Huge rock formations the size of multi-story buildings protrude above Ho Minh Phuc as it takes a path through the darkness in the world’s largest cave.

Ho, who once made a living from illegal logging, is a porter for the small tour groups exploring the Vietnamese son Doong – a cave so large that it has its own ecosystem and weather pattern.

The cave is home to flying foxes and a 70 m high rock formation that resembles a dog’s paw. It’s an otherworldly wonder that has changed the life of the surrounding community since it opened for boutique tourism in 2013.

Trapped in poverty, young men like Ho once had no choice but to search the depths of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park – the World Heritage Site where Son Doong is located.

There they looked for valuable agar wood, a highly sought-after material known as the “wood of the gods” and often used for incense.

Others made a living by hunting endangered civets and porcupines in the forest.

“We had to do everything we could to avoid the Rangers,” said Phuc, 35. “We haven’t done anything good for nature.”

Son Doong in central Quang Binh Province was first discovered by local collector Ho Khanh in 1991 when he stumbled upon an opening in a limestone cliff and heard the sounds of a river deep inside.

However, after returning home through the thick jungle, Ho Khanh forgot where the hidden entrance was and was lost for another two decades.

When he finally led a team of British experts in 2009, the team found that it had the largest cross-section of any cave on the planet.

It’s big enough to hold the 40-story skyscrapers of an entire New York block, according to the adventure tour company Oxalis, which takes visitors into the caves.

When Son Doong opened to tourists four years later, the lives of Ho Khanh and hundreds of locals changed forever.

They soon became porters and guides, opening their homes to guests who wanted a bed for the night.

“Some became rich in wood, but most lived very hard lives,” said 52-year-old Ho Khanh of the time before the cave was opened to the outside world.

“When tour operators walked in, I told the youngsters that their first duty was to protect the environment, not only to help ourselves but also to help our children … so life can get better.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Vietnamese tourism industry was booming, but the communist country has come under fire for failing to preserve landscapes as it is rapidly expanding the sector.

The area has so far largely stayed away from the mass tourism model used in other Vietnamese vacation hotspots such as Halong Bay, where cruise ships have spewed sewage into once pristine waters.

Since only one company has been allowed to work in each of the key caves, there is an incentive to protect them by limiting the number of visitors and keeping prices high.

But the challenges lie ahead of us, Unesco recently warned.

Poaching remains one of the “most serious threats” to the national park, according to a report that also raised concerns about a proposal to build a cable car to the nearby Hang En Cave.

Logging has not gone away either – 18 people were convicted of felling trees in the national park last year.

Protect Son Doong

When Covid-19 took over the world, the locals who took care of international travelers struggled. According to Ho Khanh, its guests have fallen 90% since the pandemic began.

But Son Doong has weathered the crisis pretty well overall, thanks to a surge in attendance among the fast-growing Vietnamese middle class.

The caves’ high-end tourism model, which provides around 500 jobs for the local population, has started to spark interest in other areas, Oxalis said.

However, industry experts are skeptical that the pandemic could cause a change of direction across the country.

The Vietnamese tourism industry has “made some very good policy choices, but they have generally ignored their own policies,” says Peter Burns, a tourism planning advisor and professor who worked on a five-year European Union-funded sustainable tourism project in Vietnam Has.

Despite the strict environmental protection, “they tend to build things anyway,” he said, pointing to the spread of high-rise hotels in Halong Bay.

For Porter Ho, it is crucial that the Son Doong pandemic does not lead to a similar outcome.

“If we were to expand into mass tourism, it would of course damage the natural landscape,” he said. “That would be horrible.” – AFP