go through the permitting process who can experience it. Part of the experience is that five-day trek – that’s what makes it worth it and so spectacular.
How difficult is it to reach the cave right now?
TB: The hike itself is very treacherous. It’s very physically demanding. It was one of the more physical hikes I’ve done. It’s five days and four nights return. There’s a solid six-hour uphill through mud and rain forest, with leeches and all that, which is probably why the cave has gone undiscovered so long and remained basically untouched since. There’s a whole team of porters who carry all the food and supplies. They don’t even allow fires in there anymore. It’s pack in, pack out. Leave no trace.
With the limestone and stalagmites, safety isn’t guaranteed either, right?
TB: There’s always a medic on crew for stitching people up and dealing with any medical issues during the trek along the way and in the cave. The limestone is razor sharp. If you fall, you’ll lose a limb. It’s pretty intense. It also corrodes easily, making any construction a safety issue.
What else makes this cave so special?
TB: You can only access Đoòng cave between February and May, and then other trips schedules in July and August because of the rain. Sơn Đoòng floods and turns into a river. During the filming a wall collapsed and trees fell in. Somehow it survived in one of the most heavily bombed regions of Vietnam, and has its own weather pattern and ecosystem it’s that big. It deserves to stay that way.