In 2009, I was involved in a near fatal car crash when an oncoming car made an unsafe left turn in front of my vehicle, nearly killing me. This life changing incident was a blessing. It forced me to slow down and really assess how I was living and experiencing my life. This near-death experience revealed to me the need to be creative on a much higher level and really contribute to this planet.
It took every ounce of determination and perseverance along with physical and mental therapy over 5 years to restore my body and mind enough to enjoy any physical activities again. Also during this time is when I truly fell in love with photography.
I had always enjoyed taking pictures but this was different. It was like a burning desire to explore. I had always loved travel and adventures along with various forms of visual storytelling. I wanted to find a way to combine the two passions of mine. I bought my first real camera (a Canon 5D Mark III) and began to experiment. I stayed up many, many nights until the early hours of the morning watching tutorials and basically learning anything I could off the Internet about how my camera actually worked and what it was capable of.
I started toying around with long exposure, understanding light and compositional elements. I kept working with the technical elements and experimenting with different techniques. Finally, I was getting somewhere, this is when I realized how much of an impact shooting nature and landscapes had on me.
My journey began. I started an Instagram account, then started traveling more and testing more and more camera gear. I snapped hundreds of photographs, each time adjusting and applying what I had learned. Bringing new techniques to my photo composition. I began to make connections online with some talented photographers and also began partaking in photographer groups and photo meet ups. It felt like it was all coming together. Even if this was just to inspire a few of my friends and family to get out and enjoy nature, it seemed worth it.
I really didn’t have a particular goal in mind. I just recall that I wanted to explore some less charted territory and grab some cool photos. I began to research places to explore. I had heard of this cave in Vietnam called Hang Son Doong. It had been explored but only by a few people. I started to do some research and look into this adventure in more detail.
I learned that the Vietnam government only allows a certain number of permits annually to explore inside and strict rules of what you can and can’t do while in the cave. They even send 2 government representatives with anybody going inside the cave to ensure you comply keeping the ecosystem untouched and environment protected.
There is only one group authorized to take people through this cave. I reached out to them and managed to secure a spot with a team. They recommended, due to the extreme nature of this expedition, that I train 6 months prior and meticulously prepare for the jungle terrain of mountain trekking, 47 river crossings, bouldering, tunnels, rock climbing, deadly green viper snakes and leeches.
Hang Son Doong Cave which means “Mountain River Cave” located in Vietnam. What makes this cave so unique is more people have been on the summit of Mount Everest than inside this massive cave. Less than 800 explorers have been inside this cave making it a rare photography opportunity.
The cave is the largest known cave in the world. According to the British Cave Experts that accompanied us on the expedition with their combined experience of 60 years explained “there is no cave in the world this beautiful with lush green do-line openings”. The cave experts accompany us for safety and ensure environmental and ecosystem compliance.
The cave and its massive structure is 200 meters (656ft) wide and 150 meters (492ft) high and up to 10km (~6mi) deep (what’s known, that is). What makes this cave so unique also is its hard to get to location. We had to be dropped off in the middle of the Vietnam Jungle where we trek 10 to 12km per day through 47 river crossings, up and down mountain ranges, through heavy jungle brush, avoiding green cobra snakes, avoiding leeches and repelling/descending 90 meters (~295ft) inside the pitch black opening to the cave.
I trained as much as I could. Rock climbing and many hikes. I spent months preparing with essentials I would need incase something went wrong. With this expedition, I knew we would be wet for 3 days and semi dry for 2 days. I also knew the only light we would have is our headlamps which wouldn’t give much time to adjust things incase the need arose.
One of the trickiest things about this type of expedition is the climate:
- Lenses fog
- Constantly covered in grit
- Lenses get gritty
- Cameras get gritty
- Cameras can fail
- Lenses fog more
- Batteries drain
- No light
- Hard to light scenes with limited light
- Cameras get banged around
- Trying to stay stable and not fall off a cliff while snapping some photos
- Carrying all your gear (9-11 kg) for 60 KM and 5 days through some of the hardest wet terrain
- And most of all, getting your settings correct so the photos can look half decent for any sponsors or clients.
Realizing we are at least 4-5 days from any civilization, safety must be our number one concern before embarking upon a 5 day physically and mentally demanding journey through the Vietnam jungle.
After being dropped off in the middle of the jungle, we reach the trailhead, where we start trekking for approximately 1-2 hours downhill through the forest, which is quite steep at times. We walk for half an hour along a small stream to the minority village of Ban Doong, which is a real highlight on this expedition. We eat and learn more about this unique ethnic group of people while enjoying lunch beside a small river.
These local villagers live many miles from any civilization and live completely off the land. They are extremely strong survivors. One time during a massive flood they were forced to live in a tree with their entire families for 10 days due to water. All they lived off was leaves.
After this point, we were in the sun all afternoon with about 4 hours along a river, with very little shade. We crossed the river many times and have wet feet for the whole day.
We then reached the entrance to Hang En Cave, home to thousands of swifts. Using a headlight, and you trek/boulder approximately 20 to 30 mins to set up a campsite inside the cave and take some shots. After dinner, a steep climb up boulders for some night shots.
Up at 5:45 AM Passing through Hang En Cave to reach the magnificent exit, we then scramble down to the river valley and then it’s an hour walk through the river, so our boots are going to be wet for most of the day; it is unavoidable, yet part of the fun.
We then start climbing a steep mountain for about 2 hours with some rocky sections to start. At the top of the mountain, we enjoy lunch and fit our safety harness and prepare to go underground. A steep descent with a couple of short rope climbs brings us at last to Son Doong entrance.
We then start the 90 M descent into the cave by making a number of short climbs, using ropes and safety lines. We then enjoy a few more climbs and bouldering to reach the first and second river crossings inside the cave, which are knee-to-thigh deep depending on the water levels.
On our way to the first campsite location in the first large passage of the cave, we need to be extra careful as there are a number of big drops and scrambling over boulders along a rocky path before reaching one of the most spectacular views: Hand of Dog and daylight streaming through the cave. We then scramble down to the first campsite of Son Doong around 3 pm to 4 pm and have the afternoon to soak up the views, snap some pics and rest our bodies.
Up at 5:45 AM after breakfast we start with some rocky climbs, which are dangerously steep in some places, as we reach the first jungle within the cave at Watch Out for Dinosaurs. It takes about 1.5 hrs to travel within the cave from Camp 1 to Watch Out for Dinosaurs. After a short break, we’re trotting down the rocky path to reach the enormous Green Do-Lines, one of the most magnificent spots. Hoping to catch sunbeams there.
It is then a trek through the cave past gigantic formations and plenty of cave pearls towards the light of the second doline and main jungle within the cave. Follow the path past the beautiful foliage reaching towards the light, to reach the underground jungle, unlike anything we could experience on the planet! We cross the jungle for around 1 hour to reach the steep and sometimes slippery path down to our second campsite location within Son Doong Cave.
After a short rest at the campsite, we are back on our feet and trekking deeper within the cave towards the Great Wall of Vietnam. We then pass through a very large dry passage with huge stalagmites and unbelievable views back toward the second doline. Many new creepy crawlies have been discovered within this passage including white spiders, fish, woodlouse and shrimp species so we might make a few friends.
You then reach at this point either a very large beautiful underground lake (where we then paddle to reach the Great Wall of Vietnam) or you find a fantastically adventurous muddy pit (at which you will need to trudge your way through for a few hundred meters to reach the wall).
Up at 5:45 AM. We pack up camp and start heading back to the first doline, with a slightly different route through a small oxbow passage above the underground river in which there is a very steep drop into darkness that we can’t even see the bottom. We use our harnesses, rope and safety line.
Once we have reached the first campsite around 11 am, we have time for a short break before climbing down to the ancient fossil passage, where we witness 350 million year old coral fossils. Finally, we enjoy a small wash in the pools and a big lunch before descending back to the main passage, crossing the river twice and proceeding to rock climb up the 90 meter (~295ft) wet slippery rocks to the entrance of Hans Son Doong.
Wake up at 5:45 AM, pack up camp and start our 10 km trek back to Road 20 after breakfast. We follow the river along the valley and back through Ban Doong Village. We fuel up before starting on what is quite a difficult steep climb back up the mountain for the last 2 hours of this expedition. Once back at the Ho Chi Minh highway highway we have a ride arranged to pick us up and take us back to civilization where we can eat and take a long hot shower.
After this I took a shower went to meet my team to eat an amazingly tasty authentic Vietnamese feast while we all sat quietly reflecting. It was hard to put into words what we all felt being engulfed inside a massive mountain and seeing earth’s amazing wonders first hand. Many of us were emotional leaving this glorious cave.
If anything, what I want to convey with this article is that no matter what you do in life always follow your heart to lead toward your passions. Live every day as though it was your last and make it count. It will be the most rewarding thing your soul will ever experience and will live with you forever.
About the author: Gregg Jaden is a travel photographer and marketing executive based in Manhattan Beach, California. You can connect with him and find more of his work on his website, Instagram, and Twitter.