Hang En Cave
Quang Binh Province, Vietnam
Get off the beaten path in and experience the most epic of all outdoor adventures in Vietnam. Sleep inside a cave with it’s own sandy beach, a turquoise pool and ceilings that tower over 300 feet high. It’s size is only matched by the bigger Deer Cave in Malaysia and Son Doong Cave also in Vietnam. But with trips to Son Doong requiring a full week of hiking, camping, and a budget-busting $3,000+ price tag, settling for the 3rd largest cave doesn’t sound so bad when it’s priced under $300!
This adventure isn’t for everyone though. You need to be moderately fit, enough so that you can walk 12 miles over two days through hot, humid jungle with a few things in your pack. You’ll also have to sleep and camp in a cave without electricity, running water or any other luxuries. And if you’re unlucky you’ll have to pull a few bloodsucking leeches off your body. But if you can tough through these minor hassles you are guaranteed an unforgettable trip into one of the world’s most beautiful natural wonders.
Getting To Phong Nha from Hanoi
My adventurous journey began a world away from the rural cave on the busy streets of Hanoi. With a bus ticket from the Hung Thanh Bus Company I had a 10 hour long sleeper bus ride ahead of me. The bus was in good condition and had cold A/C, but the reclined seats were not long enough for my 5’11 height and I had to keep my knees uncomfortably bent the entire night. With seats 3 rows across and stacked 2 high, it’s quite cramped inside. With the 10km hike the following morning sleeping was a must and sleeping pill did the trick.
The bus arrived early in the morning, before sunrise and dropped everyone on the side of the road next to a hostel called Easy Tiger. With 3 hours to kill and no room to rest up in I had breakfast at the hostel and waited for the van to pick me up.
Day 1 – Army Boots, Remote Villages & Awe
Once at the Oxalis headquarters I met the small group of tourists I’d be taking the journey with and was fitted with Vietnamese army-issue boots, a helmet and gloves. The boots aren’t waterproof, nor especially comfortable and that has me a little worried about the condition my feet will be in after the 12 mile round-trip hike ahead me.
After an hour’s drive through the lush green forest in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, we arrive to a tiny dirt path on the side of the road and this is where the real adventure begins. Our guide briefs us of the “strenuous” 6 mile hike and leads us off on a sluggish pace. The entire first mile is an easy walk downhill and then levels out flat. Most of it is shaded by beautiful jungle and we cross some small shallow streams. The boots appear to do the trick, going from soaking wet to just a little damp fairly quickly.
After a break for lunch we’re back on the trail until we reach a tiny ethnic minority village called Ban Doong. With giant limestone mountains in the backdrop and a few small wood huts at first sight life appears very simple and peaceful. It not long though before we realize most of the village men are drunk and several loud squabbles are going on.. maybe that idyllic village in the countryside is all an illusion, we don’t stick around long enough to find out.
Back on the trail we crossed several deeper rivers and finally arrived to the cave’s entrance.
A Cave of Mammoth Proportions
We entered the cave and took a much needed break from the sun. The hike wasn’t nearly as hard as they had talked it up to be, and could’ve been done a brisker pace.
It’s time to put all that equipment we’ve been lugging around to good use. We gear up with gloves, hard hats, headlamps and head into the colossal cave. Just a few feet in and darkness envelops us; we rely on the headlamp’s beam to illuminate our path through the abyss. We climb up a mountain of large boulders to the cave’s second, much larger opening. At the summit we’re all in awe looking out at the massive chamber we’ve entered. Chins hit the floor and minds are blown by sheer size of this incredible cave – the chamber is 300 feet high and double that across, it looks as if you could fit a block of NYC skyscrapers inside it!
As the rest of the group forged ahead to the campground below I planted myself on a rock and sat in silence. This was a sight that needed time to fully digest. The beautiful turquoise pool, the sandy flat beach, a row of tents just for us to camp in! I’ve been to many famous places around the world that didn’t live up to the magical pictures I’d seen beforehand, but this was even more epic than I had imagined.
Next a much needed swim in the refreshingly cool water was in order. Never mind the smell or knowing that the cave is home to countless swifts (little birds) and bats that defecate in the cave.. we’re all too hot and too exhausted to care. The water feels oh so good on our aching feet and sore backs.
Now cooled off and covered in the pungent smell of “cave” it was time to explore; up another set of boulders we go. Now on the other side of the cave it’s another breathtaking view that really showed off the cave’s size and scale. Afternoon sunlight penetrated into the vast hollow rock and the awe inspiring view can’t be fully described in words. The hike, the money and time spent, have all been worth it for this single moment.
With wet, slippery boots and steep rocks it’s a precarious climb down but everyone makes it back with just a few minor scrapes and bruises. Dinner is cooked over a hot fire and is surprisingly delicious. Not long after the meal rice wine flows freely. The porters and guide join in the fun and a few rounds of card games ensue. Nights shared with strangers from all over the world and locals alike are always some of the most memorable travel moments I have had. Knowing we have the long hike out tomorrow we all ignore rational thought and stay up a little too late, drink a little too much, and go to bed all the happier.
Day 2 – Hangovers & Blood Sucking Leeches
After breakfast it was time to hike through an increasingly narrow tunnel and wading in a few feet of slow flowing water to the cave’s exit.
Another hill of boulders to climb, 300 million year old fossils to view, and we reach the end of the cave – beyond this point is the hike to the even bigger Son Doong. I stand at the precipice to take in yet another stunning view. On the right of the cave wall a small waterfall adds to the beauty. I’m again blown away by mother nature and left speechless.
Everyone freezes the moment in time with photographs and then it’s time to pack our bags and head on the long hike out.
Before we make it back to the small village leeches are being found on body parts left and right, perhaps the night’s rainfall has brought them all to life this morning as none of us make out without pulling one or two off in disgust.
Once we reach the village, a bowl of soup is lunch. Cute puppies take turns slurping up the leftovers and forge on. The last bit back up the hill was described as torture but it really wasn’t too bad at all. I guess after the 20 mile round trip through the Grand Canyon’s Havasu Falls hike this was just plain easy.
We made it back to town in time to hop back on another overnight bus and I headed straight back to Hanoi with Halong Bay up next!