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A large pool of water is illuminated at the base of the entrance of Hang Son Doong. The entrance is surprisingly small for such a large cave. (Ryan Deboodt)
A large stalactite inside Hang Son Doong with the second doline, or skylight, and the Garden of Edam off in the distance. (Ryan Deboodt)
Stars shine above the second doline, or skylight, in Hang Son Doong. A jungle now grows in the cave where the ceiling collapsed. (Ryan Deboodt)
Cavers stand amongst large gour pool walls and unique raft cone formations inside Hang Va. (Ryan Deboodt)
A sunbeam entering the first doline, or skylight, illuminating the section of the cave known as Watch Out For Dinosaurs inside Hang Son Doong. (Ryan Deboodt)
Unique formations called raft cones in Hang Va. No one is exactly sure how these form but there are several theories. (Ryan Deboodt)
A caver stands at the bottom of a large flowstone inside Hang Pigmy. (Ryan Deboodt)
Ho Khanh, the man who discovered the world's largest cave, stands in a sunbeam in Nuoc Nut. (Ryan Deboodt)
Cavers setting up camp near the entrance of Hang Pigmy. (Ryan Deboodt)
A silhouette of the Hand of Dog from light coming through the first doline, or skylight, in Hang Son Doong. (Ryan Deboodt)
A gour pool is illuminated at the base of the first doline of Hang Son Doong. Clouds form here due to the temperature differentials inside and outside the cave. (Ryan Deboodt)
Sand tower formations in Hang Son Doong formed by drips of water washing away the sand from around pebbles or sticks and leaving the sand that is underneath, forming the tower. (Ryan Deboodt)
Hang Son Doong isn't only large passages. Here a perfectly carved circular passage near Watch Out For Dinosaurs doline, or skylight, in Hang Son Doong. (Ryan Deboodt)
A lake near the Great Wall of Vietnam which is an 80-meter high wall of calcite flowstone. Just a week after this photo was taken all the water had drained. (Ryan Deboodt)
The Hope and Vision passage inside Hang Son Doong with 80-meter high stalagmites in the distance. (Ryan Deboodt)
A caver stands in a sunbeam coming through the first doline, or skylight, which is better known as Watch Out For Dinosaurs inside Hang Son Doong. (Ryan Deboodt)
Camp near the first doline, or skylight, in Hang Son Doong. (Ryan Deboodt)

These Breathtaking Photos of Vietnam’s Caves Bring Out the Armchair Spelunker in Everyone

Photographer Ryan Deboodt discovers beauty in this subterranean realm

smithsonian.com

Adventure photographer Ryan Deboodt does his best work in Earth’s underbelly. His otherworldly photographs of the caves of Vietnam’s Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park illuminate a vast subterranean realm.

Located in central Vietnam near the border of Laos, Phong Nha Ke Bang contains one of the most expansive cave systems in the world, with over 60 miles of limestone chambers, underground rivers and grottoes. During the Vietnam War, North Vietnamese soldiers took shelter here during American bombing raids. The park was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003 for its distinctive geologic features. Hang Son Doong, one of the largest caves, is greater than 2.5 miles long, and at points is over 300 feet wide and 600 feet high.

Born in Nebraska, but based in Beijing, Deboodt has been living in Asia for nearly four years. He set off to explore Phong Nha Ke Bang’s caves after learning about them in a National Geographic article, and even though he was a novice spelunker at the time, he’s now made 12 underground excursions, often working with the British Caving Research Association.

Often times, caves’ absence of light, tiny passages, and vertical faces, can lead to dangerous falls, getting lost, or being subjected to rapidly rising floodwaters. Knock on wood, still no close calls for Deboodt yet, but he chalks that up to good help and less-than-extreme conditions. “Most of the caves in the system are horizontal (without a lot of upward vertical climbs), which makes things a lot easier,” says Deboodt.

Once he finds a suitable vantage point, Deboodt often needs assistance setting up his shot. “Most require at least four or five people helping me out at a time, setting up all the lights and people in the photos,” Deboodt explains. “Photos take 30 minutes to three hours each.”

His inclusion of people for scale only increases the grandeur of the already dramatic landscapes. Deboodt is also adept at incorporating the piercing beams of sunlight that come streaming into the caves through dolines—cave skylights formed in collapsed limestone.

This system includes many unsurveyed and underexplored caves–opportunities for Deboodt to lay eyes on never-before-seen structures. His favorite cave, Hang Va, features eerie, stalagmite-like cones rising out of what appears to be glowing green water. “It’s incredibly unique, and when you’re walking through there it seems like you’re on a different planet,” he explains. “When I first went there, there were maybe only ten people who had been there before me. Just knowing how few people had been there and how weird this place is and how otherworldly it is made for absolutely incredible experience.”

Ryan Deboodt recently shot this surreal drone video of the Hang Song Doong cave, in and is currently doing a takeover of Smithsonian magazine’s Instagram account this week.

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