UK spelunking couple help Vietnamese locals cash in on caving tourism

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Howard Limbert (left) and Ho Khanh, a local in Quang Binh Province who has been his guide around the Phong Nha-Ke Bang cave system since he first came in 1990. Photo courtesy of Saigon Tiep Thi

A British couple who have promoted Vietnam as a major caving destination are now engaged in "giving something back" to local residents.

Howard and Deb Limbert have been avid spelunkers for years. They were part of the British Cave Research Association team that visited Vietnam in 1990, triggering off discoveries that have given the central province of Quang Binh a prominent place on the spelunking map.

Twenty years on, the couple have decided that residents of the province, who have helped in the discovery of new caves, need help in deriving greater benefits from the natural wonders, according to a Saigon Tiep Thi report. 

Three months ago, the Limberts launched free English and caving classes for people living near the Phong Nha-Ke Bang cave system, whose Son Doong was named the world's largest cave.

Deb Limbert said more than 100 people have attended the classes so far.

She said they teach locals simple tourism-related words and how to arrange them into sentences so they can speak with foreigners who come to visit the cave system.

The caving class, which has about ten students, focuses on climbing skills and walking in caves, and is designed to prepare locals to take advantage of opportunities caving tourism brings into the area.

Tourism revenues in Son Trach Commune have more than doubled since 2009, when Son Doong became known worldwide, to VND24.5 billion (US.$1.2 million) in 2011. More than 3,400 jobs have been created, allowing many locals to rebuild their homes.

The caving class will go on for at least two years as the British couple wants to pass their knowledge experience on to future generations.

They had plans to train their children and others in the UK, and decided to do the same for people in Quang Binh.

Howard Limbert, who fell in love with caving as a teenager, first visited Quang Binh in 1990 with his wife and 13 other explorers from the British Cave Research Association, after receiving support from Hanoi University of Science and approval from Quang Binh's government and the park's managers.

"When we first came to Vietnam, we didn't believe that Vietnam would be so important for its caves," he said.

"Nobody knew about caves in Vietnam at that time."

In order to make regular visits to Vietnam, the team has had to work extra hours at home, sometimes having to borrow money to pay for plane tickets and spelunking equipment.

He said the journeys have cost the team millions of dollars but have been worth it as the cave system has continued to amaze them with new and enchanting stalactite structures.

Limbert recalled the first cave they explored in the system, Phong Nha. "We went eight kilometers inside, a huge river cave. It's the most exciting, most tremendous cave that we have ever explored in our lives."

Before Son Doong, in 2003 his team helped win UNESCO world heritage recognition for Phong NhaKe Bang through its many discoveries including Khe Ry, the world's longest cave with a stream.

The team also explored Thien Duong (Paradise) in 2005,
calling it the world's most beautiful cave.

Mai Huu Nhuong, who was chairman of Son Trach Commune People's Committee when the Limberts started caving in Vietnam, has become a close friend of the couple.

"I reserve much admiration for the Limberts. They may live all the way in Europe but our friendship has grown to be very special over the years, like the relationship between the UK and Vietnam," he said.

Howard Limbert gave a lot of credit for his team's discoveries to locals, especially Ho Khanh, who has been with him since the beginning and who offered up his house to host the classes.

He said they only found the caves thanks to locals' memories, and that the people have earned all the improvements which have been made to the area since.

However, scientists who have worked with Limbert and his team singled their indispensable contributions.

Nguyen Hieu, deputy dean of geography at the Hanoi University of Science who joined the expedition team in 1997, said in a VTV talkshow: "If it wasn't for the Limberts and the British Cave Research Association, we would not have known about these amazing sites in our country."

Vu Van Phai, another faculty member of the geography department at the Hanoi University of Science said researching caves presents many difficulties to newcomers to the field like the Vietnamese.

"We take our cooperation with the British Cave Research Association as an opportunity to learn more about their research methods, how they approach caving and to use certain devices to survey caves," he said.

The Faculty of Geography at the Hanoi University of Science has become a second home to the Limberts.

Together, Vietnamese and British cavers have been scouring Vietnam's northerly provinces to gain a complete understanding of the country's cave systems.

"Vietnam and British cavers have been able to discover and map over 250 kilometers of caves across Vietnam. Together, they have been able to convince UNESCO to recognize Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park as a World Heritage site," said Professor Pham Quang Tuan, another faculty member of the Hanoi University of Science.

Limbert said he will continue exploring Vietnam's cave system for at least a couple more years, calling it the home of natural miracles.

"Never in my [imagination] did I think we'd still be working [in Vietnam] after 22 years," he said last year.

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