Was it completely dark?
The most common question that people asked me was what it was like to be in total darkness. For large sections of the cave we were, using only our head lamps. But during the day there are severals dolines along the way which are essentially holes in the ceilings of the caves that let light in. They were also usually where our camps were. However the light was limited and at night it was the darkest place I had ever been, there was no night vision. I couldn’t even see what was around me inside my tent. There were also a few times we turned out all our headlamps to experience the darkness. It’s a very strange feeling.
On clear days some tours have been able to see stars through the dolines but we didn’t have any such luck. No one has really seen the dolines from the outside (helicopters don’t like flying over jungle where there is no where to land) so it was pretty cool to look out at something that hadn’t been seen from the other direction.
Was it safe?
I would say this was one of the most challenging things that I have physically done. Not because it was exhausting but but because of the amount of rock climbing/bouldering. The first 30 minutes to an hour of every morning climbing over the rocks was always a little nerve racking and I could definitely feel the nerves in my unsteady feet but as the day went on I became more and more sure of my footing and surrounding.
Oxalis also makes sure you have appropriate footwear before you leave. They recommend special canyoneering shoes. Nothing with Gore-Tex or waterproof because we’d be wading in and out of water so much. However, the guides and porters were all wearing locally made plastic/rubber sandals that buckled close and seemed to have just as good a grip if not better than we did with our fancy gear.
The descent into the cave for the first time was probably the most mentally challenging part because we had no idea what to expect. As we went through the cave there were other sections that we used ropes and less intense harnesses just around our waists. I never felt unsafe the entire time.
The guides were very careful to always make sure we had a path and if I ever paused because I was unsure of a step a guide’s hand always appeared surefooted to help me get wherever I needed to go or cross. The guides really made this trip and I never felt like I was put in any significant danger, all of the fear was mental.
They give you gloves which ended up being a good thing because we were constantly grabbing onto rocks with sharp edges and the gloves prevented any scrapes and cuts. If you’re prone to getting scratched I would recommend bringing a long sleeve shirt for some of the days so your arms have a slight barrier in case you slide on a rock.
I only really fell one time. At the start of the repelling into Son Doong, the very first step I took I slipped and landed on my butt hard. I was okay, just a giant bruise.
What did you eat & drink?
The team of porters and cooks always were ahead of us and by the time we arrived at camps they had all of our tents and the campsite set up.
I was never hungry the entire time, most meals were a combination of meats, vegetables and rice. Lunches we had a lot of egg rolls and packaged snacks and breakfast we had french toast one morning or the traditional instant pho. I had packed a few snack bars just in case but never needed them. They also always had hot water for coffee and tea as well and on the last night they surprised us with beer and sodas. They also accommodated vegetarians and any other dietary restrictions.
At the start of the trek we were given a liter size water bottle. I would recommend bringing two half liter reusable bottles and carrying them in your backpack one on each side pocket. After that there was filtered water at every camp site and lunch stop. We never ran out.
Where did you sleep?
Depending on who you signed up with every person either had their own tent or a shared two person tent. Each tent had a padded mat and you were given a sleeping bag as well. You can’t go to the bathroom inside the cave just anywhere you want like you can in the jungle but at every campsite and lunch stop there were compostable toilets set up to use.
How much did it cost?
I’m not going to lie. This was an expensive trip and the most I’ve ever splurged traveling. Just the expedition is a little more than $3,000 USD when converted from VND. That doesn’t include the flights to and from Vietnam and any time beforehand visiting. It is recommended to arrive in the time zone at least a few days ahead of time so you can adjust before you go into the cave. From New York the time was 11 hours in difference.
How do I sign up?
This expedition is run exclusively through Oxalis Adventure Tours. The trips open the year before and the time varies. I would recommend signing up for their email list and they will let you know when the next set of trips become available. When I eventually signed up I went on the exact time it opened and was able to sign up with two friends for my second choice time slot. As far as I can tell you can’t sign up more than one person at a time and each person much apply individually.
Once you “apply” and reserve your spot the team at Oxalis has to approve you and confirm that it is safe for you be on the tour. Once that happens (a few days later, sometimes faster) they send you the bill and you have to pre-pay nonrefundable for your trip. This is where travel insurance comes in handy!
Was it worth it?
I have done and see some pretty amazing things and this was worth every penny. It was something that as soon as I was done and back in New York the next week I wanted to relive. I’m not sure going back and doing it again would be the same thing as experiencing it for the first time but if you offered it me for free I would do it again in a heartbeat. The physical challenge and the sights were unlike anything I have experienced in the world.