Cavernous splendor

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A forest of stalactites that tells a thousand stories awaits visitors at Thien Duong Cave


Thien Duong (Paradise) Cave, formed around 300 to 400 million years ago, dazzles visitors

From the historic Ho Chi Minh Road (former Ho Chi Minh Trail), you veer off on a path

through dense forest for about four kilometers, then you climb 519 rocky steps, and you're in... heaven, well, Paradise.

Thien Duong (Paradise) Cave, labeled the world's most beautiful and magnificent cave when it was discovered in the central province of Quang Binh in 2005, has been open to tourists since September 3.

Located in the middle of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in Quang Binh, the cave was formed around 300-400 million years ago, surrounded by underground streams and rocky mountains.

It is impossible not to be amazed at the huge stalactite structures of different shapes, with some mounds climbing more than 50 meters inside a cave that is about 60 meters high.

The cave is 30-100 meters wide, with the widest point measuring 150 meters, according to the British Caving Association, the Governing Body for Underground Exploration in the UK. There are two stalactite pillars, each about five meters high and a rock arch around 100 meters wide. Take a deep breath before you go further to prepare yourself for what is ahead, or you will think you have stepped into a primitive forest that aged into stalactite.

Stalactites that look like temples, cranes with their arched necks looking up to the sky and a pine tree with hundreds of branches are dotted throughout this underground world. With a little imagination, there is no end to the shapes to be found in the cave.

HOW TO GET THERE?

By plane/train: From Hanoi to Dong Hoi Town. Then take a car to Thien Duong Cave which is 35 kilometers away.

By car: From Hanoi, go along the National Way No.1 for just over 400 kilometers to Dong Hoi Town, and another 35 kilometers to Thien Duong Cave. Or, take Ho Chi Minh Road from Nghe An Province. A path to the cave is located at the 16th km milestone. It is five kilometers long through the Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park. The first two kilometers can be covered by the car. For the remaining three kilometers, Truong Thinh Company asks you to use environmentally friendly vehicles like the electronic bike, bicycle or to go on foot.

What's more, around Thien Duong Cave are dozens of stalactite mounds 30-50 centimeters tall, resembling Buddha statues, some of them with diameters of more than a meter. One stalactite structure looks like the communal house of the Central Highlands people.

The ground water in the cave has, over millions of years, shaped stones into coins, neatly covering the slopes as though someone has carefully arranged them.

Deeper into the cave is an area where stalactites form a sand table.

The temperature in the cave is always at between 20-21 degrees Celsius, cooling you instantly as you step in from outside temperatures of 36-37 degrees Celsius.

Howard Limbert, a member of the British Caving Association, says Thien Duong Cave might be the longest dry cave in Asia.

British explorers found the cave in 2005 thanks to a local resident, Ho Khanh. Khanh has in fact made it somewhat of a hobby to find new caves.

He discovered the world's largest cave Son Doong, in 1991 and claims to have discovered dozens of caves in the national park over the years.

Thien Duong Cave is around 36 kilometers long but the cave "developer", Hanoi-based tourism and resort operator Truong Thinh, only allows visitors to go about 500 meters into it. The company introduces it as one of the destinations in a tour starting at the Sun Spa Resort in Dong Hoi Town and ending at the Tam Co Cave a historic site where a group of young volunteers were killed by US bombs in 1972.

Given the number and shape of its stalactite formations, people say Thien Duong Cave is more beautiful than the famous Phong Nha and Thien Son caves in the area that attract many tourists.

The floor of the cave is a soft, sticky kind of soil. The slightest sound is echoed by the walls of the cave.

Listen carefully, and you may be able to hear the whispers of thousands of stories being told.

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