Adventure photographer Ryan Deboodt does his best work in Earth’s underbelly. His otherworldly photographs of the caves of Vietnam’s Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park illuminate a vast subterranean realm.
Located in central Vietnam near the border of Laos, Phong Nha Ke Bang contains one of the most expansive cave systems in the world, with over 60 miles of limestone chambers, underground rivers and grottoes.
During the Vietnam War, North Vietnamese soldiers took shelter here during American bombing raids.
The park was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003 for its distinctive geologic features. Hang Son Doong, one of the largest caves, is greater than 2.5 miles long, and at points is over 300 feet wide and 600 feet high.
Born in Nebraska, but based in Beijing, Deboodt has been living in Asia for nearly four years. He set off to explore Phong Nha Ke Bang’s caves after learning about them in a National Geographic article, and even though he was a novice spelunker at the time, he’s now made 12 underground excursions, often working with the British Caving Research Association.
Often times, caves’ absence of light, tiny passages, and vertical faces, can lead to dangerous falls, getting lost, or being subjected to rapidly rising floodwaters.
Knock on wood, still no close calls for Deboodt yet, but he chalks that up to good help and less-than-extreme conditions. “Most of the caves in the system are horizontal (without a lot of upward vertical climbs), which makes things a lot easier,” says Deboodt.
Once he finds a suitable vantage point, Deboodt often needs assistance setting up his shot. “Most require at least four or five people helping me out at a time, setting up all the lights and people in the photos,” Deboodt explains.
“Photos take 30 minutes to three hours each.”
His inclusion of people for scale only increases the grandeur of the already dramatic landscapes.
Deboodt is also adept at incorporating the piercing beams of sunlight that come streaming into the caves through dolines—cave skylights formed in collapsed limestone.
This system includes many unsurveyed and underexplored caves–opportunities for Deboodt to lay eyes on never-before-seen structures.
His favorite cave, Hang Va, features eerie, stalagmite-like cones rising out of what appears to be glowing green water. “It’s incredibly unique, and when you’re walking through there it seems like you’re on a different planet,” he explains. “When I first went there, there were maybe only ten people who had been there before me.
Just knowing how few people had been there and how weird this place is and how otherworldly it is made for absolutely incredible experience.”
The Old Quarter in Vietnam’s capital city Hanoi is a bustling area of small, narrow streets packed with hundreds of buildings with charming colonial architecture, Buddhist temples and pagodas all crammed next to each other.
As the name denotes, it is the oldest area of the town and has long been an important economic center.
The ancient commercial streets that snake between the houses and the preserved shop-houses that lie along these roads were built a little over a century ago and were constructed in their long and narrow style to avoid being hit by high taxes.
With height restrictions in place by the Government (most of the buildings in Old Quarter are no more than two stories) the city has taken to growing horizontally.
In the Old Quarter area, the houses extend right up to edge of the streets and dangerously close to the railway track that cuts across the neighborhood on its way to the Long Bien Bridge.
In Buddhist lore, mosquitoes are the jerks of the spiritual world. Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan talks about how Buddhists believe that the pervasive bloodsucker is the spiritual reincarnation of the wicked of the Earth.
A Vietnamese folk tale also tells of the origins of the mosquito. According to the tale, a young man desired to resurrect his dead wife, a vain women to whom he had been devoted. After making a deal with a genie to bring her back from the dead, the young man used three drops of his blood to revive her.
When his wife repaid his devotion by running off with a wealthy sea captain, he realized her vanity and set her free—all he asked was that she return his three drops of blood, since he wanted no part of himself inside her.
Just wanting her husband to leave her alone, she took a knife and pricked the tip of her finger. As soon as the blood began to flow, however, she shriveled to a husk and died again.
She returned as the first mosquito in order to obtain three drops of blood from her former husband to return to human form.