There’s always something special about exploring what mother nature has created in this world. What’s even better is knowing that what you’re exploring is so unique and rare that you’re one of only a handful of people to have ever seen it in person. There’s a feeling that comes with that; exploring the untouched and dangerous territory, the satisfaction of knowing that you haven’t followed the beaten path, and telling a story when you get home that only a few can tell.
Unfortunately, there are few places like this left in the world. However, Hang En Cave situated in Phong Nha National Park, Vietnam is one such place.
Towards the middle of Vietnam and Hidden deep within the Vietnamese jungle lies this beast of a cave – the world’s 3rd largest. It’s so remote and isolated that it took until 1994 for British explorers to discover it. The mountains in the area are 99.9% pure limestone – the purest in the world. As a result of this pureness, the limestone can easily be eroded away by water, creating the largest caves in the world!
What’s great is that you can actually visit Hang En Cave by booking onto a two-day guided trip with Oxalis Adventure Tours, what’s even better is that you get to spend a night in the cave in tents! And that’s exactly what 21 year old me decided to do 4 years ago when I was on a month long trip to Vietnam.
To get to the cave you have to embark on an unforgiving 12km trek through the dense Vietnamese jungle. The landscape has hardly been touched by humans and is so raw; you will find yourself traversing steep inclines and declines, wading through rivers, climbing over fallen trees, and struggling in the Vietnamese heat.
The tour groups range in sizes up to 16 but it’s often less than this. Within the group, I was the second youngest at 21, there were two American couples in their 20’s from California as well as a well as a Dutch couple who took awesome photos, two 20 something dudes from Denmark, and a slightly older American couple with their daughter. From the start, at the company HQ, the group really jelled well together which made the trek easier as we were constantly finding out about each other.
What does give you a slight respite is that you don’t have to carry absolutely everything. There are porters on your trip that carry the tents, helmets, medical equipment, and the all important food! At a clearing around half way through the trek, you will stop in the shade and the porters will set up lunch for you. It as basic sandwiches with cheese, meats, and some chocolate on the side but it was a heavenly break from the mid-day heat!
What’s great is that all of your tour guides and porters are Vietnamese locals. Seemingly plucked out from the local population, they have very good English and come across very professional. They know so much about the area and showed us the remnants of a US bomb from the Vietnamese war. There’s a lot of Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) in the park left over from American bombing campaigns so the porters ask you not to stray too far from the path you’re walking!
After the 12km trek, that although was exhilarating and so special, felt like an eternity, you capture your first glimpse of the massive cave opening above the tall grass. This huge opening is a 120m high and was formed due to rock falls that created the opening, but also blocked most of it off! Once you clear the 12ft high grass, you wade through a small river to a discrete opening in the rock to the right of the big opening, this is your entrance to Hang En.
Hard hats with lights on and gloves are passed out to the group before entering. You walk into the opening and enter a low-ceilinged part of the cave that is pitch black in all directions, your head lights barely lighting the way in front. The river that is outside also enters this part of the cave with you and you need to cross it again on your journey.
After climbing a few rocks you literally start to see light at the end of the tunnel. This is the main cave hall. I’ll let the next three pictures show how you follow the river and enter the cave hall.
The porters who trek ahead of you set up camp before you get there. There are tents for individuals or couples and the food for dinner is already cooking. As you settle into your tent you have a chance to marvel at the beauty you are surrounded by. The cave is 2km long and up to 160m high and you feel like an ant in its vastness. The tents are set up along the shoreline of two small bodies of water. The one that is fed by the river from outside is warm as the water has been heated by the sun, whilst the one that is next to it is cold as it is fed by ground water. Hopping between the two and relaxing in the warm water is a must after you settle in.
After you settle in there’s a chance to hike further up into the cave and look at your campsite from above which truly shows you the size of this cave. The cave is so special that it’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its unique structure and ecosystem. The cave was also featured in the 2015 version of Peter Pan due to its fairy tale credentials!
After you have eaten a traditional Vietnamese dinner, which isn’t deep fried sparrows, you can sit by the fire with your fellow trekkers and watch the cave come alive with thousands of bats that have been sleeping during the day. These bats nest in the roof of the cave and you can watch them whizz around above your head for hours. When the cave became dark we had some fun with our head lights and long exposure photography!
After you finally decide it’s time to sleep, you do so in the belly of a beast. Hang En is so big yet so beautiful, you will go to sleep with the sound of a thousand bats flying above you, ready for the hike back to HQ the next day.