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“Discovering the world’s largest cave passage”
A joint British and Vietnamese caving expedition
Vietnam 2009 Expedition –Introduction
When planning the 2009 expedition I wondered if this trip would be our last visit to the Ke Bang Massif in central Vietnam. This would be our 11th visit to this remarkable area and caves were becoming harder to discover compared with previous expeditions. We had already explored over 115k of the most spectacular river caves in the world including the Hang Phong Nha system at over 56k long and the Hang Vom system at 37k. Both these cave systems had provided us with many treasured memories of cave exploration at its very best. Therefore when we left for Vietnam in March 2009 I did have my doubts whether the 2009 trip would live up to everyone’s expectations. How wrong could I have been?
The 2009 expedition like all before was a joint venture with our good friends from Hanoi University. We have been working with them now for nearly 20 years and have made many true friends in that time. Prof Quang My, the head of the Vietnamese team for many years is now blind and unable to work. He is sadly missed by all, but Mr. Ngygen Hieu has taken over the lead and has done a wonderful job.
This expedition was also the first cave diving trip in Vietnam. Again with the assistance of Hanoi University we were able to import at short notice a compressor from China as well as the usual paraphernalia that goes with diving.
The expedition had no big going lead other than a huge shaft in the middle of the massif. Three teams generally went out into the jungle for up to 6 days at a time returning to base to swap around. We have no communication between groups and so each group must be self sufficient. Each team would have with them Vietnamese jungle men who act as guides and porters. These men are the true stars of the trip and it is a great experience to go in the jungle with these men. Many of the guides we use have an amazing knowledge of the jungle and the whereabouts of caves. This is primarily due to the necessity to go hunting in the jungle when times were very hard post American war. Caves were often used for shelter and usually provided a water source. Animals often come down to the caves to drink and thus caves were a good site for hunting various animals.
Many of the caves we explored involved long difficult walks over awkward terrain and our guides and porters all made this seem very easy. They looked after us extremely well and were always at hand to assist us in any way they could. The jungle lads often cooked for us and we did not go hungry if we ever relied upon the Vietnamese. That could not be said if you relied upon me. The first trip out for one group was to try and complete the Hang Vom through trip, never been done before and picking up some cave on the way through and also involving a dive in a prime section of the cave. After 2 days of caving through some remarkable caves of the upper Hang Vom system we got well lost in the jungle. We had run out of food and could not find the entrance to the next cave which is a critical key in the through trip. Thus a very hungry team made their way out of the jungle with a very valuable lesson learnt, bring more food or bring a guide and he will catch you some food.
All trips out into the massif were great experiences and many epics were had in the company of excellent people.
The 2009 trip will be remembered for the discovery of Hang Son Doong, what is now thought to be the largest cave passage in the world. We knew that a cave was likely to be present in this area and had a good idea it would be fairly big due to its inlet caves being Hang En with passage width of up to 140m and 130m high and Hang Khe Ry at generally 50m x 50m. We had asked our guides for caves in this area before and only in 2008 did Mr. Ho Khanh rediscover the entrance to the cave which he found originally in 1990 when he was hunting in this very remote part of the massif. In 1990 this would have been an extremely difficult place to visit.
By Vietnamese standards Hang Son Doong is not a large entrance. At 30m wide and 10m high you only see the entrance at the last minute of the walk. We explored over 6k in this truly awesome cave and the way on is still continuing. It certainly is the best going lead in world caving and one we plan to attempt to push early next year.
We also have many new caves to explore and a number to continue pushing from this year’s expedition. The 2009 expedition therefore proved to be a huge success. The people of Quang Binh are extremely lucky to have such an area of outstanding natural beauty much of which is unexplored. There are possibly bigger caves still to be found in the Ke Bang Massif and we look forward to having the chance to return to this fabulous part of Vietnam in 2010.