When we decided late in 2016 that we would spend the first four-months of 2017 in Southeast Asia we immediately started putting together our must see list. Right at the top of mine was heading to central Vietnam to visit some of the largest caves in the World.
Having read about the recently discovered caves a year prior, I knew it was something that I had to do if I was going half way around the world. We started to do our research on how we would visit these giants and quickly discovered that there really is only one way into the caves; with the only tour company permitted by the Vietnamese government to take tourists there, Oxalis. We were so eager to see these caves that this was the only thing that we booked months before we left Canada. Unfortunately, these tours are not cheap and their premier tour, a four-day 3 night trek to the world’s largest cave, Son Doong, was $3000 usd per person, which was a little more than we wanted to spend. Still wanting something memorable and adventurous we opted for the “Hang En Adventure Cave Camp” which is a 2 day 1 night trek and was a much more reasonable 15M vnd or just over $325 usd per person. Hang En is considered to be the third largest cave in the world and is almost as spectacular as its big brother Son Doong; with latter being longer but both having a similar interior volume.
We took a 12 hour train ride from Hanoi, followed by a 1 hour bus ride (that had its own infuriating challenges that I will write about in another post) to the small town of Phong Nha which serves as the gate way into Phong Nha-Ke Bang the national park that it is adjacent to and the home to the caves we would be visiting. Phong Nha is really a one horse town that only exists to serve the needs of tourist who come to see the national park. The only street is lined with hotels all of a similar construction; concrete bunker style buildings with huge signs broadcasting their names; with restaurants and scooter rental shops sharing the ground level. We stayed in the Tuan Ha hotel for the night before and the night after our trek; which was a basic but spotless choice and at $15 usd a night was, quite frankly, one of the cheapest hotels we had during out 4 months in Asia.
The next day we were picked up by our tour guide Bao at 8am and taken to the Oxalis headquarters to get our briefing and get ready for the first leg of our trek. You sign the necessary release forms and if you don’t have footwear they will provide you with a pair of canvas boots to use for the trek. It is made abundantly clear that you will get wet and need to wear shoes that drain water well and shirts and pants that will dry quickly. You carry a small pack that holds your water, but all of your belongings and food are carried by porters who run ahead (!!) of you on the trail. They also tell you that you need to be physically fit to do the trek, which I think they downplayed a little too much; but more on that later. Our group of novices consisted of the two of us, a couple from the USA, a single American man of Vietnamese heritage who was on his first trip to Vietnam and a Canadian woman who lives in Hong Kong and came to do this trek on her weekend. The experts on the trip were Bao, his assistant and 4 porters who carried all the supplies.
At about 10am we all loaded into a van and drove over an hour through the completely stunning national park. Bao explained the history of the caves and of the region; interestingly (for me) was that part of the road that you take to the drop off point was actually the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam war. You stop along the way to take a few snaps of scenic views and before long you are at the drop off point.
You start the actual trek by hiking along the top of the ridgeline of a mountain; but before long are making your descent to the bottom of the valley where you will follow a river that runs all the way to the caves. This part of the trek wasn’t that challenging as it was mostly down hill and although it was hot and humid, you were not straining very hard. We made it to the valley floor in about an hour. Our next stop was in a traditional village where Oxalis donates part of the proceeds of their treks to help build infrastructure for the villagers. Lunch was sandwiches and fruits, which was eaten in the village in the shade.
After lunch we continued towards the cave. The river crossings could be tricky as the rocks are slippery, but with a little care were not too hard to manage. You do cross the river many times, easily over 20, but the water even at the deepest points was only just over your knee so you did not get too wet. Your feet on the other hand are soaked the entire time, so you have to get used to that squishy feeling between your toes.
It took a total of 3 hours of hiking to make it to the entrance of the cave. So we donned our helmets and our headlamps and started to enter. On this side of the cave the easiest way is through a low ceiling entrance that is very wide. You walk in and start to climb up boulders that are all piled on top of one another. You are concentrating so hard that when you eventually make it to the top you are stunned by what you see; your campsite below you on a beach, in front of a small lake all within the mouth of the enormous cave.
We were a little tired after all the hiking so we were relieved that we got an hour to catch our breath and swim in the little lake to cool off. The downtime did not last long as Bao quickly rounded us up so that we could start exploring the remainder of the cave. We scrambled over rocks and waded through the river that runs through the cave to make it to the opposite entrance. It is easily one of the most stunning things I have ever seen in my life, a completely gorgeous rain forest framed by the edges of the giant cave. There is even a lonely tree, growing down from the top of the cave. It was stunningly beautiful and certainly worth all of the hard work it took to see it.
When we returned to the camp, what is usually a very quiet place in the evening had turned into a bustling mini city with dozens of tents and generators buzzing. It turned out that we had been booked on our tour during a same period a Japanese film crew was filming a documentary about the caves for a Japanese TV. The entire Oxalis team and the film crew were very apologetic and did everything they could to minimize the noise and keep us comfortable and we enjoyed a tasty dinner and spent some time chatting before all the exhausted tourists headed off to bed, leaving the guides to spend the evening drinking with each other.
The circumstance did allow us to meet the British cavers who were the first westerners to be brought to the cave in 2009. It was explained to us that the Son Doong cave was discovered by a local man in the early 1990’s. This man owned a small coffee shop in a village not far from Phong Nha and the English cavers stopped in there during their explorations of the area in the mid 2000’s. He did not remember where the cave was, but over the course of several years went on many expeditions with the cavers and eventually together they found the cave again. The cavers, with the help of some sophisticated measuring equipment, were able to confirm that it was indeed the largest cave in the world and tours were eventually started.
The next morning we awoke to start the next part of the journey. After breakfast we left Hang En to head to our next stop, Cold Cave. It was about a half hour hike and once we got there we donned our helmets and head lamps again and descended into the cave. Unlike Hang En, this is a much smaller cave and is filled with chilly water. You spend most of your explorations of this cave swimming through it. You are given life jackets and you keep all your clothing on as there are sharp rocks all around you. You spend about 45 minutes in the cave, which is spectacular not for its size, but for the extremely pretty rock formations inside.
After cold cave you are very close to another Oxalis campsite. This is where you have lunch on day 2. Drenched from swimming through the cave, you quickly start to dry off eating lunch in 32 degree (Celsius) heat. You spend the next two hours hiking back to the final leg of the journey. Bao had alluded to the challenging nature of this part and at dinner the previous evening had even told us he really hoped it wouldn’t rain the next day. He described the hike a “miserable” if it rained. Thankfully for us the day was sunny, but on the flip side, very hot. The hike back up the mountain was supposed to take an hour, which doesn’t sound that long; but in the heat and humidity of a Vietnamese jungle is an incredibly long time to be going up hill. Never in my life have I felt so completely exhausted in such a short period of time. Within 10 minutes the entire group of us were stopping, trying to catch our breath and looking at each other in disbelief at what we were enduring. It was in a word, awful. Never in my life was I so happy to have something come to an end. Despite honestly questioning if we would ever reach the top we made it and to our delight were greeted by a case of ice-cold beers!
Unfortunately, the jungle is not always kind and upon removing my shoes and socks discovered, much to my disgust, that my feet were on their way to being covered with leeches. Yay. With a few squirts of hand sanitizer and some band-aids I was good as new. Exhilarated and exhausted, we made it back to our hotel for a much-needed hot shower. Needless to say, we spent the next few days not doing much of anything.
From my point of view, a trip to see these caves is something if you can afford to, you should do. You rarely get to see this kind of awe-inspiring unspoiled nature. We were told that more people have been to the top of Mount Everest than have been inside these caves; they truly are a wonder and one that, despite it being a trite expression, is a once in a lifetime adventure.