One of the great ironies of Halong Bay - a place so renown for its panoramic seascape that it was recently called out as one of the seven most naturally beautiful places in the world - is that its innards, its hollows, its subterranean spaces are almost as breathtaking.
Take Surprise Cave, for example, one of the principal stops on an Emeraude Classic Cruises itinerary. Known to the Vietnamese as Hang Sung Sot, and to the colonial French as Grotte des Merveilles, this vast chamber is an awe-inspiring space that deserves its own place on anyone’s bucket list of what to see when he or she is in Vietnam. Never mind the jaded traveler who says, ‘You’ve seen one cave, you’ve seen them all.’ When the call goes out on the Emeraude, notifying passengers that the tender is ready, lift yourself from the comfort of that deck chair and make the trek.
Here’s how we think you ought to visit Sung Sot: With all due respect to the worthy guides, even our own, we encourage you to grab as much space as you can, either at the tail end of the crowd you’re likely to wander through the cave with, or well out in front. The guides can enrich an experience, but in this space of breathtaking natural beauty, silence - and the space for contemplation that silence will carve out for you - makes for a more resonant experience.
Once inside the grotto’s maw, an 800-meter pathway wanders through 12,000 square meters of open space in three chambers, each exponentially more impressive than the last. After climbing up from the dock at sea level, you’ll descend into Sung Sot’s first chamber, a modest-sized chamber that’s really just an appetite whetter.
In the next, larger chamber, the majesty of this cave makes its first great impression. All of your exclamatory adjectives - unbelievable, awesome, marvelous, and so on — are bound to percolate up from a deep seat of wonder as you gaze upon the eerie spectacle of these limestone formations. If you’re short on imagination, the local guides will interpret for you, pointing out a Happy Buddha in contemplation of a demurely turned woman. Look over there to the ubiquitous turtle. There to the monkey, the sails of a junk, the roots of dental molars, the ‘special part’ of a dragon, and so on.
Though the garish multi-colored lights might disappoint, they won’t spoil your experience. Nor will the delightful Penguin buckets who wait on your trash. This grotto - one of literally thousands in Halong Bay - is too fantastic for that. The cave opened to tourists in 1995 after decades of relative obscurity. The colonial French had known about Sung Sot, as evidence by the graffiti left behind from visits early in the 20th Century. Indeed, some of these old tourists may have cruised Halong Bay and and visited Sung Sot as guests on the Emeraude’s predecessor, also named the Emeraude, which cruised the bay from 1906 to 1937.
In Sung Sot’s third chamber, the cavern opens up into a chamber so surprisingly vast, the religious are bound to invoke the name of a deity and non-believers are bound to wonder why they hadn’t paid more attention to geology in school. There is a great deal of path yet to navigate in this chamber. Here is where you’ll get that space on your own. Make a point to step aside, and listen beyond the hushed murmurings of your fellow travelers to the machinations of trickling water. And then, tread slowly toward the light.