Hang Son Doong is one of the wonders of the natural world, albeit a hidden one. Nobody knew about it until 1990, when a farmer found the entrance to what is now recognised as the world’s largest cave. It took several more years before anyone explored it and discovered just how unique it is. The cave tunnel is four miles long, but the most remarkable thing is the size of the passageways. With vaulted ceilings hundreds of metres high, you could fit skyscrapers inside.
That’s not an exaggeration. Visitors to Hang Son Doong pitch their tents in Camp 1 inside the cave. The chamber is taller than London’s Gherkin, and further into the passage the ceiling height is twice that. It’s a space big enough for clouds to form inside. It’s simply vast. Humans are miniatures inside its gargantuan spaces.
It’s hard to do justice to that scale on film, but A Crack in the Mountain makes a bold attempt to capture the wonder of this underground world. Tiny figures move through the dark, headlamps illuminate the green waters of its lakes. Rays of light break through the jungle. It feels naturally cinematic, a place of breathtaking awe – and a place that people want to visit.
That’s where the problems start. “Its of interest to cavers, but it’s going to be of interest to everyone,” says an early visitor. The tourists will come, and what happens then? Access has so far been limited to a thousand people a year, but it’s hard to resist the commercial possibilities. The cave has been there for aeons, with its pristine waters and rainforest ecosystem, and now comes the pressure to monetize the discovery – most spectacularly, with a proposal to build a cable-car into the cave. It could carry a thousand people an hour. “It would kill Son Doong,” says Huong Nguyen Thien Le, an activist resisting the plans.
With the vexed question of whether or not to allow this, the film opens up to consider the wider issues in Vietnam. Iconic beaches polluted with plastic. Unspoilt islands over-developed in pursuit of tourist dollars. Air pollution, traffc, overcrowding – the country is paying a high price for its rapid development. And yet people need jobs and economic growth, and Son Doong is located in a very poor region of Vietnam. People have aspirations. “Everyone on a bicycle wants to be on a motorbike,” says a local businessman. “Everyone on a motorbike wants to be in a car.”
How to balance competing priorities? How to avoid over-dependence on global tourism? And when lines are crossed, how do you fight back in a country where corporations are unaccountable and protest is heavily policed by the communist party?
“At its core, A Crack In The Mountain is a lens through which to explore the challenges which modern day Vietnam faces,” says Director Alastair Evans. “As the clock ticks down and people around the world struggle to find that optimum balance point between environmental sustainability and economic growth, nowhere is this battle more keenly contested than in a rapidly developing nation such as Vietnam.”
What’s true in Vietnam is true everywhere, and in many ways these are defining questions of our human age. How do we balance the care for nature and the use of natural resources? Can we enjoy beautiful places responsibly, or do we protect things best by leaving them alone?
A Crack in the Mountain is out at the end of May in the UK, so look out for it in a cinema near you – it deserves a big screen. Find out more here, and have a look at the trailer below: