We first heard about Song Doong – the largest known cave in the world in the Phong Nha Ke Bang national park in Vietnam – from a fellow roommate in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. At that time it was something we noted down and then completely forgot about. We then read about the Phong Nha Ke Bang cave system on Trip Advisor and our Lonely Planet guide book, and decided to look in to it more.
A 7 day tour of Song Doong would set us back USD 3000, and was too much in terms of time and money. It would have been an awesome experience to go to the largest cave in the world, however, we “settled” for the third largest, Hang En. As soon as we read about it, we knew we had to do it. Trekking a little more than 10 km one way through jungles and valleys with more than 30 river crossings and then spending a night inside the cave for a slightly more “reasonable” USD 300 per person … sign us up!
If our minivan hadn’t stopped by a shed, we would have definitely missed the starting point of our hike. Unlike any other hikes in the US, there were no signs saying “Hang En Trail Head”, no maps, not even a well formed hiking trail. Just a sign post that pointed into the jungle and read Ban Doong village 10 kms.
Looking at the trail head, we realized that this was not going to be easy, but it was good that the excitement was getting the better of our trepidation. As we got started, the jungle welcomed us with a muddy and extremely slippery trail. Our guide opined that this was so much better than doing the same in the sweltering heat of the summer. That gave us some comfort. Mostly downhill, we chose not to think about the fact that we would have to climb the same way back tomorrow.
We learned from our guide that the trail was formed by the villagers who lived within the national park. This was their route to get to the main road that would take them to the town center. After almost an hour of the muddy trail, we came across our first river crossing. It wasn’t deep or wide by any means, and felt very refreshing to get our feet wet.
Multiple river crossings later, a few stops and through beautiful jungle scenery we finally reached the Ban Doong village. This was our lunch stop, and we were treated to some fruits, and fresh spring rolls. (Oxalis had catered to any and all cuisine requests. Meat lover, vegetarian or vegan, there was something for everyone.) After learning a little bit more about the village and the villagers we headed on.
The landscape continued to change around us, there was jungle, more river crossings of varying depths, breathtaking views of hills while as we traversed the valley. An attempt to describe the scenery will be a futile task. It will come off sounding unimpressive and commonplace. It’s something you have to experience, and perhaps admire through our pictures.
Our next stop was to explore the “Cold Cave” or Hang Lanh. Recently discovered, this cave has only had about a 100 visitors. We had to swim through a pretty narrow opening to enter the cave: a daunting task for a claustrophobe. After making it through, we bid daylight goodbye as we were completely enveloped in darkness and the only source of light was our headlamp. This made the experience pretty surreal. Once inside, we discovered the river running through it creating pools of water and shallow waterfalls. Wading through the water we appreciated how time and water have carved smooth rocks. Given the lack of light inside the cave, it’s hard to get a sense of the dimensions. Our imagination took over as the light faded away, and this made the cave seem a lot larger and possibly colder than it really was.
We came out of the cave the same way we went in, through a narrow opening. Given that we did it the first time around, the task became only slightly easier the second time around. As our eyes adjusted to the light outside, it seemed like a different world. The green was greener, the light brighter and it was wonderful to be out. We had very little time to really think about what we just did, because Hang En still awaited us. This was just a “side trip”! But boy oh boy, what an experience!
We marched on, and soon enough one of the openings of the Hang En cave became visible by the side of a hill. As we got closer the opening got bigger, and we started to get a sense of how massive this cave was. But this was not our entrance, since it was not traversable. Our entrance was a “smaller” one a little further ahead. I say smaller, but a 100 people side by side could easily enter it.
Once inside we had couple of smaller river crossings within the cave, and after some staggering on giant boulders we found ourselves standing on a rock ledge admiring our gigantic home for the night. This is really where the pictures we had seen materialize into reality. The third largest cave chamber dotted by a few tents was at display in all it’s grandeur.
We must have reached the cave by 5 PM, and our first order of business was to change into our dry clothes that the porters had brought over. It was dinner time soon after, and it’s one of the best vegetarian meals that we have had in Vietnam. Dinner lead to drinks and conversations by a bonfire where we played games and shared stories. The hours and the strenuous hike from the day melted away as we bonded with our tour group and guides. Before we knew it it was 11 PM and time for bed.
Our first thought of the next morning, “Holy Shit! We just spent a night in a cave”. The second thought was “Crap, we have to wear our wet clothes from yesterday”.
The agenda for the day: Have breakfast, go see the larger opening on the other side (site of the movie Peter Pan); explore millions of fossils; hike down what we had initially thought was a wall inside the cave, have a snack and then retrace our footprints from the day before. We will just let the pictures do the talking.
At the start of the trip, it seemed like an impossible task. Now that it’s over and we have done it, it’s sets the bar for adventure a lot higher. It’s one of those adventures that has changed us. We have come out stronger and are looking forward to the next one.
Oxalis Adventure Tours
We had booked our trip through Oxalis Adventure Tours company. We found that they were extremely focused on ensuring that their customers enjoyed every bit of the experience. Based on their recommendation we booked the Hang En adventure. This maybe a good time to mention that “En” is Vietnamese for the Swift bird, so Hang En translates to Swift Cave. During the summer months you get to see millions of swifts within the cave. We didn’t get to see any because they had already migrated.
We were picked up from our hotel and taken to the Oxalis office for a pre-briefing. The pre-briefing was a semi-formal presentation given by our guide, Thang, that covered key elements of our adventure: the route, safety precautions, etc. The whole process reminded us of the pre-briefings we had seen in movies, and that added to the cool factor and excitement.
We had two guides and one guide assistant through our adventure. They were our travel companions, and no words would be enough to describe the absolute joy they took in their jobs. They were very knowledgeable, and extremely energetic. Thang was particularly fun loving, and was more than happy to answer any and all questions we had. He would go above and beyond a number of times to take pictures of the group. After the hike, we kept thinking that we get to go home and rest, however, these guys are back on their next hike (sometimes a lot more strenuous) the next day. This realization made us appreciate their energy all the more. Outside of the three guides who accompanied us, Oxalis also had porters and a chef who carried the food, tents, and our dry clothes.
Accommodation and Food
The tents were already prepared when we got to the cave. They had double tents for couples and single ones for solo travelers. The tents were in excellent condition and we were provided mattresses, pillows and blankets. It wasn’t the best sleep I have had, but that had more to do with the place than the lack of equipment.
We can’t stress how good the food was. It was one of the best vegan meals we have had and was no less than a feast. We had at least 10 different dishes, consisting of an array of vegetables. Thinking back to that meal makes the mouth water.
After our hike we were taken back to the Oxalis office to freshen up, write up a review, collect our belongings, exchange emails and pictures, and say our final goodbyes.
What to bring
The list that Oxalis provides is pretty useful and accurate. They also provided “Cambodian Army” shoes that we borrowed and found them to be pretty comfortable. These are ankle high shoes and we laced it on top of our trousers to avoid any leeches getting through. Some in our group had regular shoes and seemed to make it through okay (no leeches, no slipping).