Our purpose for driving to this remote part of Vietnam was to go caving in one of the world’s most beautiful karst systems at Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our base was Chay Lap Farmstay for two nights, sandwiching one of our hikes, an overnight camping trek to Hang Én Cave.
After spending our first night in Chay Lap, we started the day with a drive to Phong Nha village to check in with Oxalis Adventure Tours, the organizer of our expedition.
Having transferred part of our gear and clothing to the porters and having met the rest of our hiking group – 18 in all, including us – we set off in a small bus to the trailhead, stopping enroute on a bridge to see what we would be hiking through.
The hike began with a fairly steep downhill for about a mile that opened periodically to beautiful vistas of the jungle and surrounding hills.
About 1.5 hours into the hike, we came upon our stop for lunch, a small ethnic minority settlement called Doong Village.
There are only about 7 families living in this settlement of more-or-less indigenous people and we saw about a half dozen children, not enough for a school, so the community occasionally hires a teacher to live in the village to tutor the kids, like this adorable little girl.
After lunch, we continued our descent, ultimately reaching the river at the bottom of the valley. The river floods annually, submerging everything. We had about 20 river or stream crossings over the next 2.5 hours of hiking, ultimately reaching the lower entrance to Hang En Cave around 4:00 in the afternoon. The lower left photo, below, is our first glimpse of the inaccessible upper entrance to the cave; the photo on the right is the actual entrance:
We donned helmets and headlamps, then descended into the cave through the lower entrance, stopping on a ledge to get our first view of the prepared campsite that had already been set up by Oxalis porters and staff.
It was nearly dark inside the cave, although it was not yet twilight outside.
Hang En Cave, or “Swallow Cave,” is the third largest cave in the world after Hang Son Doong Cave – which is just a few miles distant – and Deer Cave in Malaysia. I’m not sure what “largest” means – volume? length? entrance dimensions? – but both Wikipedia and Oxalis say that Hang En is number 3. There are three entrances to Hang En: upper; lower; and, rear. We entered through the lower entrance, but our camping area was illuminated by the upper entrance.
After dropping our gear and washing off with a swim in the underground river that created this cave, we sat down to a Vietnamese dinner prepared by the Oxalis staff, then off to bed early.
Next morning after breakfast, we again donned our caving helmets and headlamps and set off to explore the interior of the cave. Here’s the view of our campsite as we hiked up over a rock pile to go deeper into the cave:
Inside the cave, we passed a number of stalactites and stalagmites, as well as several other interesting formations. The frozen cascades reminded us of our trip to Pamukkale in Turkey a few years ago. Finally, we reached the rear cave entrance (continuing on this route would ultimately have led us to Son Doong Cave).
Here’s a good view of the rear entrance. If you look closely, you might see two of our porters on the sand; they look like ants. This entrance was featured in the 2015 movie, “Pan.”
we sat for a while admiring the view before returning along the course of the underground river to camp.
After a quick lunch, we packed up and started our 6-mile trek back to the pickup point, retracing our steps to just before Doong Village, then branching off on a more challenging path. The entire hike was about 13 miles: 6 in, 6 out, and 1 inside the cave.
The final hour was pretty brutal, rising at nearly a 60° grade for about a half mile, the trail made difficult by the prior night’s rain and the heat and humidity of this part of Vietnam, even in the cooler months. The rain also brought out the leeches in the river, Bill and I each falling prey to the little vermin.
It was a great experience (except for the leeches), well organized and staffed. And we had a friendly and interesting group of fellow hikers, representing most of the world: Taiwan; Australia; France; England; Poland; and the United States. And, of course, Vietnam, represented by Nguyen Huyen, our guide from Oxalis.