She entered the world’s largest cave 120 times

A four-day exploration tour to Son Đoòng Cave costs 3,000 USD/person. Do you think you can enter 120 times… without paying a cent? Meeting with H’Anetta, a Vietnamese from the Ê đê ethnic group, the only female tour guide in this underground gallery, the largest in the world.

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H’Anetta, a Vietnamese woman of the Ê đê ethnicity, is the only female tour guide in Son Đoòng.
Photo: CTV/CVN

H’Anetta, born in 1990, is a tour guide for Oxalis Adventure, the first adventure tour operator in Vietnam. Son Đoòng Cave is located in Phong Nha – Ke Bàng National Park, Quang Binh (Central) Province. Their link? Oxalis is the only travel agency authorized to visit it, a good way to limit the number of visitors. And H’Anetta became the only female guide of this largest cave in the world.

H’Anetta is short in stature and has large eyes. If she didn’t smile, she would look quite cold and taciturn. But when we approach Son Đoòng or her work as a tour guide, she exudes a strong energy and enthusiasm.

Male profession

Originally from the Ê đê ethnic group, H’Anetta lives with her parents in the province of Gia Lai (Central Highlands). She was fortunate to have had enormous encouragement and support from her family in her studies. After her bachelor’s degree, she started a university course.

H’Anetta during a trip to Son Đoòng.
Photo: TT/CVN

After obtaining an English degree at the University of Huê, located in the province of Thua Thiên-Huê (Center), he continued with a master’s degree in English theory and methodology. “In 2014, during my studies, one of my friends informed me that in Phong Nha – Ke Bàng, Oxalis was recruiting local guides for their cave discovery tours. Reading this ad, I feel a little offended by this note +men take priority+. I wondered why jobs are reserved for men? So I decided to change things by applying”.

In fact, Oxalis does not completely exclude women, but it often happens that only men meet the requirements of this adventurous profession. H’Anetta’s application was accepted, the 24-year-old then began preparing for the interview, “to prove that I have nothing to envy of men”. But she faced a big challenge: she didn’t know how to swim, a requirement for an adventure guide.

H’Anetta during a coffee break at Son Đoòng Cave. Photo: TT/CVN

On the big day, the recruiter was completely convinced by the 1m 57 and 44kg young woman because she passed all the tests with excellence, except swimming. The Oxalis Adventure team decided to support her in filling this gap by finding her an American teacher. And just after two months of river training, H’Anetta passed the test and was recruited, becoming in 2014 the only female tour guide on cave exploration tours, at the same time as she completed her master’s degree studies remotely, which she completed in 2015.

A big love

Why did she decide to change course to become a tour guide? “It’s because of my great love for nature, especially forests and mountains, the environment where I grew up.”. In January 2015, H’Anetta joined Son Đoòng for the first time as a trainee assistant to the main guide.

The difference between a normal guide and a cave adventure guide? “In general, both are similar in that they must consider the safety of visitors as their first priority and have the necessary skills to satisfy them. But if we go into details, the adventure guide’s job is much more difficult. For example, to ensure the safety of customers, he must be rigorously trained from a technical point of view, for example in the use of harnesses and emergency medical rescue techniques. You also need to have good physical skills to spend several days in the forest…”.

H’Anetta (sitting, 1D left) in Son Đoòng cave.
Photo: TT/CVN

Every three months, H’Anetta and her colleagues must repeat their training and every year, at the end of the tourist season, she attends adventure guide training courses.

Its Đoòng is very wide and is divided into several areas with different reliefs. Each was named by the experts, for example “Beware of dinosaurs!”(Beware of dinosaurs!), “Great Wall of Vietnam”(Great Wall of Vietnam),”Wedding Cake” (Wedding Cake), “dog hand”(Dog hand).

H’Anetta was very impressed during her first expedition to the site, especially with the famous “dog hand”, a huge block of natural stalagmites. “It was so surreal! I finally set foot there. I had achieved my dream.” And since then she has entered the largest cave in the world 120 times.

The young woman speaks passionately about Son Đoòng, the Phong Nha – Ke Bàng National Park with its peaceful and magnificent landscapes. The Son River in March has clear, calm waters like a strip of soft silk. White clouds float over the Ke Bang mountains. Small motor boats take visitors to the caves. “Son Đoòng has a magnificent beauty, different each time we enter it. Its charm changes depending on the periods and sections. Sometimes the air is transparent in one part, while there are mists with dew droplets in another.”.

H’Anetta (left) and Miss Universe Vietnam 2017, H’Hen Niê, two Ê đê women, at Son Đoòng in 2020.
Photo: Hai An/CVN

H’Anetta never finds this guiding job dull. “How can Son Đoòng upset me. Because its peculiarity is that no matter how many times you enter, you will always find completely different impressions”.

Eco-responsible tourism

In terms of number of employees and number of annual customers, Oxalis Adventure is the largest adventure travel company in Southeast Asia. It follows the path of regenerative tourism that aims to improve the concept of sustainability by adding a “plus” to the result of a travel experience. All of its employees, including H’Anetta, are aware of the need to protect and preserve the environment and natural resources. “Before working for Oxalis, I myself didn’t pay much attention to environmental protection. But after I started working, even when I returned home, I was embarrassed to see my father smoking or people around me throwing garbage everywhere.”.

For her, the gifts sent by tourists after the trip are a real encouragement, as they show that they remember her and appreciate her.

The ineffable beauty of Son Đoòng Cave.
Photo: VNA/CVN

The Vietnamese woman from the Ê đê ethnic group says that Canadian tourists, who visited Hang Én (Swallow Cave) during the holidays from April 30th to April 1ster May 2015, wrote on May 13 of the same year on Trip Advisor: “Excellent experience! We took a two day and one night trip to Hang En. This tour was organized by a company for which customer safety and environmental protection are at the heart of its concerns. It was great to see your team picking up trash along the way. And H’Anetta, our guide, was great, friendly, full of humor and speaks very good English. You can easily see his passion for the job and the caves. After the trip, we had a little problem with train tickets as this period was Vietnam’s main holiday. (April 30 – Southern Liberation and National Reunification Day, Editor’s note). H’Anetta accompanied us to the town of Đông Hoi (45 km from Phong Nha – Ke Bàng, Editor’s note) to help us resolve our difficulties…”.

It was with tears in her eyes that the guide recounted this unforgettable memory that dates back more than seven years.

Linh Thao/CVN

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