Twenty years after he stumbled on the discovery, a local farmer leads a British caving team to the find of the century. A team of British cavers recently announced record-breaking news – the discovery in Quang Binh Province of the largest cave in the world. But the presence of the British team has eclipsed one very important figure in the story – 40-year-old Ho Khanh – a local man and guide for the expedition who says he first found the cave nearly 20 years ago, but lost it again.
Back to the start
Today the forty-year-old farmer mans a tea stall in a village on the edge of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. “I first found the cave 18 years ago, in 1991,” he says.
“I was out collecting firewood near the national park. My family were very poor, so I decided to go deeper into the forest to try and find some aloe. The resin is used to make perfume and it’s very valuable. Not many people went that far into the forest at the time because they were scared of the wild animals.”
After walking for about 20km Khanh says he lost his way. Clouds started gathering in the sky, so he decided to look for shelter.
“I sat down with my back to a huge boulder. Then something strange happened. I heard the sound of a strong wind and running water coming from behind me.”
Khanh went to investigate and found the entrance to an enormous cave, with a wide river flowing out of it.
“I was very surprised. I thought I knew many caves in this region, but this one was so different and seemed to be untouched by man. It was pitch black, but judging by the feeling of the air, I thought I was walking into a huge space. The strong wind blowing felt like something from the underworld.”
With no ropes or lights, Khanh did not venture further into the cave. A day after he’d first set out, he arrived back home.
“I didn’t have any aloe, but in my mind I had the image of a great cave.”
Khanh’s story spread like wildfire, but not everyone believed him.
“I wanted to prove my word, but I couldn’t remember the way to the cave. It was a wild place, with no human tracks.”
Eventually, the story became legend. Khanh quit his dream of becoming rich from aloe and went back to doing his daily chores: collecting fire wood and farming. But he never gave up on the hope that one day he would find the cave again.
All is not lost
It wasn’t until one morning in early winter, 2006, that Khanh’s cave dream was rekindled. A group of cavers from Britain, on a trip to find new caves in the Phong Nha – Ke Bang region, came to ask Khanh for help, as they had heard about his discovery 15 years before.
Khanh agreed to guide the team to find the legendary cave, but after three days in the jungle, Khanh and the team were still at a loss.
“I just couldn’t remember where it was,” he says.
There were some perks. On their expedition, the group did find 11 previously unrecorded caves. The British team even named one of them after the farmer.
“One of my favourite caves that we found on our trip had a lake and many beautiful stalactites that sparkled in the light. We called it Thai Hoa, after my daughter.”
The team returned to the park for two more expeditions, but each time were beaten by the density of the jungle. Finally the cavers gave in and left, asking Khanh to contact them if he found it again.
In a final effort to recover his memory, Khanh headed to the jungle one cold winter’s morning in 2009.
“I stopped by a big boulder. There was the same strong wind, the sound of water running – I knew I’d found the cave at long last. I can’t describe my feelings at the time, I was so overjoyed.”
The team immediately came back to Viet Nam and followed Khanh on a six-hour treck deep into the jungle. On April 14 they found what they were looking for.
Measuring 200m high and 150m wide, the new cave, named Son Doong (Mountain River Cave) by Khanh, is believed to be almost twice the size of the current record holder, Deer Cave in Sarawak Malaysia.
The cave is in Phong Nha-Ke Bang grotto system, which belongs to the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. It is a limestone region of 2,000sq.km and borders another limestone area in Hin Nammo in Laos.
According to Adam Spillane, a member of the team, the cave is over 4km long at present but the end of the main passage continues on. The team were unable to go further because of a calcite wall more than 45m high halted their progress.
“Khanh has been a guide for the team for many expeditions in the jungle to explore caves. This year he took the team to a cave which had never been explored before, not even by local people,” Spillane says.
The cave was a thing of overwhelming beauty and grandeur, spokesman for the team, Haward Limbirt says.
“We plan to return to Viet Nam later to complete our expedition of the cave and conduct a full survey,” he says.
Back to normal
After the team returned to Britain, Khanh settled back into his everyday routine.
“I just think about how I’m going to earn enough money to feed my family. I only earn VND800,000 (US$50) per month.”
His discovery has yet to reap financial gains, Khanh says.
“We are still as poor as we were before. Actually, I still haven’t paid off the VND10 million ($550) loan I borrowed ten years ago to develop our farm and animal husbandry.”
Khanh’s obsession with the cave has been hard on his nearest and dearest, his wife Le Thi Nghia says.
“Sometimes I get angry because he just wants to go to the jungle and look at caves, but I understand he is very passionate about it. After all of this, I’m proud of him.”
Nghia says the only thing she asks for is recognition from the Government and the press for what her husband has done for the country.