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A conversation with Howard Limbert – The man who spent 29 years in Phong Nha, exploring caves

Passion is a feeling that runs through all our veins and gives us a reason to be up every morning. But there are some extraordinary people living among us whose drive and passion are truly inspirational for the whole world and shows how far one can go to live a life of purpose. To be able to live a life that changes lives for the better is something very few great people can do. Mr. Howard Limbert is one of them.

At 62 years of age, Howard has always led a life of real adventure and has played a very major role in changing the face of the Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam for almost 3 decades! A part of the British Cave Research Association (BCRA), Howard is one of the top cave experts in the world and also the technical director of Oxalis Adventure, along with his wife Deb Limbert. We had the privilege of having a candid conversation with the man himself and find out about his special connection with Phong Nha.

Here’s what Howard Limbert had to say!

My days of caving began back in school as a 15-year-old kid. My teacher offered me to either choose running or caving and climbing. I chose caving & climbing and when turned 16.

- Howard Limbert

1. How and when did you first get introduced to caving and adventure in general? Tell us about the first cave that you ever visited!

My days of caving began back in school as a 15-year-old kid. My teacher offered me to either choose running or caving and climbing. I chose caving & climbing and when turned 16, I joined a caving club in the UK wherein I caved in numerous UK caves and that’s how my journey of caving began.

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I can never forget that experience of being in a cave for the first time, as it never happened again! One of my teachers took me and two of my mates to the entrance of the cave, gave us lights and helmets, sat down there as he smoked a cigarette and said “Off you go!” The three of us went inside and came out only after 3 hours or so and even though we thought it was a relatively easy cave to explore, I remember it being so brilliant and exciting at that time, and I absolutely loved it! It doesn’t work like this in today’s schools as they are a lot more professional and less relaxed unlike when I went to school.

2. When did you become a part of the British Cave Research Association (BCRA)?

It’s been so many years now! Just like many other cavers, I too joined the BCRA quite early on. I was exploring many caves when I was back in England and then I started going to Europe on caving expeditions. At that stage I was leading expeditions in the late 70s and even early 80s to European caves; that’s how I got inducted into the BCRA. I also had a significant involvement in various committees there that were giving out grants to the caving expeditions.  

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Howard Limbert speaks at a press conference on Son Doong Diving in Hanoi on April 9, 2019. Photo: AFP

3. Tell us about your first visit to Vietnam and especially Phong Nha!

I had been caving all over the world; Borneo, Australia, New Zealand, lots of places in Europe, Central America, South America and even did caving expeditions in Mexico for 10 years. After having caved all over the world, I just fancied something different! There was a book for cavers, called the “Atlas of caves” and for Laos, Burma (now Myanmar) and Vietnam, it said “Nobody has ever been there, but there could be a lot of caves.”

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Howard (yellow shirt) and Deb Limbert (striped shirt) during the meeting with General Vo Nguyen Giap in 1992.

In 1989, I wrote a letter to these three countries expressing my interest in exploring caves. Laos and Burma rejected my letter saying no one was allowed in to explore caves at that time. That was when the Hanoi University of Science in Vietnam gave me a positive response and decided to sponsor me for travelling to Vietnam. We were the first ever caving group to set foot in Vietnam. It took us 5 days from Hanoi to Phong Nha and another day to get from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha and it felt like a major expedition in itself to get to Phong Nha. We then began our exploration on boats along the Son River and we explored the Phong Nha cave, the Hang Toi cave (Dark Cave) and a couple more in the same area.

After about 8 days, we found around 10 kilometers of cave in Vietnam, but we had not gone to the end of any passage in Phong Nha.

4. How was Phong Nha different from the other places you did caving in? How was it established that Phong Nha is home to over 300 caves?

It was back in 1992-1994, when we first went into the jungles of the Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park and I remember it being extremely difficult! There were lots of undetonated bombs and other risky elements; the Son Trach committee (the local committee) members accompanied us, ensured our safety at all times and looked after us very well!

Every time we explore a cave, we make sure that we map it very accurately. As we have explored the caves ourselves, we can confidently say that there are 350 caves at present that we have explored since 1990 till 2019. For every cave, we GPS the entrance, we map the cave with accurate laser measurements and we draw a survey of the cave with the semi-significant length of the cave. This way we have information on every single cave that we have ever discovered and explored, not only in Phong Nha but throughout Vietnam. People can find all this information in the British Caving library or even on the internet. All this information is also duly circulated between the National Park and the PPC.

The first cave we have explored in Phong Nha was the Phong Nha CavePeople were obviously aware of the entrance and explored probably 500-600 meters of the cave; but no one had really ventured far in to explore this huge cave; we went to the absolute end of the cave and it was quite difficult. The Phong Nha cave is 10 KM long, making it the third longest river cave in all of Vietnam. The conditions inside the cave make it incredibly sharp and dangerous in places and going that far in is definitely not suitable for amateurs or tourists; it’s indeed a fantastic caver’s cave, though!

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Howard Limbert and Ho Khanh – The first one who found Son Doong Cave. Photo: Quang Binh Go

My motivation to stay in Phong Nha began with the caves before transitioning to the local people and their welfare.

- Howard Limbert

5. What motivated you to stay in Phong Nha, Vietnam for almost 3 decades and what is your most special achievement in Phong Nha?

At first, it was the caves and also the fact that the locals were living in incredible poverty when I first got to Phong Nha. Many people even lost their life the first time I arrived, due to malnutrition and Malaria. As I am a medical professional, I have an expertise in Malaria, so I could help them to a very great extent in the early days by setting up treatment and bringing in doctors to show local nurses how to diagnose Malaria. My motivation to stay in Phong Nha began with the caves before transitioning to the local people and their welfare. By virtue of the fact that I frequented Phong Nha so much, I made a lot of friends among the local people and contributing to their development became a goal for me.

Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam and Howard Limbert on the way to Hang En Cave to answer an interview with ABC Television (2015).

The people of Phong Nha have been nothing but unbelievably helpful and friendly to me and my wife (Deb Limbert) since the time we first arrived. Phong Nha, on the whole, is so friendly, crime free and everyone looks after us very well. It is really great having a house and living full time in Phong Nha.

Having been the leader of the team that actually discovered and explored the world’s largest cave – Hang Son Doong and brought it to the world’s knowledge with all the films and the various publicity stints, Son Doong is undoubtedly the biggest achievement as it significantly changed the life of people in Phong Nha for the best.

6. How would you describe Phong Nha as a destination and its evolution over years?

Phong Nha is a beautiful and natural place. It is the purity of the nature; not destroyed and certainly not too glamorized. The terrain of the mountains in Phong Nha looks very beautiful and naturally protects itself.  

When I first came to Phong Nha, it had nothing, the locals didn’t have enough money, they were completely battered, and starving. Nothing really majorly changed until the last 4-5 years (2014-2015) with the influx of tourists. The change in the last two years has been absolutely tremendous and the biggest advantage is the fact that it’s all done by the local people. It’s mainly when the local people that own all the land realized the true potential of the area and began to grow organically. What’s truly delightful is that the local people have gained immensely from the boom in tourism and not just big businesses.

All this wouldn’t have happened without Son Doong, because we were fortunate to take National Geographic magazine and film. It was actually the magazine that set it all off; after we discovered Son Doong, about 80% of the people who came to Phong Nha were attracted due to the cave’s feature in the Nat Geo magazine. In short, Son Doong will always be the primary reason that began the influx of tourists in Phong Nha.

There’s a lot to do in Phong Nha and we’ve only explored perhaps 30 % of the area and the remaining unexplored areas are actually quite difficult to explore. Every year, a team of caving experts comes back to Phong Nha from the UK to explore the area and who knows what will be found next when these unexplored caves are actually explored; that’s what makes cave exploration so exciting. And that’s the thing that makes Phong Nha become a potential place for major caving in the future!

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Mr. and Mrs. Limbert took a photo with Director of Kong: Skull Islands Movie: Jordan Vogt Roberts and Mr. Dang Dong Ha, Deputy Director of Quang Binh Tourism Department. Photo: Báo Quảng Bình

7. How and when did your relationship with Oxalis Adventure begin?

By the year 2011, I and my wife Deb had retired but we had been in Phong Nha so many times that we wanted to come back to help and support the growth of the local community by teaching English. I wrote to the National Park and the Provincial People’s Committee (PPC) of Quang Binh, asking if they could get me a visa to come and help the local people. They redirected me to Mr. Chau A Nguyen; Chau was in Phong Nha at that time and was very keen on starting an adventure tour company. He told me that he could get our visas arranged and was also looking for our help to set up the adventure tour company Oxalis Adventure.

We happily agreed to the proposed collaboration and what followed was some English teaching for the locals and an incredibly rapid growth of Oxalis over the years.

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Mr. Howard Limbert (left) and Mr. Nguyen Chau A (right) – CEO of Oxalis Adventure. Photo: NVCC.

People think when you have tourism, the conservation aspect of it goes for a toss. But in the case of Phong Nha, it is quite the contrary. The main reason is that we as Oxalis employ the local people (almost 500 people) that once used to go to the jungle for hunting and logging. Since Oxalis has come into their life providing stable employment, they don’t find the need to go into the jungle anymore for those activities and this way the potential damage to the environment and the wildlife has been reduced significantly and I wish this for the future as well.

I have worked closely with UNESCO and they’re really pleased with how Oxalis Adventure is doing such a fantastic job and exemplarily redefining responsible tourism for the whole country of Vietnam. As long as I’m here, I will ensure that everything continues like this and we keep up the sustainable tourism without making way for mass tourism, which can irreversibly damage a place like Phong Nha. We will continue to look after it and strictly monitor everything.

Hang Son Doong

8. A message to the outside world about Phong Nha?

There’s no doubt that Phong Nha is indeed the adventure capital of Vietnam and possibly South-East Asia! Phong Nha is a place for nature lovers and people who would like to do adventure; there are even many soft adventures that one can do here, along with mass tourism in beautiful caves like Phong Nha cave, Paradise Cave and Hang Toi (Dark Cave).   

What I’m really proud about is that now there are so many people going on proper adventure tours to proper caves, which can only happen here in Phong Nha and nowhere else in the whole world.

99 The green jungle of Hang Son Doong-3
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Hang En Campsite - Jason Speth
Paradise Cave 3
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Dark Cave 6

Oxalis Adventure Tours

ONE DAY TOURS

If you are seeking a taste of the caves and really don’t have enough time then we recommend a one-day cave and jungle trek. We currently have three tour options for you to select, each with a slightly different style and suitability.

• Phong Nha National Park 1-DayOur family adventure in the Phong Nha offers a great taste of untouched jungle and impressive wild caves. It is the easiest level of adventure but there is still 5km of trekking and 2km of caving, and optional swimming during warmer weather into one cave. It’s suitable for kids from 12 and above with good fitness, and so this makes for a great day for everyone! It costs VND 1,650,000 per person (USD 72).

• Tu Lan Experience – 1 DayThis is one of our original one-day tours and still one of the best adventures in Vietnam. This one-day tour includes rock scrambling, 50m swimming through a wild river-cave, and up to 9 km of trekking through the lush jungles. You will also strap yourself in for a 15m descent down a ladder. It costs VND 1,800,000 (USD 78) per person.

• Hang Tien Discovery – 1 DayThis one-day tour is perfect for trekking enthusiasts eager to see the largest cave of Tu Lan but without time for the two-day experience. Hang Tien is a dry cave so no swimming required, but still includes up to 4km of trekking through mostly flat jungle and about 500m exploring this incredible cave that will no doubt impress with its grandeur. It costs VND 2,000,000 per person (USD 87).

TWO DAY TOURS

Our most popular cave adventures start from two-days providing an immersive jungle and caving adventure, each targeting a slightly different kind of adventure-seeker, or perfect for those who want to combine a couple of tours to see different caves and areas on one trip to Phong Nha.

• Tu Lan Cave Encounter – 2 DaysOur most popular tour exploring the famous jungle area of Tu Lan. On this overnight camping excursion, you will trek through a number of different dry caves, swim up to 500m through a couple of river caves, witness outstanding cascading waterfalls underground as featured in National Geographic, and spend the night at our jungle camp beside a gorgeous waterfall. It includes 12km of trekking and 3km of caving in total and is for those with a good adventurous spirit. It costs VND 5,500,000 per person (USD 239).

• Hang En Cave Adventure – 2 DaysFor two days, this is our best-value-for-money tour that includes one of the most jaw-dropping natural landscapes you will see in this lifetime. This cave is considered the second largest cave in Vietnam and third largest in the World, and it also makes up one night of the original five-day Son Doong Cave Expedition being so close to the largest cave in the world. It includes visiting Ban Doong Ethnic Village, located in the jungle, and a magnificent campsite on a sandy beach inside the cave. It includes 22km of jungle trekking at times quite rocky, multiple knee-deep river crossings, and elevation change of 400m (the ‘hill’ you won’t forget), and 4km of caving. This is a level 3 adventure on a scale of 1 to 6. It costs VND 7,600,000 per person (USD 330).

• Hang Tien Endeavor – 2 DaysA two-day trek into the jungle to see the largest dry cave of the Tu Lan area, exploring 5.5km of this truly stunning cave, with a variety of karst formations. This 13km trek is suitable for those not too keen on cave swimming or too many hills, but still up for an adventure. This is a level 4 adventure between 1 and 6, with 6 being the most challenging. It costs VND 6,500,000 per person (USD 283).

• Hang Va Expedition – 2 DaysA technically challenging, but equally rewarding two-day caving adventure in the heart of Phong Nha National Park. This tour takes you deep into the jungle to one of the most spectacular river-caves, with formations not seen anywhere else in the world! It involves rock scrambling, wading through an underground river, bouldering and rope-traversing within the cave, to reach the rarest tower cone formations. This involves quite a lot of technical work due to safety, but is not overly difficult, it includes 10km of trekking and 3 km of caving.  This is a level 4 adventure, with 6 being the highest. It costs VND 8,000,000 per person (USD 348).

THREE-DAY TOURS

Now, if you really want to increase the adventure and soak up the wild jungle of Vietnam, with plenty of time to relax and enjoy the area, we highly recommend a three-day caving tour of our Tu Lan or Hang Tien.

• Wild Tu Lan Cave Explorer – 3 DaysThis tour incorporates the very best of Tu Lan with two different jungle campsites besides stunning waterfalls, 3km of cave exploring through a number of caves, 1km of cave swimming and visiting some additional areas not included on our shorter experiences. Our three-day tour is very popular and tends to be booked out so get in quick to enjoy this thrilling jungle adventure. It includes 17 km of jungle trekking and with quite a bit of swimming you will need to have a good level of fitness. It is not for the faint-hearted, but still only considered level 3 adventure level compared to level 4 of the Hang Tien 3-day tour. It costs VND 8,000,000 per person (USD 348).

• Hang Tien Exploration – 3 DaysThis three-day tour stands out for combining a taste of Tu Lan with some river cave swimming, before crossing a mountain range to reach the valley for Hang Tien – the most astounding dry caves in the region, where you will enjoy trekking, bouldering over various rocky terrains to witnessing breathtaking patterned calcite walls & ceilings of Hang Tien. It’s challenging and definitely more suited to adventure enthusiasts who have trekking experience and prefer more challenging routes. It includes a total of 22km of trekking, 6.5 km of caving and an elevation change of 150m over one particular hillside. You will get wet, you will be challenged, but you will not be disappointed. Hang Tien is located adjacent to the Tu Lan area so you will enjoy the best of both worlds – a level 4 adventure out of 6 adventure levels. It costs VND 8,500,000 per person (USD 370).

FOUR & FIVE-DAY TOURS

For those looking for the ultimate adventure experience in Vietnam, and thriving for the real grand expedition of the world, you should opt for these 4-day journeys to explore the entire cave system of Tu Lan and the largest cave on Earth

• Tu Lan Expedition – 4 DaysYou will also explore all of the extraordinary caves in Tu Lan, including Kim Cave and Secret Cave that boasts phenomenal natural falls and karst formations inside these two unbelievable river caves. Complete a trek through Hang Tien Cave – famed for its vastness and magnificent formations. Our secluded jungle campsites are spectacular and mostly different from those visited on our shorter treks in the same region. This is a perfect alternative expedition for those who are unable to do Son Doong Expedition, still it’s challenging and not recommended for those without experience. It includes an additional night at Chay Lap Farmstay before the tour to ensure you are well rested and ready to depart early the following day. Level 5 on our 6 adventure levels. It includes 30km of jungle trekking, 5 km of caving, about 800m swimming through caves and one abseil in a cave in the pitch black – highly adventurous! It costs VND 15,000,000 per person (USD 652).

• Son Doong Expedition – 4 DaysBy now you would have seen some pictures of Son Doong Cave, and even they don’t do it justice. The record-breaking Son Doong Cave is hands-down one of the most stunning places on this planet Earth. The expedition is tough, but not too difficult so long as you have a strong resolve to achieve. It is surely one of the newest wonders of the world. Son Doong is not just another cave tour – it is life-changing to say the least. It includes 25km of trekking, 9 km caving including rope climbs, and the 90m ascent of the Great Wall of Vietnam using a ladder, elevation change of 400m and many river crossings inside and outside the cave. Level 6 on our adventure levels. It costs VND 69,800,000 per person (USD 3000).

STILL HAVE QUESTIONS?  Visit our FAQs section where we have a lot of answers for your questions and concerns. https://oxalis.com.vn/faq-general/

WANT TO SEE VIDEOS OF OUR TOURS? Visit our youtube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/OxalisAdventurTours

WANT TO CHAT LIVE WITH OUR ADVENTURE CONSULTANT? Please look at the green icon at the right corner on your screen below to talk to our Adventure Consultant.