Like everyone else, I marveled at revelation of the world’s largest cave, Hang Son Doong in central Vietnam, when National Geographic broke the news a few weeks ago. If you haven’t tuned into the coverage on this, here’s the gist of this cave’s magnificence: Its tallest cavern is three times as tall as Niagara Falls; and it’s so expansive you could fit an entire city block inside. If you haven’t seen pictures of Hang Son Doong, which are technical marvels in their own right, check out National Geographic’s coverage here.
I’ve never visited the Phong Nha cave network in central Vietnam. Like Halong Bay, it’s already acquired a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. But I do experience the grandeur of this country’s limestone caves regularly in Halong Bay. As awe-inspiring as this seascape is, with some 2,000 islands and islets studding these jade-green waters, the caves play an incredible second fiddle.
Of the countless hundreds of caves hollowed out of these karsts, the two most majestic are Surprise Cave (Sung Sot) and the Grotto of the Heavenly Palace (Thien Cung). The French introduced Surprise Cave to the western world in 1901. Graffiti that dates back to 1904 testifies to this discovery.
They weren’t all that environmentally correct in those days. They couldn’t resist the impulse to leave their mark among these age-old monuments, chiseled by water. But here’s the thing about graffiti. If it’s fresh, it’s gross. But when it’s as aged as some of these French inscriptions, well, we forgive them their sins.
The Emeraude docks outside Surprise Cave regularly. Most of my passengers disembark and make the walk up 50 stairs to the cavern’s entrance. Some don’t, as if a cave’s just another cave. But it’s not. And that’s what the news about Hang Son Doong tells us.
In Surprise Cave, three vast chambers exhibit a gallery of fantastic shapes. There is a Happy Buddha and a tortoise, of course, a lion, the sail of a junk, Quan Am, Vietnam’s Goddess of Mercy. There’s also a host of bawdy shapes, better left to your own imagination than my pen, as it were.
Most of won’t get to see Hang Son Doong. But so many of us can see Surprise Cave. Remember, they didn’t call it that for nothing.
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