With sandy beaches, lush rainforests, and stunning mountain ranges, you might not think of caves as being a reason to visit Vietnam. However, travelers in the know are aware that Vietnam’s natural gems extend well beyond what is visible on the surface.
Home to what’s considered the largest cave in the world, and many other caverns beckoning to be explored, even the greenest spelunkers can sample Vietnam’s beauty found both above and below ground.
Son Doong Cave
Son Doong Cave was found in 1991, but due to its remote location was lost and rediscovered in 2009, is thought to be the largest cave in the world when measured by cross-section. Visiting the cave is only possible through an arranged, multi-day expedition, and even this option only became available to the public in 2013.
For those with the stamina to match their desire, a visit here showcases a wealth of natural wonders that many others never have the chance to see. Son Doong Cave is located within the UNESCO World Heritage Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Central Vietnam’s Quang Binh Province, which boasts an enviable lineup of other large caves as well.
The main passage stretches for over 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) and, in parts, expands to a height of 200 meters (656 feet). With a width of 150 m (492 ft) Son Doong has enough room to house a 40 story skyscraper. If a suspected connection to the nearby Thung Cave can be confirmed, this would place Son Doong Cave into the top spot in terms of volume as well.
Tours of Son Doong Cave are available exclusively through the company Oxalis, which is in partnership with the British Cave Research Association and the Vietnamese government. The itinerary begins with a day of trekking through the jungle, with visits to a village and smaller caves, followed by two days of exploring the massive chambers of Son Doong Cave.
Groups usually range between 6 to 10 people and are only available between January and August due to flooding concerns. This tour is considered difficult, so make sure you’re in shape before shelling out the cash to join an expedition. For those who do undertake this bucket list adventure, the payoff is being able to witness amazing geological features on a scale that leaves visitors in awe.
Be aware that if this is something you want to do, you will not only need patience but also the funds to match it. This journey costs around $3000 USD and once you make your reservation, it can take up to 2 years actually visit the cavern.
One of the most iconic scenes of a visit to Son Doong Cave is that of observing the otherworldly view of a massive doline (a collapsed portion of a cave roof that serves as sort of a skylight) filled with lush greenery from the surrounding jungle that looks like a glimpse into a lost world.
Within the cave are also enormous stalagmites, underground rivers to be both crossed and swam in, as well as the “Great Wall of Vietnam”, which is a 90 meters tall (295 feet) calcite barrier that requires the use of ropes to descend. Yes, visiting Son Doong Cave is an investment in time, money, and physical exertion, but an expedition here will be the feather in any serious spelunker’s cap.
Hang Va Cave
Also located in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Hang Va Cave was first explored in 2012 and became open to the public a few years later. While it doesn’t have the cavernous spaces of Son Doong Cave, Hang Va does have a unique geological feature that draws visitors: the tower cones.
Hang Va Cave boasts a large passage of more than a hundred tower cones in its aptly named Tower Cone Chamber. Coated in mud, these slightly rounded calcite formations rise to an average height of about 2 meters (6.5 feet) and are set against the backdrop of emerald green cave water.
Unlike Son Doong Cave, Hang Va is considered a moderate cave to navigate, and a two-day tour will usually combine a trip here with a visit to nearby Nuoc Nut Cave, which is distinguished by its underground river. Visitors can enjoy wet and dry passages and will usually find themselves taking a refreshing dip into the water at some point.
Thien Duong (Paradise Cave)
Just when you think Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park couldn’t be any more awesome, along comes Paradise Cave. This is one of the most visited caves in Vietnam, and according to many, the most beautiful. In fact, the British cave researchers who first explored it were so impressed by the intricate formations that they gave it its idyllic name.
Paradise Cave was originally discovered by a local man in 2005 and during the initial explorations, the British caving team concluded that the cave was 5 kilometers in length (3.1 miles). However, later discoveries revealed that Paradise Cave is actually 31 kilometers long (19.2 miles), making this the longest dry cave in the region.
Open since 2010, only the first kilometer is accessible to the public, but it’s still enough to see how this cavern got its name. With a maximum height of 72 meters (236 feet) and a width of 150 meters (492 feet), you’ll likely feel a sense of awe when confronted with the scale and grandeur of the cavernous chambers.
A wooden walkway enhanced by discreet lighting will create a soothing ambiance as you take in spectacular stalactite formations and other geological wonders. The best way to visit Paradise Cave is with a guided tour, which will usually include a visit to another nearby cave as well. You can also arrive via your own transportation or by taxi and visit here on your own.
After handling your affairs at the ticket counter, you can either pay for a shuttle ride or walk through the stifling heat and humidity for over a kilometer. Either way, there will be a hefty climb to the cave entrance. Once inside figure on about 2 to 3 hours of exploration to do this site justice.
Phong Nha Cave
Phong Nha Cave, the namesake of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, is also a marvel to behold, despite only having its first 400 meters open to the public. The name means “Wind and Teeth” and is apparently a reference to the stalagmites that once stood at its entrance.
Inside, visitors can admire formations with such whimsical names as “the Buddha”, “the Unicorn”, “the Fairy Caves” and “the Lion.” Getting to the cave is half the fun, as it requires a boat ride down the Son River through towering limestone karsts rising out of the jungle.
Tu Lan Cave System
Comprised of over ten caves, the Tu Lan Cave System appeared on the world scene thanks to its being the filming location for the 2017 movie Kong: Skull Island. Located in Quang Binh Province, but about 70km away from Phong Nha-Ke Bang, the Tu Lan was first found in 1992.
Organized tours range from one to four days, and will bring guests through several of the caves while also taking in dramatic karstic scenery, jungle treks, and swimming opportunities in underground rivers. With its remote location, visitors will feel as if they have the entire cave system for themselves.
Hang En (Swallow Cave)
Another cave in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park with a bit of cinematic history is Hang En, the third-largest cave in the world. Fans of the 2015 film Pan may recognize this locale, but even if you’ve never seen the movie, the majesty of this cavern will leave you awestruck.
With a dramatic entrance on the side of a mountain, the cave’s maximum height is a whopping 100 meters (330 feet) with an average width of 170 meters (560 feet). Inside, the cavern, there is a beach, jungle, and microclimate. Tours to Hang En are moderate and span two days, with a good portion of it spent trekking through the dense jungle just to get there.
The payoff is a campsite along the “beach” of a limpid natural pool that’s perfect for swimming or relaxing after a day of exploration.
Hang Toi (Dark Cave)
If adrenaline is your drug of choice, you’ll want to pay a visit to Hang Toi, aka, Dark Cave. Getting there entails an exhilarating zipline through the jungle to the entrance, followed by a swim into darkened waters, and if you’re adventurous enough, a therapeutic soak in a natural mud bath.
Dark Cave got its name from both the lack of any artificial lighting in its 6-kilometer length cavern as well as the dark stone that makes up its ceiling and walls. The passages get increasingly narrower, muddier, and at the end, there’s an underground river that’s perfect for washing off.
This is a popular day trip for visitors to the Phong Nha-Ke Bang area and it’s highly recommended for those whose main objective is to have a little fun and adventure.
Sung Sot (Surprise Cave)
The UNESCO Site of Ha Long Bay is renowned for its limestone karsts jutting out of the water. And when there’s limestone, there are usually caves. On Bon Ho Island in the northwestern quadrant of Ha Long Bay, it was the French who first discovered this mammoth grotto and gave it its name.
These days, a steep 50-step staircase will bring you to the entrance of Sung Sot and its lovely dual chambers. The first chamber is called the Waiting Room and features a height of some 30 meters (98 feet) in a roughly squarish shape.
The reasoning behind the name becomes clearer upon stepping into the second chamber, an enormous cavern with spectacular formations of stalagmites and stalactites in surrealistic shapes that might come as a ‘surprise’. Visiting Sung Sot will require a trip by boat, and it is a popular stop on many Ha Long Bay tours.
You’ll want to avoid visiting during Vietnamese national holidays and make sure that you have reservations in advance during the peak seasons of June and July and December to February.
Trang An Grottoes
Within the gorgeous landscape of UNESCO World Heritage Ninh Binh Province, in the north of Vietnam, are the Trang An Grottoes. Guided tours will combine a boat ride through these caves hollowed out of the limestone karsts along with stops at the many scenic and cultural attractions that have given Ninh Binh the reputation of being the “inland Ha Long Bay”.
The caves themselves aren’t on the same level as the ones mentioned earlier, but the overall effect of being peacefully rowed through a breathtaking landscape of rivers, temples, caves, and valleys makes a visit here a worthy one.
Venture into Vietnam’s Depths
Whether you’re a dedicated spelunker or casual cave enthusiast, Vietnam has everything a nature lover can ask for both above and below the surface. And with the most popular caves being within a reasonable distance from other tourist attractions, your itinerary will be all the richer if you include a few days to explore the subterranean beauty that lies just below your feet.