Son Doong, the largest cave in the world, is a subterranean masterpiece that holds not just one but three world records, making it a treasure trove of unparalleled magnificence. This geological marvel is located in the province of Quang Binh, Vietnam, and has been bestowed with UNESCO's World Heritage Site status, adding to its allure and significance. Join us in delving into this enigmatic wonder, uncovering the marvels that have earned it a place among the most extraordinary sites our planet has to offer!
1. Overview of Son Doong Cave
1.1. Where is Son Doong Cave?
Son Doong is located within Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park, a breathtakingly beautiful area of over 2,000 square kilometers, encompassing dense jungles, meandering rivers, and vast underground splendors.
Beyond the marvel of Son Doong itself, the national park is home to an extensive network of over 404 other Vietnamese caves waiting to be explored. Visitors can choose from a variety of cave tours, each catering to different fitness levels and interests. There are also opportunities to go on jungle treks, take boat rides, and connect with local communities.
1.2. How was Son Doong Cave in Vietnam discovered?
- Formation: 2 to 5 million years ago, river water flowed through a limestone area buried along a fault and eroded it into a huge underground tunnel, where parts of the ceilings fell to form holes and become Son Doong's cave arch today.
- Discovery: Son Doong was chanced on in 1991 by Ho Khanh, a local looking for a place to take shelter from the rain while going through the forest. But his role in its discovery did not stop there. When the British Cave Royal Association (BCRA) came to Quang Binh in 2007, he reported his findings and accompanied them in looking for the cave. He could not remember its exact location but continued searching for it on his own. Eventually, he led BCRA's Howard and Deb Limbert to it in 2009.
1.3. How big is Son Doong Cave?
Son Doong's sheer size dwarfs almost everything around it! With its impressive length of nearly 9 kilometers and a staggering volume of approximately 38.5 million cubic meters, it rightfully holds the title of the largest cave in the world.
The cave's majestic dimensions continue to astonish, with its highest cave arch reaching an astonishing height of 243,84 meters and its maximum width expanding up to 150 meters. To put this into perspective, imagine fitting a 40-storey building in it and 15,000 Olympic swimming pools!
The enormity of Son Doong is further highlighted when comparing it to other notable caves in the vicinity. For example, En Cave, which is recognized as the third largest cave in the world, is a mere fraction of the size of Son Doong. Son Doong is around 5 times larger than En Cave and surpasses it in every dimension.
1.4. Unique features of Son Doong Cave
But what truly sets Son Doong apart and makes it a global sensation is the hidden world that lies within it.
- Unique microclimates: The cave's large size and different chambers create diverse microclimates that influence the distribution of organisms and contribute to the overall ecosystem. The varying levels of humidity, temperature, and light provide distinct niches for different forms of life to thrive.
- Enormous stalagmite and stalactites: Part of Son Doong's allure comes from the enchanting stalagmite and stalactite system in the cave. Not only is it strikingly beautiful, but it also tells the story of the cave's formation, with droplets of mineral-rich water slowly accumulating over millions of years. With formations reaching 70 to 80 meters high, the stalagmites and stalactites in Son Doong are truly stupendous.
- Breathtakingly diverse ecosystem: Son Doong is home to lush vegetation and unique flora and fauna. As you traverse the cave’s labyrinth, you will be able to witness nature thriving in some of the most unexpected places. It is both a humbling and awe-inspiring experience, reminding you of the powerful forces of nature and the resilience of life.
Visitors often describe the experience of being inside Son Doong as stepping into another world, akin to the landscapes depicted in the movie "Avatar." The ethereal beauty, coupled with the immense size of the cave and the unique features it houses, makes it an otherworldly destination.
1.5. Remarkable world records of Son Doong Cave in Vietnam
Son Doong Cave in Vietnam holds an impressive array of remarkable world records, making it a globally recognized and acclaimed destination:
- Guinness World Records: On April 30, 2013, Son Doong Cave was officially certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest cave in the world.
- World Record Association and World Records Union: In addition to the Guinness World Records, Son Doong was acknowledged by the World Record Association and the World Records Union as the largest cave on Earth. These recognitions further reinforced its significance on an international level.
- UNESCO World Heritage Site: Son Doong's exceptional geological and ecological value led to its recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2003, Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park, which includes Son Doong, was inscribed on the prestigious list, emphasizing the cave's importance in the context of global natural heritage.
Over the years, Son Doong also garnered other honors and accolades, strengthening its status as a world-renowned site:
- 2014: The New York Times listed Son Doong Cave as one of the 52 most attractive tourist destinations in the world.
- 2015: Good Morning America from ABC News broadcasted live from Son Doong, showcasing its beauty to a global audience.
- 2015: National Geographic glimpsed inside Son Doong's chambers through a 360-degree photo series.
- 2019: DJ Alan Walker chose Son Doong as the backdrop for his million-views music video on Youtube, "Alone P.II."
- 2020: Business Insider recognized Son Doong as one of the top 20 outstanding natural wonders in the world.
- April 14, 2022: Google Doodle paid homage to Son Doong Cave on its search page in 17 countries across the world.
2. TOP 5 must-see natural wonders inside Son Doong Cave
2.1. The Hope and Vision Passage
This is a grand passage that stretches approximately 1.5 kilometers and features an arch wide enough for a Boeing 747 to glide through. Among the numerous amazing sights within this passage, two stand out prominently. The first is the "Hand of Dog," a towering stalagmite reaching an impressive height of 60 meters. The second is the world's tallest stalagmite, proudly standing at approximately 80 meters.
The Hope and Vision Passage epitomizes the extraordinary beauty and uniqueness of Son Doong Cave. It is a place where light and darkness coexist harmoniously, and nature's grand designs astound!
2.2. The underground river
Another significant feature of the cave is the underground river formed by the convergence of water from two other caves: En Cave and Khe Ry Cave. To reach the Hope and Vision Passage mentioned just now, visitors actually have to cross this river.
This mysterious river flows through parts of the cave, creating subterranean waterways that have yet to be fully explored. It courses over cascades, waterfalls, and other stunning formations, before disappearing about 4.5 kilometers from the cave's entrance. Today, the source and full extent of this underground river are still being investigated by explorers and researchers.
2.3. The sinkholes
Son Doong Cave has two stand-out sinkholes: Doline 1 and Doline 2.
- Doline 1 ("Watch Out for Dinosaurs"): Formed from a collapsed ceiling, this is a skylight area that opens to the outside. It reaches a height of 450 meters from the cave's floor. On sunny days between January and March, an alluring phenomenon occurs at Doline 1! Sunbeams seep through the skylight and pierce deep into the cave, illuminating the passages.
- Doline 2 ("Garden of Edam"): Located about a kilometer from Doline 1, Doline 2 stuns visitors with a primeval forest that grows 200 meters deep inside the cave. Thanks to the opening letting in sunlight and the porous nature of the cave's limestone walls allowing moisture to penetrate, unique microclimates support lush greenery thriving within Doline 2.
These dolines create extraordinary spectacles that give visitors a sense of awe and appreciation for Son Doong's unique ecosystem. They also provide plenty of photo opportunities!
2.4. The natural “Great Wall” of Vietnam
This is the highest calcite flowstone among Son Doong's many skyscraping walls. It rises to almost 100 meters and continues to stand as an impressive natural masterpiece. When "The Great Wall of Vietnam" was first discovered, it took the British Vietnam Caving Expedition team two days to successfully conquer using drills, anchors, and specialized climbing techniques. Cavers Gareth Sewell (Sweeny) and Howard Clarke (Clarkey) were the first to reach the top and explore the passage beyond.
Today, there is an 18-meter-high stainless steel ladder at the lowest point of the wall along with safety ropes covering the next 65 meters of the wall for visitors to exit Son Doong Cave. Nonetheless, the height and verticality of the climb can be a challenge, especially for those who fear heights or are unaccustomed to adventurous activities. Conquering it, though, offers a profound sense of accomplishment and wonder that cannot be replicated elsewhere.
2.5. The wondrous cave pearls
Another unique sight inside this largest cave system in the world is the cave pearls. These are glossy formations formed by the concentration of calcium salts in the water dripping from the ceiling to the floor of the cave. The cave pearls come in various sizes, ranging from tiny to relatively large, and their smooth surfaces make them appear like precious gems scattered throughout the cave floor.
While touching them is not allowed to preserve their delicate formation, you are free to admire and take photos of them. The pearls glistening in the dim light of the cave add another layer of enchantment to the already magical experience of exploring Son Doong Cave!
3. Best things to do in Son Doong Cave in Quang Binh, Vietnam
3.1. Camping in one of the world’s most beautiful caves
To fully explore Son Doong, you can camp inside overnight. There are two viable sites on the edges of the sinkholes, so you can sleep under the stars and wake up to warm sunbeams. It is definitely something you want to try at least once in your life.
3.2. Swimming in the underground lake and river
There is nothing quite like splashing and floating in Son Doong's rivers and lakes after trekking for a while. The water is clean and cool for you to enjoy a relaxing and refreshing experience. However, it is important that you follow the instructions of the guides here. In some areas, the water can flow very fast, making it dangerous to swim in.
3.3. Taking Instagrammable photos with breathtaking backdrops
Son Doong offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness the wonders of nature in all their splendor. And do not forget to pose in front of the towering calcite speleothems and otherworldly rock formations to take home your mesmerizing photos.
If you do not like taking photos of yourselves, just capture the amazing moments of nature, like when the sun shines through the sinkholes of the cave or when the misty clouds envelop the flourishing greenery.
4. A quick guide to Son Doong Cave in Vietnam for first-time visitors
4.1. How to get to Son Doong Cave?
It is possible to get to Son Doong’s entrance from Son Trach town, which is 50 kilometers north of Dong Hoi city. But you can only enter the cave for exploration via a Son Doong tour. The tour will provide transportation for you from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha in the form of a 40-minute ride.
4.2. When is the best time to visit Son Doong Cave?
You can take a Son Doong Cave tour anytime between January and August:
- January - March: The weather is slightly chilly but not foggy, so you can fully admire the grandeur inside the world's largest cave and take clear photos.
- April - May: This is when the seasons are changing, so the sun is not harsh, and there are few downpours. You can trek without worrying about the weather.
- June - August: It is much hotter in Son Doong during this period. However, the heat makes wading in the cave's cool streams even more refreshing.
4.3. Everything you need to know about Son Doong Cave tour
The only tour operator licensed to take visitors to Son Doong is Oxalis Adventure. The tour lasts for 5 days and 4 nights and costs a little over 73,000,000 VND, making it the most expensive tour in Vietnam.
However, for a surreal once-in-a-lifetime experience, it is worth every dime. Plus, the price covers fees for a technical advisor, a guide, a safety assistant team, accommodation, food, and equipment.
Tours are available from January to August, but there is a cap on the number of visitors each year. You will have to register for a slot very early on for a chance to come to the cave.
Son Doong tour is a challenging trekking expedition where you will cross rivers and scramble through rocky terrains. So, you should have a certain level of fitness to enjoy the journey. Visitors with health conditions may not be eligible for the tour. Also, note that you need to be at least 18 years old.
Here is a simplified map for your reference:
In addition to exploring the inside of the world's largest cave, the tour includes visiting Doong Village and En Cave, where a Peter Pan movie was filmed.
4.4. Notes for visiting Son Doong Cave in Quang Binh
To ensure that you have a safe and enjoyable time exploring the biggest cave in the world, do not forget to bring:
- Trekking clothes: These should be light, quick-drying, and not too thin. Long-sleeved shirts and long pants are recommended to protect yourself from branches, insect bites, etc.
- Trekking shoes and socks: To venture through the mixed terrain comfortably and safely, you need a good pair of trekking shoes. Shoes with rugged soles that drain easily are your best bet. Your socks should be thick but breathable and come up to your calves. Bring at least 4 to 5 pairs to change if needed.
- Trekking backpack: You will need one to carry the helmet and headlamp given to you by Oxalis. It will be handy for stashing other personal items as well.
- Camping clothes: While staying at the campsite, you want to be in something comfortable. Consider shorts and shirts, unless you come in the cold months. If you come between December and March, bring long pants and long-sleeved shirts. It is also not a bad idea to have a light jacket or coat.
- Camping items: Sunscreen, sunglasses, hats, towels, and foot-drying powder are things you should bring along to have the best experience at Son Doong. You should also carry wet wipes and dry shampoo, as there are no bathing facilities near the campsites.
With knowledgeable guides leading the way and breathtaking sights around every corner, it is easy to see why Son Doong has become one of Vietnam’s most popular destinations. But there are also many other famous tourist hubs that you can visit in Vietnam, such as Phu Quoc, Hoi An, Da Nang, Nha Trang, Ha Long, etc.
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Son Doong is the largest cave in the world, with spectacular formations and an otherworldly beauty that simply must be seen. Imagine standing amidst the massive rock formations and underground rivers to take in all the sights and sounds. What are you waiting for? Add it to your itinerary to witness firsthand just how breathtaking nature can be!