This grand adventure started with us rolling into a dark, quiet town on a sleeper bus at three in the morning. The bus arrived ahead of schedule and we were thankful to quickly find a hostel willing to take us in for a few hours before our Hang En Cave tour began. After sleeping a bit and freshening up, we walked through the town as it brimmed with the potential of a new day.
Armed with a coffee and pastry from a local shop, we arrived at Oxalis Adventure for a safety chat and to store our bags before beginning our hike. We booked this tour a few months in advance and were happy to know that Oxalis covered everything needed to make this two-day, one-night tour safe and comfortable. In addition to luggage storage, Oxalis provides water bottles and bags to hold your necessities during the tour. An expert Sherpa carries your essentials to the cave so all you must worry about is soaking in the jungle of Vietnam. We borrowed shoes from Oxalis to hike in, but others wore tennis shoes of their own.
We drove through the winding roads of the Phong Nha National Park with our hiking group who traveled from all over the world to experience this trek. One of my favorite experiences when traveling to the most remote areas of the world is meeting audacious people that truly value travel as much as you do. Camping in the third largest cave in the world with such an incredible group of adventurous people made the experience even more enjoyable.
We arrived at the trailhead atop of the forest canopy which is home to monkeys, snakes, and the loud drone of cicadas. The ringing of their shells traveled with us throughout the hike and was a constant reminder of how deep in the jungle we were. The best, and arguably worst, part of the hike is crossing the cold, vast river winding through the jungle. We spotted a cluster of frog eggs, curious fish, and neon dragonflies as we trudged through waist-deep water and begrudgingly accepted the sloshing of water in our shoes.
The exclusive lifestyle of a remote village captivated us during our short lunch stop. The villagers only recently received running water, a schoolhouse, and electricity due to Oxalis incorporating their village into the tour. We immersed ourselves in their culture, listened to the unique language and watched water buffalo, bright roosters, small hunting dogs, and other wild animals roam the fields.
We left the village supported by full bellies and humbled hearts. The next stop was still two hours away and home to our campsite, Hang En. We passed several other cave entrances and were blown away by the beauty of the clear, blue river flowing through brilliantly colored limestone. None of the other cave entrances compared to the enormous entrance of Hang En, which was just the first glimpse of the breathtaking views to come.
Strapped with helmets and headlamps we hiked into the cave which included crossing the river in pitch-black darkness. A rock scramble slowly revealed light as we reached the highest point in the cave overlooking our campsite. Hang En Cave translates to Swallow Cave in Vietnamese. Swallow birds live among the bats inside the cave and they hunt for insects at night in unison.
We took a quick dip in the cool lagoon before settling in for a hot meal and rice wine which the locals enthusiastically called “happy water.” Equipped with bravery from the rice wine, we explored the darkest parts of the cave which revealed crystal quartz, stalagmites, and geodes. After exploring we pulled up a chair to warm up by a fire as our hike leader, named Dai, told us the fascinating story of how his uncle stumbled upon Hang En while hiking in the jungle. The chirping of the swallows and fluttering bats surrounded us as dusk settled in. Their musical banter later lulled us to sleep in our cozy tents.
We awoke to a bright sunbeam piercing through the cave entrance exploding the campsite into a world of color and magical energy. A quick breakfast was followed by exploring another entrance of the cave. We were blown away by giant trees atop boulders, both of which were carried into the cave by water during the rainy season. September to December is the peak of rainy season when the cave fills with water and transforms it into an underwater oasis. Most of the Phong Nha caves are closed during the rainy season.
The hike out of the cave and back to town was more strenuous than the hike down the mountain and still just as wet. We crossed the river over thirty times throughout the hike and explored three astonishingly different ecosystems. It was incredible to watch monkeys play in nearby trees and walk the same paths of the peaceful water buffalo. We were met at the trail end with a celebratory beer as we dried our feet and watched in horror as fellow hikers removed small leeches from their legs. Luckily, our socks were high and thick enough to save us from this part of the experience.
Oxalis dropped us at our homestay doorstep after the tour. I highly recommend staying an extra night in Phong Nha after the tour to unwind and explore other caves. A couple in our hiking group changed their reservations to stay one more night for dinner and drinks with everyone.
The next day we slept in and took our time getting to Paradise Cave. Visiting this cave feels like transporting to mars and it is worth the forty-five-minute drive. We chose to take a private car booked directly through the front desk at our homestay, but they also had motorcycles and scooters for rent. We thought about going to the Dark Cave as well, but it required you to get wet and I did not want to put my feet through another day of sogginess.
A paved, mile-long walk brings you to the entrance of Paradise Cave where we purchased tickets to explore the cave. Luckily, it was nearly empty when we arrived so we soaked in the magic of the cave alone. The cave is full of bright lights, colorful stalagmites, and stalactites. Every turn is more beautiful than the last and the path seemed to never end. We ran into our fellow Hang En hikers towards the end of our exploration and were all in awe at the beauty of this cave. I am still processing the beauty of our planet after exploring the biggest natural formations in the world.
These three days were the most adventurous days of my life and an experience I will never forget. The enormity of Hang En and Paradise Cave engulf you with an otherworldly sense of peace and ground you in humility. This remote town in Vietnam should be on every hiker’s bucket list. If you have the chance to go off the beaten path, do it.
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