Central Vietnam offers a wealth of unique outdoors experiences, one of which is a hiking / cave trekking experience in the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. The park itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and spans over 850 square kilometers, and hosts over 300 caves (many still unexplored). The popular trekking sites are:
- Beginner Level: Nuoc Nut and Tu Lan (cave only)
- Intermediate Level: Hang Va, Hang En, Hang Tien
- Advanced Level: Tu Lan (full expedition), Son Doong
We opted for the intermediate Hang En, which balanced our adventurous side with our recognition that we were still on a vacation, technically. I would encourage you to speak with your tour operator prior to booking the trek so that you are properly informed about all expectations and potential risks. As far as timing goes, October to December are the months to avoid, as the temperatures reach scorching highs and chances for rain are equally high. We chose to go in May, and it was still quite warm – though bearable.
Our tour operator of choice was Oxalis Adventures, which as of this writing is ranked #1 among all tour providers in the area. We selected their “Hang En Adventure Cave Camp 2D1N” at a cost of ~US$320 per person, which allowed us to camp in the actual cave, rather than the jungle. Hang En is also the third largest cave in the world! The general itinerary and “things to know” are listed on their website, so I won’t bother re-listing them here. Instead, I will provide my honest account of the experience, with some pictures to help you visualize your potential journey.
Our journey began in Da Nang, where we headed to central Vietnam on an overnight sleeper bus – which was surprisingly comfortable and well appointed. Once we arrived at the main bus terminal, the Oxalis guides were there with signs to help corral us into the right groups and mini bus. After another hour of driving, we finally got to the starting point of the trek, and met our 4 local guides and ~10 other fellow trekkers.
The trek begin with a long descent down a tropical jungle, which had a mix of dirt roads, babbling creeks, and pebbled pathways.
About midway, we stopped for lunch in a small local village, which had maybe 4 or 5 families all living together in one community. We learned that these small villages were scattered throughout the mountains, and the inhabitants farmed for food and sold the surplus in nearby markets for clothing and other household goods.
After lunch, we had another hour and a half of trekking through flat plains and fording small rivers. The guides were generous with the breaks to allow everyone to take pictures and catch their breaths.
Arriving at the mouth of the cave, our trek was almost finally over (minus a small boulder we had to climb inside to get to our campsite. The porters who carried our food and camping equipment had already set up our base camp for the night, and it was truly an amazing sight to behold.
After making our way down and finding our tent, we had a short break to put our stuff down and drink some water, but we journeyed on further into the cave. Sad to say, the pictures can only capture a fraction of the ambiance and depth of the surroundings.
After getting our fill of spelunking, we relaxed back at our camp, and had a great dinner and drinks while enjoying each other’s company. The guides were very much into photography, and helped take some cool light trick photography.
The next day, we woke up early to enjoy a quick dip in the lagoon under the dawn’s light, and had a bit more time to take some more photos before heading out.
Now, about the return trip… I will leave out the gory details, but I will say that trekking down a mountain for 2.5 hours means the trek upward will almost certainly take longer than that. In our case, we dealt with 86 degrees Fahrenheit / 30 degrees Celsius weather as we hiked upwards, while occasionally swatting at the bumblebee that wouldn’t leave us alone. We made it back in one piece, but this is a fair warning to leave enough juice in your tank to help you push through the last stretch. Despite the arduous return trip, it was truly an unforgettable experience, and would highly recommend it.