For every trip, I try to do something completely new and challenging. For when you travel, it’s not just about learning about other cultures and places, it’s also an opportunity to learn about yourself. Traveling puts you outside the everyday comforts. Seeing how you handle new things can be eye opening. Taking a hike in of itself was not a challenge for me. But, doing a two-day hike to Hang En Cave that included leeches, multiple river crossings, and camping in cave…well, that would be new and quite the adventure. And what an unforgettable adventure it was!
Hang En Cave is nestled in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park located in the Quảng Bình Province in northern Vietnam. Home to spectacular karst mountains and a large network of caves (including Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest cave), the park is a wonderland for adventure. Options include hiking, motorbiking, kayaking, and swimming. Said to be the third largest cave in the world, Hang En Cave (swallow cave) has three entrances, all of which are seen in the hike. Each makes you feel rather insignificant.
The closest mass transit hub by Phong Nha is Dong Hoi. If arriving at Dong Hoi via train, it’s roughly a 45-minute taxi ride to the town of Phong Nha (approximately 500,000 VND). A cheaper option is an overnight bus from Hanoi direct to Phong Nha. Arriving early in town, the Easy Tiger Hostel allows non-guests the use of their showers (with towel is a 200,000 VND returnable deposit). Free Wifi is available with a café serving cheap yet plentiful breakfasts.
For hiking to Hang En Cave, there’s only one tour operator to consider – Oxalis Adventure Tours. This company knows how to take care of hikers ensuring that this hike is unforgettable. Before the hike begins, Oxalis provides a mandatory 30-minute briefing detailing the terrain and distances covered during the hike (20km), obstacles along the way, and who would be hiking with us. Each group has a maximum of 16 hikers, 4 tour leaders, 2 medics, and several porters.
Then, it was on the bus for a 45-minute ride to the trail head. Entering the park, you know that you’re in for an incredible journey. The mountains are bathed in vegetation of all sorts. Layers upon layers of green create a lush landscape that leaves you speechless. Hiking in Phong Nha National Park feels like you’ve stepped into another world. You half expect dinosaurs to emerge from the landscape.
Disembarking from the bus, we were given our cave gear to take with us. Then, it was off to begin the hike. The vegetation is so thick that it was hard to see the trail head (there wasn’t even a marker). The first part of the trek is all downhill. The thick layer of leaves and mud made the trail a bit slippery in sections. But, leeches were the big challenge during this downhill part. These are not the big, black leeches you see in movies. Rather, these are tiny leeches that attach to your shoes and pants. They’re hard to spot at first; but, once you know what you’re looking for, they’re easy to spot – both on the ground and on your shoes. Leech checks are regularly done. In that first mile, I had 15 leeches pulled off my shoes (no bites). But, most of the group had less.
Once at the bottom of the hill, and after a final leech check, we then followed the river to the cave. Though the hike was relatively flat, a new challenge presented itself – river crossings. With roughly 30 river crossings, you will get wet. Some were ankle depth, others went so far as the middle of my thigh (and I’m 5’ 8”). Sometimes, the crossings were easy with only sand underfoot. Other times, they were trickier due to stones or just the force of the current. In those conditions, our group formed a chain to get across.
Along the trek, we paused for a light lunch. Afterwards, it was another hour before we saw the entrance to Hang En Cave in the distance. Even from afar, it looked amazing. About five more river crossings later (saving the deepest for last), we arrived at the entrance. Putting on our safety helmets and head torches, into the darkness we plunged. A short walk in, we were met with a climb up some boulders. And without warning, we were standing with all of Hang En before us. What a sight! Before us, the river with our camp site on the sandy beach. Behind us was the bigger entrance we saw from afar with rocks and boulders streaming down.
We then opted to scamper up the boulders to the mouth of the cave to take in the view from the top. Nature always finds new ways to impress and humble you. This was one of those times. Then, we headed all the way back down to the river. As it was too deep to ford, Oxalis had a raft to ferry us across – 5 at a time. At other times of the year, it’s possible to swim across.
Once at camp, we could finally take off our water-logged shoes. I had to ring my socks several times to get out all the water. It was then leisure time to take in our surroundings before the feast that was dinner began. And when I say feast, I mean feast. The food kept coming. The porters set up a large metal table with lights strung above. We all agreed, that this was how you went camping. There even some rice wine (happy water) flowing. By end of dinner, daylight had entirely vanished, and we were surrounded by pitch blackness with only our headlamps for light. At night, the sound of flowing water and wind was all you could hear. It was all very surreal.
The second day of our Hang En cave adventure started with a delicious breakfast of pancakes (Vietnamese style with banana, chocolate, sugar, and honey) and French toast. To warm us up, coffee and tea. After filling our bellies, it was time to properly explore Hang En Cave.
Where we set up camp was a highly impressive place; but, we soon learned that there was even more to this cave. Formed millions of years ago out of limestone, the cave is a relatively young cave as it still has a flowing river through it. This means that the cave will continue to evolve overtime until the river disappears. Our camp site, in the wet season, turns into a lake (going as high as 80m).
Our exploration of Hang En Cave took us up and over the backside of our camp site. There is a lot of boulder scampering inside the cave on this hike. We descended into a world of a darkness with only our head torches illuminating the staggeringly impressive stalagmites and stalactites. At one point, we all turned off our lamps; and, the feeling of being in utter darkness was both cool and scary. Venturing on, we saw ancient fossils of the sea life whose remains helped form the limestone.
It was then another uphill scamper for the most impressive sight of all – the other large entrance to Hang En Cave. This one was so breathtaking, so magical. You couldn’t take your eyes away from it. And it was a large entrance indeed – over 120m wide and 140m high. If the grandness of the entrance didn’t leave you dizzy, spotting the remnants of the ropes used by the indigenous people to hunt swallow eggs will leave you flabbergasted. They climbed ALL THE WAY to the top. After one last look, it was back down to follow the river back to camp.
After lunch, it was time to bid adieu to Hang En Cave and start the return hike. We retraced our steps for the first half of the hike. We made good time to the small, indigenous Ban Doong Village, home to an ethnic minority who have lived in the region for hundreds of years. The National Park has tried to relocate them; but, they say they are quite content with where they live even though conditions can be tough.
The final leg of the hike was back up the hill. Going up a different and quicker route meant that the hike was going to be harder. There were some massively steep parts going up. But, slow and steady wins the race and the guides insist you go up at your pace. When our guide said, “one more minute” indicating the end of the hike, cheers of jubilation rang out for it was a brutal ending. However, that last minute was one tough minute. Steep to the last drop.
Once back at the Oxalis headquarters, they offer free drop-off to your accommodation if you’re staying in town. If you’re heading back to Dong Hoi, they have showers on hand with towels to use.
Reaching the end was bittersweet. On one hand, I couldn’t wait to take off the wet shoes and socks and have a hot shower. On the other hand, it was a goodbye to this other world, this sea of green, and of unimaginable reality. Phong Nha was amazing and I truly hope to come back one day as one hike is not enough to get one’s fill of this unique and magical place.
Due to the rainy season and the river flooding, Oxalis closes for two months of the year, with tours re-starting in December. It’s also best to book at least a month in advance as tours do fill up quickly.
For the hike, Oxalis provides:
Water bottles (and filtered water during the hike)
All meals (2 lunches, 1 dinner, 1 breakfast)
Cave gear (helmets, head torches, gloves)
Excess storage luggage (at headquarters)
For the hike, you’ll need to bring:
Long hiking pants (recommend two pairs)
Tall hiking socks (recommend two pairs)
Sandals (to change into at camp and at end of hike)
Camera & spare batteries
Warm layers (for overnight at camp)
***Disclaimer – I researched and booked my Vietnam trip by myself. All expenses and tours were paid by me. I opted to go with Oxalis Adventures and received no incentive, monetary or otherwise, to write this review.