Tucked away in the middle of central Vietnam’s jungle is a nondescript entrance to the world’s largest cave, a cave so massive that it could fit multiple full-sized airplanes and 40-story skyscrapers. Inside it lies a mystical world unlike any other — complete with its own ecosystem, climate, and even clouds.

The Vietnamese government only allows a certain number of permits to a single tour company each year, and no other expeditions are allowed in the area. After learning this, I emailed the company week after week, asking if their permits had been issued yet. Each time, they responded, “No. Soon, though.” Waiting was torture, especially because I knew that in previous years, the spots were swooped up within minutes of the alert email sent to mailing list subscribers.

One day, when my Gmail was open by chance, I saw the email was there. Spots were available. My fingers flew to the keyboard. I had memorized my credit card number, so that was easy. I clicked submit. My spot wasn’t reserved yet, but I had a soft hold, pending that my application was accepted.

Piece by piece, the preparations for the expedition came together. My husband and I purchased the recommended canyoneering shoes. We completed training treks in the bitter New England winter. On indoor workout days, I did hundreds of burpees and weighted squats with kettlebells. I picked up some trusted Petzl helmet and headlamp gear, as well as crucial Sea To Summit drybags and a silk sleeping bag liner. Everything was set.

A woman sits outside a cave in the forest

We flew from Boston to Newark, to Hong Kong, to Ho Chi Minh, and finally to Da Nang. We hopped on a five-hour train to the Dong Hoi train station and were picked up by a car that would take us to our homestay, the location where our safety introduction session would be held.

The next five days were unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. We trekked in and out of caves, scaled rock walls, climbed ropes, and buckled into full-body harnesses. The thought of avoiding leeches and other slimy creatures initially intimidated me, but they weren’t as difficult to evade as I had originally anticipated.

It’s hard to explain how many times I gasped in amazement while exploring Son Doong. Each sight was more impressive than the last. I remember thinking to myself that photographs and videos don’t do it justice. In fact, one of our safety assistants would often run up ahead of us and stand on one of the formations so that when we photographed the scene, the sheer scale would be well represented because there was a human next to it.

At the beginning of the tour, our guide had said, “This is the most amazing thing you’ll ever do.” I wholeheartedly agree. This expedition experience pushed me out of my comfort zone — both physically and mentally. Living in the jungle and camping in caves, disconnected from the outside world, gave me a mental break from the nonstop chaos of my work life. As an entrepreneur, “unplugging” and “taking a day off” doesn’t come easy for me, and I find it difficult to ignore the blizzard of emails and allure of Instagram scrolling that come with each passing day.

But this cave expedition forced me to do so.

Daily trekking on difficult terrain may have left me physically exhausted, but it also left me mentally refreshed.

This reset was exactly what I needed.

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Nicole Chan
Nicole is best described as a serial fried chicken eater, positivity engager, and lover of bad puns. She’s a photographer and a filmmaker, documenting weddings and creating engaging visual content for commercial brands. Though she spends most of the year traveling and adventuring, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of flying into Boston's Logan airport and sleeping in her own bed next to her Siberian Husky, Sledder.