Our clothes drenched from a tropical downpour, boots soaked from two dozen river crossings, we looked up and saw the gaping mouth of the world’s third-largest cave, Hang En, in the UNESCO-listed Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park of central Vietnam.
We’d finally reached our destination.
Hang En Cave, Vietnam
Peeling off our backpacks and donning helmets and headlamps, we ventured into the darkness of Hang En’s smallest entrance – an impressive cave in its own right but miniature compared with the two larger entrances that we would soon see. Scrambling up a pitch black slope strewn with boulders, we came into the light coming from one of these large entrances and set our eyes on the magnificent sight below: our campsite was waiting for us in one of the biggest natural caverns in the world.
No doubt about it, this was one of the most gobsmacking sights I’ve seen in my life. Not to get all OTT, but it truly was one of those pinch-me-is-this-real-or-fake moments. Hang En’s main cavern can fit a Boeing 747 jet with room to spare. So yes, it’s absolutely massive.
Our campsite, with two neat rows of yellow tents, a kitchen area, and a couple of composting toilets, was set up on the sandy cave floor surrounded by a placid turquoise pool. The porters, who had arrived before us, looked like tiny ants far below.
After clambering down the rocky slope and wading across the pool to get to the campsite, we finally stripped off our soaking clothes and marvelled at this place where we were going to spend the night.
Getting to Hang En
Our hike that day had begun by heading down an escarpment into the river valley in which Hang En is located, as well as Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest known cave. Hang En is accessible as a two-day, one-night hike which pretty much anyone can do (there were certainly some less fit people in our group!).
It was stiflingly hot as we ventured down through the forest towards the river. We’d been instructed to wear long trousers due to the threat of leeches and other creepy-crawlies, which made it even hotter. Just after our picnic lunch of make-your-own fresh spring rolls, the heavens opened and the clouds that had been threatening all morning dumped on us – what a relief! Although it rained on and off for the rest of the day which made photography a bit difficult, it was much cooler – and because we were staying inside a cave we didn’t have to worry about the rain!
The four hour hike wasn’t hard, but the 25 river crossings made it a more challenging day. By the time we reached Hang En we were ready to take our wet boots and socks off! It was a relief to change into dry clothes and sip on a hot cup of Vietnamese coffee while gazing out the cave entrance towards the jungle surrounded by wispy clouds, listening to the cave’s inhabitants swoop around above us.
Hang En, ‘Swallow Cave’, in Vietnamese, is filled with – you guessed it – swallows. Their chirpy voices filled the void of the cave, and their vast numbers required the porters to rig up tarpaulins above the dining table – unless you wanted to risk getting poop in your dinner!
An impressive meal was served later that evening. The chef served up an array of dishes, ranging from hand cut french fries to stir-fried morning glory and grilled pork. Food always tastes so much better in the outdoors, and this was no exception. The meal was finished off with home-brewed ‘happy water’ (rice wine). The guides warned us not to drink too much as they wouldn’t carry us back on the hike the next day!
We rose early the next morning due to the din of the swallows waking up before dawn. The dim early morning light entering the cave made for a slightly eerie feeling. If some major catastrophe had happened in the world that night, we would never have known. We were totally cut off – no roads, no cellphones.
Exploring Hang En cave
After a breakfast of too many pancakes with locally-made honey, we set off into the pitch black at the back of the main cavern. We climbed up an old landslide deposit and surveyed the spectacular view over the campsite. It looked like a little toy town down there. We were astonished to find out that when remote cameras were installed during the wet season a few years back, the cave flooded half way up the walls – an immense amount of water.
From there further into the cave, no natural light reached, and we were joined by a new flock of cave inhabitants – bats. Shining our headlamps up to the cave ceiling, the light caught on thousands of little black bodies hanging from the stalagmites.
This part of the cave seemed very old. We spotted fossils in the cave walls, and climbed over old eroded cave formations. The odd tree trunk here and there was evidence of past floods that had reached the inner sanctum of the cave – how else would they would have gotten there?
A mindblowing sight
Eventually we saw fingers of light reaching into the darkness, and after climbing up another slope we were greeted with perhaps the most impressive sight yet – Hang En’s third entrance. This was the view that had originally got me hooked on doing the hike to Hang En – the river snaking out, little waterfalls dripping from the mossy cave walls, the forest encroaching into the overhanging cave mouth.
The photos that I had seen before did not remotely do it justice. It was like being in a fairytale.
It was a joy to just sit there gazing out of the cave for a while. The guides didn’t rush us to move onto the next stop; they knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us. How lucky they are to visit this magnificent cave so often – I don’t think the awe of being in such a place would wear off.
We returned to the campsite via the river which ran under a low section of the cave. After packing our bags and saying goodbye to the chefs (they live in the cave for a week at a time) we returned the way we had come the day before. Across the turquoise pool, back up and down the rocky slope, and through the smallest entrance.
Fortunately the weather behaved on our hike back to the bus – no rain, although it was quite hot climbing back up the escarpment! Not much talking was done on the hike out, I think everyone was internally reflecting on the amazing place we had just had the opportunity to visit.
These caves need preservation
It was truly a special place. A place that should be preserved in its current state for many future generations to enjoy and be as awestruck as we were.
It broke my heart to hear that there are tentative plans for a cable car to be built through the valley to Hang En and Hang Son Doong, although reports are conflicting as to the status of these plans (see here and here). The proposed cable cars could bring in thousands of people per day into this pristine environment.
What an absolute disaster that would be. Places like Hang En, these beautifully preserved (not to mention incredibly rare) natural formations need to have restrictions on visitor numbers and any tourism operations must have a low environmental impact. Oxalis Adventure Tours is the only company licensed to run trips to the caves, and they can only take a maximum of 16 people at a time to Hang En and even fewer on the Hang Son Doong trips. They have strict rules on removing toilet and garbage waste from the cave, and the campsites have a very low impact – there are no permanent structures so if the campsite was dismantled and removed you wouldn’t even know that it had been there.
Vietnam, unfortunately, has a bad track record with these types of developments – and cable cars seem to be the popular trend here. In the northern mountain town of Sapa, a massive cable car opened in early 2016 to ferry thousands of passengers a day to the top of Fansipan, Southeast Asia’s highest peak. In the past, the mountain’s summit had been the goal of a small number of hardy climbers each year. Tourism money won out at the end of the day, and now sadly there is a huge building at the top of the mountain and the number of people visiting is skyrocketing.
Let’s hope the caves can be spared the same fate.
Go there now
If, like us, you love experiencing these gems of the natural environment without thousands of others around, and you don’t mind a bit of a hike to get there, then make sure you head to Vietnam and visit Hang En before it’s too late.
It’s more than worth it. Forget about how much it costs (it isn’t cheap). But it’ll be one of those experiences you’ll look back on for the rest of your life and be grateful you had – we certainly will be.
Have you had a mindblowing experience like this? What do you think about development in pristine natural areas all for the sake of money? Share your thoughts in the comments below!