Hang En may be the greatest tease of all caves known to man.
Why? Because Hang Son Doong, the largest cave in the world, is a mere 3 km. walk away, but you cannot go there without signing up for the Oxalis tour at $3,000 a head.
Standing about an hour’s walk away from one of the greatest natural wonders of the world, one so few people have seen, is enough to arouse even the most indifferent souls. Alas, you really, truly can’t go unless you are on the official tour. Not even for a peek. Trust me, I tried.
So why would anyone put themselves through such torture? Because Hang En is a worthy cave in its own right: enormous and stunningly beautiful. And, as I said in Part 1 on our caving adventures in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, the Hang En trek is a steal at $285 and is still accepting trekkers unlike Son Doong, which only allows a scant 220 visitors a year.
Like any trek with Oxalis, the Hang En adventure begins with an early morning pick-up at your hotel, followed by orientation at their HQ. Being a small group (one other client, a guide, two porters, and the required national park ranger), we were quickly on our way into the park via the Ho Chi Minh Highway.
One hour and many stomach-turning curves later, we arrived at our starting point – basically a bend in the road well above the valley floor (our ultimate destination). We began our descent almost immediately, making our way slowly down the steep and muddy hillside wearing, what else, the Cambodian Chuck Taylors.
We arrived at the floor of the valley a short while later, meeting a tributary of the river that would feature prominently in our lives for the next two days.
We made our way to Ban Doong, a local “minority” village, as it’s called here. Depending who you ask, there are anywhere from 28 to 44 people living in this village. They are subsistence farmers and don’t have much contact with the outside world aside from arranged marriages with nearby villages, and, of course, Hang En trekkers.
On the advice of Howard from Oxalis, we brought lollipops for the village kids. While it’s generally a bad idea to give teeth-rotting candy to kids who will never have access to dentistry, we felt: “Who are we to deny these kids the smallest of pleasures for ‘their own good’?”
Upon arriving, we handed over the bag of immoral goodies to the village elder for distribution (no going back now) and met the local attraction: a beautiful owl found wounded and nursed back to health by one of the villagers. It’s clear this owl is a point of pride for the community, and it follows and dotes on its rescuer with its liquid amber, miss-nothing eyes.
Our fellow trekker kept trying to pick up the owl for a picture, but the bird was not having it. It made for an awkward scene, with the owl flapping all over the place. Those talons were enough to put me off.
We stopped a short while later for a picnic along the river. Sausage from a tube, Laughing Cow cheese (absolutely ubiquitous here), bread, and sesame seed brittle. Hubby heaven. Tomato, cucumber, and fruit also made an appearance. H paid them minimal heed.
After re-fueling, we set off for the cave, eager to get some blood pumping after our slow crawl down into the valley. The porters took off ahead of us, blazing a fiery path wearing plastic sandals and shouldering 100 lb. packs with minimal shoulder support and no waist belt. I was very humbled carrying my little 10 lb. day pack.
After about two hours of flat and easy walking and frequent crisscrossing of the river through the mist-shrouded valley, the first of Hang En’s openings came into view. What initially looked like a dark streak in the rock slowly revealed itself to be a massive overhang halfway up the hillside, a void of darkness below.
It looks like a bear or lion roaring – a figurative and literal mouth. The jungle encroaches from all angles, especially from the bottom. The photos with people in it are the only way to really get a sense of its scale – 460 ft. wide to be exact.
As it turned out, we followed a sharp bend in the river and walked about 10 minutes past the roaring beast to find a second, daintier mouth of the cave. We entered here, following the river’s path into the darkness. This is right about the time I started feeling like Russell from the movie Up – just another wilderness explorer thrilled to be on a grand adventure. Once inside, we encountered a massive pile of boulders spilling down into the cave from the aforementioned opening. After about 10 minutes of scrambling, we crested the pile and finally got to glimpse the enormity of the 650 ft. tall cave. Our campsite was a mere speck below below the soaring ceiling, situated on a lovely stretch of river “beach” next to a deep turquoise pool. Our porters already had a fire going and were busily setting up camp and beginning preparations for the evening’s feast.
After scrambling down to our campsite, we dropped our stuff and took off to explore the rest of the cave. More river crisscrossing, some 300 million year old fossils, and then more scrambling. As an added bonus to the generally muddy and slick conditions in Hang En, the boulders deep in the cave were covered in excrement from thousands of flying fox (a type of bat) and swifts (similar to a hummingbird). Sadly, we didn’t see either. Apparently, the swifts had already moved on for the season, leaving only said excrement, nests, and a few stragglers behind. No idea where the flying fox went.
We reached the final mouth of the cave, the one made famous by National Geographic in 2011. This is the way to Son Doong, and this is the tease. So, so close, but no dice.
Our fellow trekker was having difficulty navigating the boulders, so we had the opportunity to get out ahead a bit and enjoy the beauty of this place in relative solitude. I’m not going to get into flowery descriptions – just go and experience it for yourself, as only a handful of others have. I promise, you will never forget it.
All too soon, we were called back to camp for dinner. After changing into blessed, dry shoes, I watched the porters finish our meal over the fire. I’m pretty sure I was leering at the food, and I’m pretty sure this made them really uncomfortable. Eventually, my hovering was too awkward, even for me, so I went to help H set out our sleeping bags and arrange the tent.
What little daylight we had in the cave faded fast, and, as darkness set in, we saw more headlamps on the boulders, making their way toward camp. Turns out, we were to be joined by another group – two clients plus their guide and porter. That made for 11 total cave dwellers, and though I had initially been excited by the small size of our group, it was nice to have some fresh blood.
Soon after their arrival, the feast began. To the best of my memory, it included: tomato and cabbage soup, stir-fried beef with green peppers and onions, fried pork ribs, sauteed cabbage, fried tofu with tomato, grilled pork wrapped with wild betel leaves picked from the jungle, stir-fried morning glory, and rice. All this was prepared with one knife, two pots, some chopsticks, and a fire. Proof that good food is universal and can be found anywhere, prepared by anyone, in the unlikeliest of circumstances.
The feast was accompanied by copious amounts of “rice wine”, which is not wine at all but rather rice moonshine. Drinking is a very social experience in Vietnam and begins with a toast of: “Mot, hai, ba, yo! Hai, ba, yo! Hai, ba, wuaaah!” Roughly translated: “1,2,3, cheers! 2,3, cheers! 2,3, drink!” This incantation is shouted whenever someone takes a drink, and when one person takes a drink, everyone else must drink too.
The rice wine is potent and not the worst hooch in the world. The key is little sips – otherwise, you get refilled, on and on it goes until it runs out, making for a very rough trek the next day. Somehow, we managed to avoid the challenges to finish our cups, which was likely impolite but ultimately necessary. Now, if it had been a beer chugging contest instead…
The night wrapped up with coffee and stories around the fire, with bedtime at 9:30 p.m. We were all pretty tired, and there’s only so much you can do to pass the time in a pitch black cave after sunset.
After a fitful night’s sleep (our tent was on a slight grade, causing me to slide into H all night), we were greeted by another misty day and an enormous plateful of delicious banana pancakes – way more than we could finish.
We set out shortly after that, trying to sear the feeling of being in that cave into our brains. We fell in with the two latecomers, Stephanie and Alex from Montclair, NJ – a stone’s throw away from where my aunt, uncle, and their kids live. Small world. They are fellow wanderers and have been to some amazing places, so we had a great time exchanging travel stories.
We went back the way we came, following the river along the valley floor, back through the village of Ban Doong, and up the slick, muddy, steep hillside, which was actually much easier than anticipated. Before we knew it, we were at the top and drinking a celebratory beer.
Overall, I highly recommend the Hang En trek not only to folks who can’t afford Son Doong (or wait for spots to open up) but also to anyone traveling Vietnam. It deserves a spot on your itinerary, even if you are only here for a week. It’s been the highlight of our trip so far, rivaled only by our tour of the Mekong Delta and a few great motorcycle rides.
The entire Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is still remarkably untouched – not the norm for development in Vietnam. If not for the amazing local community here, there would already be a cable car through the valley (seriously).
In my view, the opening of Son Doong and its recent inclusion on the New York Times list of places to visit in 2014 will change all this. There has already been insane interest in the area this year, as everyone in town will tell you. There’s even a rumor that American film director James Cameron offered Oxalis an ungodly sum of money to jump the permit line (they turned him down, if the rumors are to be believed). I challenge any country, especially a developing one, to look at all that money-making potential and walk away. It just doesn’t happen, though I sincerely hope I am wrong about this.
The time is now, fellow nomads. I’ve included some information below to jump-start your planning. Happy trails!
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
As with any wilderness adventure, be prepared and responsible. While these treks are not seriously strenuous or technical, they aren’t just a neighborhood nature walk. You are WAY out there, and if you get seriously injured, there is no helicopter or rescue squad coming to get you. Decent hospital facilities nearby? Forget it.
With that said, here are some tips/words of advice:
- Do your homework beforehand so you know exactly what your trip entails – weather conditions, hiking/trail conditions (mud, sand, water, etc.), gear requirements, fitness requirements, etc. A good outfit should provide you with all this information, but you know you, your abilities, and your needs best. Ask questions and be honest with yourself about your abilities.
- As a general rule of thumb, you should be prepared to survive on your own if something goes horribly wrong (e.g. your guide disappears, gets injured, has to deal with an injured client, etc.). For us, this means supplementing any outfit-provided packing lists with our own gear: multi-tools (Leatherman), lighter, headlamp, spare batteries, first aid kit, snacks, water, water purifier, and, of course, TP. This is in addition to any special gear we need. For example, I get cold almost anywhere, so I always have more than the recommended layers and cold weather gear.
- For serious, multi-day treks, consider springing for a completely private tour, or at the very least, asking the company to put you in touch with your fellow trekkers so you can get to know each other before traipsing off into a jungle, desert, whatever. Your companions can make or break your experience in terms of both enjoyment, and, most importantly, safety. Better to fork over the extra cash or change your trekking dates than be subject to someone who grates on your nerves and/or has no clue what they are doing.
- Of all the treks offered by Oxalis, Hang En is my pick over at least the Tu Lan one-day tour. I can’t speak for the multi-day Tu Lan trips, which I have heard are also great. In general, longer treks allow more time to relax and explore, and you’ll likely have a smaller group since most people don’t have or aren’t willing to invest that kind of time.
WHEN TO GO
There is no perfect time to visit Vietnam. Contrary to popular belief, Vietnam is not hot and humid year-round, and the weather patterns vary significantly from region to region. In the winter months, it can get very cold and even snowy up north, while the south positively swelters during the summer months (as does much of the north, actually). So, if you plan on seeing all this country has to offer (you should), know that you will have to make trade-offs with the weather.
We visited Phong Nha in mid-January, one of the colder months, and our daytime temps averaged around 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit. It was mostly cloudy with little rain, though we experienced quite a bit of mist/very light drizzle. Pros for visiting during this time: ideal temps for hiking and other athletic activities and minimal bugs, notably mosquitoes. Cons: water temps are also around 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit, which puts a bit of a damper on swimming and any caving that requires significant trekking through water (as almost all of it does in Phong Nha). It’s not terrible, but you should be prepared with lots of extra warm, dry clothes. The colder temps also make for chillier nights, both indoors and out (most hotels here do not have heating units of any kind).
If Goldilocks had to choose a time to visit this region, my bet is that she would pick March or April when the seasons are transitioning – not too hot, not too cold, just right.
WHERE TO STAY
The place to stay for my money. You’ve got the communal feel of a hostel with the amenities of a hotel. The entire team there is absolutely amazing and will go out of their way to provide advice, help you with travel plans, etc. Plus, they have in-room heat in the winter months as well as air conditioning and even a pool (!) for the summer. What’s not to love? The Farmstay is not close to town, so if you want to walk to other restaurants, this may not be the place for you (though you can bicycle). Given that there isn’t a whole to the town, we liked being tucked away, rice paddies stretching before us. From $23/night for a twin with no en suite bathroom; from $33/night with en suite.
We stayed here for one night after bailing on our ride out of town due to pouring rain. It’s in town, located right on the river with great views. The facilities are nice and clean, and the hot water is decent. They do not have heat in the winter, but they do have air conditioning in the summer. From $30/night.
Launched with the help of/by the Farmstay folks (hard to tell), this is probably the cheapest bed in town, which is exactly what you will get (no private rooms). Convivial and fun atmosphere with live music; similar food and drink menu to the Farmstay. From $8/night.
An authentic experience staying with a Vietnamese/Aussie family – also on the outskirts of town. We heard great things about this place, especially about the food and proprietress, Diem (we met her husband, Multi, at the Farmstay – great bloke). All the rooms are true-Vietnamese style, which means they aren’t completely private, shared bathroom only. Dorm beds as well as a double bed option. From $10/night.
Run by the Phong Nha local who discovered S?n ?oòng and his family, this place offers the homestay experience close to town. They have great views of the river, and there are three double rooms available. From $30/night.
There are also plenty of other guesthouses and hotels in town to choose from if you feel like winging it (we’ve heard Thien Thanh is good). Be sure to see the room and negotiate a price before dropping your bags. From $10-$20/night.
For all of these hotels, it’s important to keep in mind that you are in rural Vietnam, so you won’t get anything close to 5-star here. Power outages are not uncommon, you can’t flush your TP down the toilet, wifi is weak everywhere and non-existent in guest rooms, and your hot water won’t last more than 10 minutes (if you’re lucky). There may be a wedding going on a few doors down, which means you will be subjected to pounding techno music at 6:00 a.m. … maybe for days. Adjust expectations accordingly.
HOW TO GET THERE
Obviously, we traveled to Phong Nha via motorbike. Even if you aren’t doing a major motorcycle trip, consider renting one for a week or so in Hue and making Phong Nha the first stop on your trip north to Hanoi. If you’re gun shy about driving a motorcycle in Vietnam (which you should be if you’ve never ridden before), consider going with one of the many motorcycle tour companies found everywhere – they do all of the work (driving, packing the bike, booking hotels, translating) while you sit back and relax. We recommend Scimitar Easy Riders (based in Da Lat) or Cuong’s Motorbike Adventures (based in Hanoi).
You can find flights to Dong Hoi from either Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi via Vietnam Airlines, and it’s relatively inexpensive compared to U.S. domestic air travel. As Dong Hoi is about 40 km. from Phong Nha, you’ll need to arrange a transfer. Your best bet is to book a private car through your hotel, though there is apparently a local bus as well (see below for more on buses). You can also grab a conventional taxi or a xe om (motorbike taxi). Prices can vary wildly, so negotiate beforehand. To be extra sure, show the driver the amount of money agreed upon (but don’t pay him until you arrive safely at your destination). We recently had an unpleasant experience with a cab driver who told us he meant to say a different price than he did (bad English was his excuse), so we owed him what he meant to say rather than what he actually said. This type of situation is best avoided at all costs, if only for your own sanity.
As with the airport, the nearest train station is in Dong Hoi, so you will need to arrange transport from there to Phong Nha. You can catch the train from most major cities – find the schedules here. The train is an interesting experience in and of itself and would be my preferred mode of travel if we weren’t on motorbikes. If you do an overnight train, spring for the soft sleeper, as it has only four beds. The hard sleeper has six, with the top bed being about two ft. from the ceiling. If you must do the hard sleeper, get the bottom bunk, or, if traveling as a couple, get the bottom and middle bunk on the same side. You can fold up the middle bunk, which creates a nice little seating area on the bottom bunk, allowing you to sit upright and hang out.
This is the cheapest way to get around Vietnam, but based on the kind of driving we’ve seen from buses, it would be my last choice of transportation. That said, there are a ton of options: private bus companies (such as the DMV transfer bus booked through Hue Backpackers Hostel), tour companies, public buses, etc. Given my scant knowledge, it’s better to seek local advice from your hotel or travel agency, or consult a travel forum like tripadvisor.com or travelfish.org. Be aware that most buses drop off in Dong Hoi, not Phong Nha.
Have a question about Phong Nha I haven’t answered here? Comment below or shoot us an email.