Hang En Cave Trekking
Over the mountain and through the jungle
to Hang En cave we go
After my bike's third flat tire and subsequent two-hour delay, we rolled into the town of Phang Nha, somewhat of a backpacker boom town after the recent discovery of hundreds of spectacular caves in the area. There's not much of a downtown save for a short strip packed with hotels, tour companies, and places to do laundry or grab snacks for the road. Worry not- Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park will keep you plenty busy.
The newly discovered caves include Son Doong, the largest cave in the world, and Hang En, the third-largest. In Vietnamese, "Hang" means cave and "En" means swallows, named after the thousands of swallows that migrate down from Laos every year to nest high in the cave. If you look about forty meters up the wall of the cave, you'll see slight little pathways barely big enough for one of your feet that the village people used to climb up and retrieve the swallow nests for birds nest soup. Having never tasted the soup, I'm assuming it's delicious to justify such a risk!
I went with Oxalis tour company because the national parks service only allows that group to enter into the region's biggest caves in order to reduce crowding and environmental impact. It was one of the more expensive activities I've done in Vietnam so far but once you understand how much goes into the price, it seems like a bargain. Three tour guides accompany us plus a couple of safety guides to help us across rough rivers or give struggling trekkers a boost up a muddy hill. A group of about ten porters carry not only our personal items but the tents, food, lights, coffee, drinking water, and much more that I'm sure goes unnoticed. The whole excursion was immaculately planned and could not have gone any better... but it wasn't all six-course meals and coffee breaks.
The trek begins when the bus drops you off on the side of a cliff in the national park, which boasts dramatic limestone mountains, a lush carpet of rich green trees, and a canyon snaking its way in between. Armed with Cambodian hiking boots (think of Converse All-Stars with a rubber sole) I navigated the slick, muddy slope down to Doong Village. The village is a small collection of huts housing thirty-nine people from one of Vietnam's fifty-four ethnic minorities. I had a quick Banh Mi lunch sitting cross-legged on the concrete floor of their home, lazily shooing away the occasional dog and wily cat who came to beg for food. The children hammed it up for anyone with a camera. After lunch, we took a quick walk through the scant grounds on our way to pick the trail back up. Our guide mentioned that the tour company does a lot for the village, including giving them livestock, blankets, and even building them two school rooms and helping to send teachers there. It seems like the government wants them out of the park and perhaps that's why it's up to the community to support them.
After the hours of hiking down, we were finally at the base of the canyon. Before October 2016, this wasn't even a trail. It was a giant river. Now all that's left of it is a couple small rivers about knee high and a massive canyon surrounded by green mountains. It was a relief to be down on flat land but the trek was anything but relaxing- swift river currents, soggy feet sloshing around in soggy boots, either soft sand or rough rocky terrain, and the ever-present sun beaming down on you. It was tough but each step brought a new adventure, and that combined with the great company on the tour made the journey so much fun. All the while you could see the giant mouth of the cave straight ahead like an ominous finish line.
Getting into the cave takes one last burst of energy. In near darkness, you climb up huge rocks and wonder how your wet puny shoes are even holding you up. Resting on one large boulder high in the cave, your field of vision expands beyond the crawl space in front of you to the most massive cavern. Light spills in from the left and illuminates a turquoise pool, light sandy beach, colorful little tents arranged in two neat Madeline-esque rows, and the faint smell of food cooking. It's a spectacular sight. There's so much wonder to take in: the grand scale of the cave (third biggest in the world), the soft afternoon light, how one of the most lovely beach scenes I've seen isn't on a coast but in a cave, and appreciation for the porters who made one of the most remote and inaccessible places on Earth a camper's paradise. It was hard to tear myself away from such a vantage point but I was eager to check out camp.
Before we could rest, we went to see the rest of the cave. The cave doesn't have a ton of tunnels, in fact it doesn't take long to go from end to end. It's the volume and height of the cave that make it so impressively large. Up another rocky climb we saw the other opening of the cave called Paradise Cave. Only pictures can show you how lovely it is- all the words I'm searching for don't do justice to the magical elixer the light, colors, shadows, and silhouettes pour into your brain.
The next day we hiked to a second cave nearby called Cold Cave, a name I completely understood once I was swimming in ice water up to my neck just to get through the mouth of it. Unlike Hang En, this cave was completely underground and we got to experience total darkness, something I've always found strangely comforting.
Another trek through the former river bed and we were ready to begin the two-hour uphill climb out of the canyon, through the mountains, and back to the road. For some this was clearly the most difficult and taxing part of the journey, but I absolutely love hiking uphill. I find my zen in the burning physical exertion where all you can concentrate on is lifting yourself higher and higher into the jungle. Through this tough part of a tough trek, I reflected on how thankful I was for my body and its ability to carry me places I never dreamed of experiencing. It was by far the hardest hike of my life but I loved every river-crossing, rock-climbing, mud-skidding, cave-dwelling, leach-removing second of it.