In 2013, the Vietnamese media and the world exploded with information about Son Doong – the largest cave on the planet. The foreign press uses words like ghostly, amazing, and unimaginable… to talk about Son Doong. The first person to find it was a local shanty named Ho Khanh. Although he appeared in many international articles and was called such beautiful words as the King of the Cave, and the Number One Guide… but his life was not “sparkling” like in heroic movies.
“King of the Cave” struggles to make a living
Phong Nha is like a big valley surrounded by majestic mountains with the blue Son river in the dry season. Before developing tourism, Phong Nha was poor. Outside of farming, people mainly go to the forest, exploit forest products, and hunt or find agarwood.
Ho Khanh was born in 1968, and has a typical local tan skin and agile physique. Growing up in a family of farmers, with many brothers, from the age of eighteen and twenty, he went to the forest to earn a living.
Ho Khanh said, the mountainous terrain here is limestone mountains, outside there are very few streams. Foresters who want to find drinking water often have to find inside the caves. Therefore, Mr. Khanh has set foot in hundreds of caves in the area of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park.
Endowed with agility and a strong survival instinct, Ho Khanh became a famous mountain in the region for his skills and experience in caving. However, his living life revolved around difficulties, raising goats was swept away by floods, growing rice was affected by natural disasters, farming was cleared for land… Although he worked hard and managed all kinds of jobs. But there are stages, the whole family of 5 mouths have to change each meal day by day.
What Ho Khanh is best at is probably going to the jungle and caving. Later, when international cave organizations came to Quang Binh, his talent had land to build martial arts. He became a trusted guide for international groups of cave experts, even though he did not speak English.
In 1990, during a trip to the forest, Mr. Ho Khanh first discovered the mouth of Son Doong cave. What makes him special is that when standing at the entrance of the cave, he will see the fog flying with a strong wind equivalent to level 5.6 blowing out from the inside.
” That cave was wider and more different than the previous ones, so when I went to work on a cave later, I also told the Association that in the 90’s I met a different cave than the caves I discovered in the area. this ” Mr. Khanh recalled.
Howard Limber, a world-famous cave expert, when he heard that, said, ” If it’s as you describe, it’s probably the largest cave in this area “. Howard urged Ho Khanh to try to find the location of the cave entrance.
After many attempts to search but failed, everyone thought that this mysterious cave would never be found. Everything seemed to be over, but Ho Khanh still silently searched for the mysterious cave many years later.
In 2008, on another hunting trip, Ho Khanh was lucky to find the location of the seemingly forgotten cave door. He carefully jotted down the route in his head and tried to contact Howard.
In 2009, Ho Khanh led Howard, Deb and a number of other cave experts back to the cave entrance, opening the way for further explorations later.
There is a rule, the first person to find the cave will have the right to name the cave. The name Son Doong was taken by Mr. Khanh after the name of the forest with caves – Doong forest. According to Mr. Khanh, the name was given in order to keep the local name, from fading away. As for the name “Son”, simply because the mouth of the cave is on the mountain, it is called Son.
The name Son Doong was born like that, as simple as the man who found it.
After Son Doong was measured and recognized as the largest cave in the world, Khanh’s name became famous. He appeared in many documentaries and international articles.
One day in October 2022, when asked how his life changed after discovering the largest cave in the world, Mr. Khanh just laughed, ” To tell the truth, in the past, I used to go to the forest or go to the caves. I didn’t think it was the largest cave in the world or later for tourism.”
In fact, after Son Doong was recognized as the world’s largest cave in 2009, the person who discovered it still struggled with the problem of making a living and raising three children to study.
Once, the cave expert Howart Limbert and his wife were invited to Phong Nha by a leading travel company to work as a consultant, they met Ho Khanh and his wife again picking grass in the sweet potato garden on the side of the Son River. The Howard couple at that time could not hold back their tears because “the number one guide” had a very poor life.
Talking about the first business of Ho Khanh and his wife, was opening a coffee shop. After 2 years of working as a farm and then being cleared, Mr. Khanh turned to open a small cafe called Ho in the mountain so that his wife could have a job. Phong Nha tourism at that time was not yet developed, guests were mainly people who came to Phong Nha national forest to work as research groups, explorers, rangers.
In 2004, the first year it was recognized as a World Natural Heritage site, visitors to Phong Nha – Ke Bang increased dramatically. From 196,227 visitors to Phong Nha Ke Bang in 2003 has increased to 329,438 visitors, an increase of 68%.
The small shop of Mr. Khanh and his wife has received an additional number of tourists, some of whom have been introduced by experts who have worked with him, such as Howart Limbert.
Ho Khanh’s coffee shop business stopped when in 2012, realizing the potential of Phong Nha – Ke Bang tourism development, he decided to invest in a homestay with the first 3 rooms.
In the two years of 2013 – 2014 with many tourists, Mr. Khanh boldly borrowed money from the bank to invest in 5 more rooms in 2014.
Homestay’s guest source mainly comes from friends and acquaintances. There are people who know his name, so they are curious to visit, meet, talk and take pictures with him.
During these years, along with his work at Oxalis, Mr. Khanh’s family life gradually stabilized.
From “Guide” to “Porter Leader” and difficult business after Covid
In 2013, when the Son Doong adventure tour was put into operation by the Oxalis travel company, Mr. Khanh became a porter (porter), bringing delegations, film crews and foreign news agencies to explore large caves. best in the world in their own country.
This job brings a stable source of income for Mr. Khanh, ending a series of precarious days with potatoes and rice. Currently, he is the captain of an Oxalis porter team, consisting of 125 people, all of them locals.
According to Mr. Khanh, an average porter at Oxalis can have an average income of about 8-10 million VND/month with 14-15 working days.
Mr. Khanh assessed that the most important skill for a porter is survival and coping skills, many people have health but do not have skills nor can they go to the forest. He himself is now over 50 years old, does not often go on tours, but when there are large and important groups of guests, Mr. Khanh will directly run and direct the team.
His bravery, skills, experience and passion for cave exploration have passed on to the next generations. Asking Mr. Ho Khanh’s house in Phong Nha is a simple job, because everyone knows him.
The work at Oxalis gives Mr. Khanh and hundreds of families in Phong Nha a stable livelihood. From exploiting forests since ancient times, they have become conservationists, making an important contribution to protecting and preserving the diverse flora and fauna ecosystems of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
The second generation in the family was oriented to study foreign languages by Mr. Khanh to return to tourism. His son is currently intern as a guide at Oxalis.
He shared, ” I want to let my local children or children do it in my locality. Or better. Anyway, it’s close to home and its homeland, it has more passion, a sense of preservation and conservation. “
Walking along the cement road with straight areca trees and low stone walls, I entered the homestay area. Two lovely blocks of houses separated by a clean red brick yard on the banks of the Son River. The clear space after the rain echoes the sound of birdsong, the sound of children chirping and laughing, the sound of motorboats breaking the water carrying passengers into Phong Nha cave…
Looking for information about Ho Khanh Homestay on travel sites, I read a lot of positive feedback from a few years ago.
” We stayed three nights at Ho Khanh’s homestay. It was right on the river, and the view was stunning. Everything was clean and well-maintained. Breakfast was delicious and the family made sure we had a good stay. They helped us with train tickets, transportation to and from the train station (even gave us breakfast so we could have something to eat before the trip when we left early), do our laundry after the trip and bring ginger tea ” Allison G from Washington DC reviewed in 2018.
That must have been a glorious time in Mr. Khanh’s family’s accommodation business career. Contrary to the current scene, the rooms are closed and lonely.
In 2020, the Covid storm began to sweep through, like other accommodation businesses in the area, Mr. Khanh and his family also had two difficult years of losing customers. Until now, Mr. Khanh said that the number of visitors still cannot recover as before.
The staff working for the homestay have all been off since Covid, only the wife and daughter (married) of Mr. Khanh manage. Unpaid bank debt. Every day, his family has to clean and run the drying fan to keep the room clean and not degraded when there are no guests staying.
” Must run a dehumidifier without preventing damage. Economic losses are 2 to 2.5 million per month for maintenance electricity, ” Mr. Khanh said.
” In Phong Nha, there are many homestays, there are dozens of them. During the Covid pandemic, small private homestays that were financially weak also had to close. Now whoever can survive will probably survive ” Minh, a local in Phong Nha told me.
After the rain, the sun rises to reveal lovely houses with red tile roofs and yellow walls lying next to green trees. I asked him, what do you intend to develop to attract guests to Ho Khanh Homestay, Mr. Khanh laughed
” No intention. I’m old, it’s his right to do whatever he wants in the future. I’m old-fashioned.”
Before, when it came to his trips to the jungle to explore caves, he had never called himself old!
The excellence and passion of a lifetime, perhaps, shines through in his forte – caving. Anyway, thanks to that, Son Doong was discovered in 2009, contributing to promoting Phong Nha – Quang Binh tourism, creating jobs and livelihoods for thousands of local people.
Keyword: The untold story of the ‘King of the Cave’ Ho Khanh – the man who discovered Son Doong