On a trip into the jungle, Mr Ho Khanh happened to see a brilliant cloud moving out of the mouth of a distant cave, as if driven by a strong wind. Upon coming closer, he recognized that the cave was exceptionally large, though at that time he had no idea that it would eventually be proclaimed the largest cave in the world, some 18 years later. A discovery journey of the largest cave in the world.
Mr Ho Khanh, who discovered Son Doong Cave, was awarded a Labor Order. On the left was Mr. Limbert
Ho Khanh, known locally as “the king of caves”, is forty-five years old. Tall, thin and muscular, he lives in Son Trach commune, Bo Trach district (Quang Binh). Recalling his memory of that jungle trip in 1990, Mr Khanh says: “At that time, I simply was in the forest to make a living, like many other local people.” Upon standing at the mouth of this giant cave and feeling the wind which blew clouds out from its depths, he was deeply impressed. However, at that time, there was little he could do to make this place better known, so he moved on and continued his work in the jungle. Having spent much time in this wild area, he knew its marvels quite well, and it was only after Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park was established that he returned to farming his rice fields.
Years later when experts of the British Cave Research Association (BCRA) came to Quang Binh in 2008 to conduct exploratory cave expeditions, he returned to the area of the caves. The expert team tracked down local people who had comprehensive knowledge about caves in that area to support their expeditions. When he mentioned to the caving experts the large cave he had found, Mr. Howard Limbert, a member in team, was intrigued and excited about that cave, Mr Khanh remembers.
From Ho Khanh’s description, Mr Limbert inferred that this was quite a large cave, and he encouraged Mr Khanh to relocate the mouth of the cave. “At that time, I was not really interested in returning to the jungle; nevertheless, I could not turn him down because he was so excited,” Mr Khanh says.
Before going back into the jungle, Ho Khanh talked with other local elders who knew many of the area’s caves, but none knew the place he described. Hồ Khanh had no choice but to return to the jungle alone. On the first day, he lost his way in spectacular jungle, but with his long experience, he was able to relocate the cave opening on the second day.
A year later, a team of professionals returned to survey the cave, and at this point Ho Khanh and Howard Limbert officially explored the entire cave, which was proclaimed the largest cave in the world by National Geographic Magazine in 2010.
“As a rule, caves are named after the person discovering them. But instead of bearing the name Hồ Khánh, there was a proposal to rename it “Đòong” after a small village on the way to the cave, and I agreed with the name Sơn Đòong, which meant ‘mountain behind Đòong village’,” Mr Khanh said.
Ho Khanh continues his cooperation with caving experts of the British Cave Research Association, each year exploring more of the Phong Nha jungle to find more caves. Later, Mr Khanh was permitted to name caves, and there are many caves named after his family members, such as “Nghĩa” Cave (his wife), “Thái Hòa” (his son), and “Hùng” cave ( his friend).
It was he who explored “ Thiên Đường” cave which is now opened for tourism and drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors. “I used to want to give up jungle exploring, but now I don’t feel right without doing it. The job is hard though, and can involve snake or insect bits, falls and extreme exertion,” he said.
Many expedition teams and biologists choose Ho Khanh to guide them on trips researching bats, langurs or looking particular plant species. “In the beginning, I was always at risk since I lacked protective equipment, but after many years I saved enough to buy my own professional equipment for caving. This is extremely expensive; a single piece of rock climbing gear can cost several million Vietnam dong,” Khanh said.
Proud of his discovery of some 30 caves which have highlighted to the world the natural beauty of Vietnam, Mr Hồ Khánh gradually learned to love this job. He keeps in touch with young cavers in the area to offer them advice and to hear about any newly discovered caves.
Before going to the jungle with the expert team, he meets with them to determine a realistic schedule and set up the best places for them to visit.
In 2011, when Son Doong is operated for tourism, Mr Khanh became an employee of a cave exploring unit and a team leader of the porter group supporting tourists. He has also opened a small cafeteria at home near the poetic Son River leading to Phong Nha and Tien Son caves.
The small and simple store “Mountain Lake” is a meeting place for people who love exploring caves like Ho Khanh. He takes advantage of a tiny garden to build a hostel to support tourists from around the world who come to visit the Phong Nha cave kingdom.
These days, Mr Khanh is very busy in collecting information for an expedition in March next year.
Recently, Mr Ho Khanh, Mr Howard Limbert and other experts of the British Cave Research Association, who discovered, explored and proclaimed Son Doong Cave to be the largest cave in the world, are awarded the Labor Order – Third Class by the Vietnamese government.
Hereunder are some maps of Phong Nha Ke Bang Cave System