Son Doong & Ban Gioc makes debut in Asia’s most outstanding natural wonders top

Vietnam's Son Doong cave and Ban Gioc waterfall recently appear in the National Geographic Bucket List of 7 Stunning Natural Wonders in Asia.


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Photo: Bao Giao Thong

Son Doong Cave, Vietnam

Located within Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Hang Son Doong is one of the world’s largest, with its main cavern big enough to house a Boeing 747 plane. A wide, fast river that tunneled through the Earth over time formed Hang Son Doong, whose name translates from Vietnamese to “mountain river cave.” Ho Khanh, who took refuge within it during a storm, discovered Son Doong in 1991. Lost again until 2009, the cave is now open to tourism. Proposed developments, including a cable car, have raised concerns with environmentalists. For now, only Oxalis Tours is licensed to guide tourists through Hang Son Doong.

The British Cave Research Association (BCRA) has ranked Son Doong as one of “The world largest cave”, while U.S. news site Insider has named Son Doong among “20 record-breaking natural wonders.”

Getting There: Oxalis offers multiday expeditions for $3,000 (U.S.). An alternative for those in the area is Thien Duong Cave (Paradise Cave) in the same national park. Buses run to Phong Na from Dong Hoi and from Hanoi.

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Photo: Bao Giao Thong

Ban Gioc Waterfall, Vietnam

Much like Niagara Falls, straddling the United States and Canada, Ban Gioc-Detian Falls sits on a border in Asia: that between Vietnam and China. Surrounded by karst rocks and green forest, the twin waterfalls tumble down in tiers to the Quay Son River below.

While the waters’ vertical drop is slight, the width of the cascades makes for an impressive sight. Swimming is prohibited, but you can take small bamboo rafts to the very edge of the falls. During the hot rainy season from May to September, the Quay Son swells, widening the water flow considerably.

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Photo: Bao Giao Thong

Gokyo Lake, Nepal

A stunning alternative to the popular Everest Base Camp trek is summiting Gokyo Ri (17,576 feet) via the turquoise waters of the Gokyo Lakes. Fed by enormous Ngozumpa Glacier, the six lakes fan out over more than six miles of land and make up the highest freshwater lake system in the world.

The summit of Gokyo Ri affords vistas of towering Himalayan giants such as Lhotse, Nuptse, Makalu, Cho Oyu, and Gyachung Kang, weather permitting. Stellar Everest views are part of what makes this trek appealing—a view that comes without taxing the limited infrastructure at Everest Base Camp itself.

Getting There: Book a Gokyo Lakes trek with a tour company in Kathmandu, via a short flight to Lukla.

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Photo: Bao Giao Thong

Chocolate Hills, Philippines

In the rainy season these conical hills are more green than chocolate, but once the rains stop the Chocolate Hills turn brown. Consisting of about 1,776 mounds jutting up from the island of Bohol, the hills are a national geological monument of the Philippines.

Geologists theorize that karst rocks eroded in unison and formed the hills, leaving behind a landscape now covered in flora. Several local legends offer more colorful explanations. Among them: Two giants went to battle, hurling stones and sand back and forth until they were too tired to fight. Left in their wake? The perfectly formed Chocolate Hills.

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Photo: Bao Giao Thong

Mount Kelimutu, Indonesia

While remote, Mount Kelimutu’s lunar landscape and shimmering waters make it a worthwhile trek. Located on the island of Flores, Kelimutu’s claim to fame is its three summit crater lakes, each with a different-hued pool.

Geologists have studied the crater overtime for its chameleon-like properties. Each lake has shifted from one color to another over the years as it comes into contact with mineral-rich underwater fumaroles. The surprise element of a Kelimutu visit is that you rarely know what colors will greet you when you summit the volcano.

Getting There: Mount Kelimutu is located on Flores; Ende is the closest city. A flight from western Flores (Labuhanbajo) to Ende is the easiest option. Bus travelers can get closer to the mountain by taking a bus to the smaller town of Moni.

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Photo: Bao Giao Thong

Zhangye Danxia Landform, China

The term “Danxia landform” describes not only the mountains of the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park near Zhangye, China but also several other areas in China. Each was created over millions of years when the movement of tectonic plates and the weathering of sandstone created these magnificent vistas.

The striation within the Danxia rocks results from the crumpling of limestone as the rocks compressed together over time. In 2010, UNESCO recognized six landforms as the China Danxia. The Zhangye Danxia landform is the biggest, covering more than 3,200 square feet. Several viewing platforms offer scenic glimpses of the surrounding rainbow rocks.

Getting There: Zhangye, in China’s Gansu Province, is the nearest city. A taxi can be arranged from Zhangye to the park. Day tours are also possible via Zhangye.

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Photo: Bao Giao Thong

Jigoku Valley, Japan

Located on the island of Hokkaido, Jigoku Valley is part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park near the town of Noboribetsu. The region is famous for its healing onsen thermal hot springs, experienced via spas at the city’s hotels or outdoor mineral pools.

A more sulfurous option is Hell Valley, the 24-acre geothermal crater left in the wake of Mount Kuttara’s eruption thousands of years ago. The city has set up boardwalks around the valley, allowing people to meander through the many steam caves and geysers. Don’t miss the Oyunuma Brook natural footbath, a healing spring within the park.

Getting There: Trains service the Noboribetsu station in town, a quick bus ride away from the hot springs area.