For 464 million years, the oldest karst in Asia has been keeping a secret. Yes, that long! Not much of a gossiper, The Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in north-central Vietnam is home of a cave system which treasures both secrets and the world’s largest cave—Hang Son Doong.
Paying a visit to Hang Son Doong means paying $3000 for the adventure to the only company that hosts visitors (quite the monopoly here). Not very budget friendly, right?! Last time I checked my balance, it said – “Hang Son Doong will cause crisis”. If your budget has a similar opinion, fear not! The tropical rainforest national park features many caves—dendritic, dry, suspended and terraced—all for you to explore without feeling schemed.
Welcome to Paradise Cave!
Yeah, Heaven is on Earth! Well, a bit beneath earth if we are to be precise. I know that, because in Paradise I don’t sweat my life out due to the unbearable heat.
Paradise is cool.
Hell is hot.
Once you enter the cave, you feel a drop in the temperature which allows you to take a deep breath and relax. And then, once the drops of sweat had seized to blur your vision, and the heat is no longer heavy on your head, you open your eyes and see the magnificence of the hole you just entered. Once again, you are breathless but the reason is obvious.
Paradise Cave will have your eyeballs bulging. It is the longest dry cave in Asia, extending for some 31 km. I look at the map—there are 3 entrances to the cave. Only one is open for visitors and allows you to stretch your legs for almost a kilometre. Just that, from all 31? Yeah, but trust me, it is enough to keep your imagination rolling for a while. Curiously, one of the other 2 entrances is in… Laos. I cannot help but imagine all the possible smuggler stories that could have taken place here. Weapons, soldiers, secret missions, maps and plots. If only people knew about the cave in those times of war. But they didn’t, did they?
The haunted farmer
Paradise cave was found by chance in 2005, so there go all the smuggler war stories I imagined. A local farmer called Ho Khanh was wandering the forest, looking for a specific wood, when he came upon the entrance. Euphoria overwhelmed him. He knew he had to make sure the entrance was not lost, so he contacted the British Cave Research Association which continued the discovery. The roots of Ho’s worry takes us all the way back to 1991.
The farmer was resting on a boulder in the forest, when he heard the whistle of strong wind and the sound of running water. It is curiosity that leads people to the greatest discoveries. In 1991, Ho’s curiosity took him to the entrance of what would later be known as the largest cave in the world – Hang Son Doong. Since he was not equipped to explore it, he went back to the village and told his peers about it. But no one believed him. Ah, people!
Human memory is a fragile thing. When Ho tried to navigate his way back to the entrance, the jungle features of the rainforest entrapped him in a maze. The entrance was lost. Was it even real? The thought of the cave had been haunting Ho for years. Sometimes it appeared in his dreams. Almost 2 decades years later, in 2009, on a cold winter’s morning, Ho embarked on yet another attempt to find what he once lost. Life is full of patterns and mysteries. Exhausted from the search, ready to give up on it, Ho sat on a boulder to rest. Ah, but that boulder! He sat to rest on the same boulder from 19 years ago. Once again, like a magical key, he heard the whistle of strong wind and the rumble of running water and knew.
Some things are not mean to be until they are.
Back to Paradise Cave
For 464 million years, the oldest karst in Asia has been keeping a secret. If you wish to find it, first you have to go down almost 300 steps. Be careful as you enter the cave of awe. It is moist and slippery. Walk mindfully (it is easy to go crazy here) and observe all the shapes on the way. They tell stories; keep secrets; they inspire and enchant. Only those who look carefully will find what they seek.
Stalactites drop gracefully from the ceiling; stalagmites grow from beneath. Occasionally you will see the tip of both almost touching. You may recall Michelangelo and the Creation of Adam. Or you could just let your imagination flow, until you find the secret which echoes inside the Paradise cave, only for those ready to hear or see it.
Paradise Cave is the cradle of sculptures. It is where Nature brags in front of Leonardo, Bernini, Rodin and Michelangelo, without them ever knowing about it. It is where you can unwind your imagination and find Nature’s love in the heart of the cave.