For anyone looking to get a jump on the tourists soon to flow to Southeast Asia’s largest volcanic cave system, I have some advice: wait till it’s paved.
While not super fun advice, I did stop taking directions at about the third felled tree bridge over a pit of thorn bushes we crossed. At the end of our four-hour trek, I was slipping on these scary log bridges, crawling along at times, while the sandal-wearing rest of our party waited good-naturedly ahead. I can still feel the indignity of it all.
Okay, listen, if I have any advice, it’s this: don’t threaten to quit hiking, saying something along the lines of “I will actually fall and break my leg if I can’t rest soon!” when you’re a scant 500 metres from the end of the trail. Don’t be that guy. That guy gets advice like, “You should get married and have a son, and he can be adventurous like me.” That guy is old.
How I Got Suckered In
In the days previous, the payoff-to-effort ratio was quite high. Navigate a bumpy road, navigator at the back; see a stupendous waterfall canyon, no one else around. I didn't remember too many hikes at Yosemite turning out like this.
My first venture into Dak Nong Province had been a day trip from nearby Buon Ma Thuot, the coffee capital of Vietnam. Actually, call it a half-day trip — Dray Sap Falls is just 20km from downtown. Carrying a couple beers from the commissary we walked a paved 1.5km, occasionally having to navigate cracks. At the area that serves as the main viewpoint for the falls, we ignored the dilapidated gazebo for a closer-by cluster of boulders. Perched on sharp-angled rocks, drinking our 333s, my friend Hien told me not to dangle my legs — there could be snakes lurking.
That was about all the danger that I was prepared for when I met up with Giang. A former barman at Dalat’s V Café, Giang was happy to practise his English and show a tourist around his former stomping grounds. He even had a friend, who had another friend, who knew the caves; all the local people do, that’s where they go to hunt bats.
The first day, Giang, his brother and his friend’s brother took me to Dray Nur — the “much nicer waterfall” of the two. He was right, it was. In the non-rainy season, the water falls in sheets and cascades over a canyon rim some 200 metres in length. In the rainy season, almost every ledge of the rock face is overrun by the flow.
When I suggested hiking past the viewpoint, Giang perked up, giving me that “oh, you have a lot of energy!” type compliment that all us western fatties should be used to. Nevertheless, I probably blushed a little. I’m not like all those other lazy sightseers, am I?
The Last Frontier
“The caves are the last undiscovered continent,” Salzburg University’s Professor Edgar Dachs said about a cave complex in Germany that dwarfs the one scientists have found in Dak Nong. “You can discover new unexplored territory here like Christopher Columbus.”
Though they’re not quite the Riesending caves (German for ‘giant thing’), the volcanic cave system discovered in Krong No District of Dak Nong is no joke. Officially announced on Dec. 26 of last year, the 25km-long cavern system was the result of reverse lava eruptions from millions-of-years-old volcanoes whose existence was previously unknown.
The longest of these caves, C7, is 1,066.5 metres long, good for the longest in Southeast Asia. The second longest cave in the system, C3, weighs in at 594.4 metres, second longest in Southeast Asia. With the reputation Son Doong has gained tourism-wise, the as-yet-unsnappily-named cave complex figures to put one of Vietnam’s poorest provinces on the tourism map.
“The floor of C7 is very beautiful, with many patterns, and looks like the surface of a lava flow. There are many stalactites and different branches in the cave,” said Dr. Tsutomu Honda, part of the Japan Caving Association team that participated in the seven years of research needed to get to this point.
So of course I was going to go.
Trust Fund for Forests, an NGO working in the area, didn’t get back to me. Neither did the General Department of Geology and Minerals of Vietnam. So it was down to Giang’s friend-of-a-friend, who told us he’d been to “the big cave” once a year for as long as he could remember.
If I’d read the internet literature a little more closely — which describes Dr. Honda spelunking down from the roof of a cavern large enough to contain trees — I would have known to bring more than tennis shoes.
Shambling Toward Enlightenment
The start of the day was promising enough. We took the right forking road after the Dray Sap entrance, down 6km of a country road that had water buffalo grazing, turning right onto a dirt road. It was bumpy on the back of Giang’s bike, but not too bumpy. We parked, and 300 metres into a thin-leafed forest found our first cave.
Only Giang would accompany me further than the first stretch — the others had trouble breathing (or were scared of ghosts). So I felt well and good, prowling the cave in search of the perfect stalactite picture. We saw a big spider. I had a brief daydream of finding some cave drawings, which the scientists had somehow missed and everyone else was too scared to discover! I saw another spider, and somehow missed three bats flying past my head.
We reached a dead end, then joined the others and headed back to the bikes. We headed further up the road.
You already know about the damn four-hour hike — in which I lost my lens cap (a rite of passage, I’m told), said something along the lines of “it wouldn’t matter if I’d have known we’d be hiking this much — when people in the US go hiking through a jungle like this, they take machetes!” and cried on the inside.
There were some clearings, complete with piled stone walls running alongside, which Giang told me were signs we were on track. And that’s when I stopped complaining... for like a minute, I think. The people who’d been coming here all these years didn’t want clear trails, and letting the trail go wild was their way of preserving it.
Giang hung back with me, making bird calls when we needed fresh direction. At one point, while I fumbled with the 1.5-litre bottle of water hanging from my belt (the other guys had one bottle to split between them), Giang crawled the length of an upended tree toward some wild orchids. He took all five of rare plants, carrying them in front of him, and somehow still managed to get less tangled than I did.
We made steady progress until one point, a seeming dead end into an impenetrable thicket. We spent 20 minutes trying different approaches, all while those damn bird songs echoed ahead of us. If we could have actually turned into birds our problems would have been solved, but we could only make impotent little ‘oooh-oooh’ sounds. After Giang asked for more specific instructions, we both slapped our foreheads — the answer was the same as the answer to everything else, just go through.
Fast-forward past the slipping on logs, the various stages of pleading, and the most guttural adding of the word lam onto the question “Anh met?” that you’ve ever heard, and we made it out. Now we were all smiling, even though we’d completely missed the point of our trek.
On the way back to the main road, we stopped again. The guys waved me back into the forest, where there was another cave. How far? “50 met.” Warily, I headed back in.
And there, just 50m from the roadside, was a little pothole of a cave, sunk into the forest floor. Two of the guys had squeezed their way in, and were throwing rocks into the water that filled the inside.
I ignored my aching muscles and slid in beside them. There were perfect, bluish stalactites, hanging daintily from the low roof, 5cm long; a golden light illuminating the far end of the cave, some 10 metres away. It wasn’t the longest cave in Southeast Asia, but it was wondrous enough.
How to Hike in Sandals
I looked on a few hiking blogs (though what I was really looking for was a ‘How Do Asians Hike in Flip-Flops?’ post that I could crib from), but their advice doesn’t really apply here. Take smaller steps? Always look where you’re stepping? My trail partners weren’t doing any of that.
Instead, they were stepping surefootedly on the rocks scattered all along the trail, trusting their feet, keeping their centres of balance while parting the thick vine overhang that occasionally had little hooked thorns running through. I was pinwheeling forward, looking for trees to support my steps, fighting with the vines after they’d already ensnared me.
I watched their techniques and tried to be mindful. I had been putting too much effort into making sure my footing was secure, and later in the hike I got a little wobbly. I convinced myself it was a mental thing. It worked for a while. Then I went back to my old habits, all the while cursing beneath my breath.
My VietJet flight to Buon Ma Thuot was super cheap — VND1.2 million round-trip all told. From Buon Ma Thuot, rent a bike or take a VND30,000 bus to Cu Jut, which is the crossroads to the Dray Sap falls, and the warren of caves awaiting someone who is definitely not me.
On the Dak Lak Province side, Dray Nur awaits — although Giang showed me a sneaky break in the chain link blocking the end of the crumbling bridge you’ll encounter on your way to Dray Sap. Mind the razor wire.