After a series of plane rides from Seoul to Hanoi and finally to Dong Hoi I was picked up by Oxalis for my trip into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave. From Dong Hoi it was about an hour ride to Phong Nha; the home of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a remote jungle wonderland filled with more amazement than I could possibly have imagined.
Waking up the next day we took our last showers and made sure everyone’s pack was set for the 7 day trip deep into the rain forest. 45 minutes later we were pulling off the newly paved road; we only passed a solitary motor bike and 1 other van on this secluded highway.
On the trip Howard, our guide and one of the crew that discovered Son Doong, told stories from his previous expeditions. Perhaps the most amusing was an 80 person bike tour he put together for Russians. Alcohol had been banned but that didn’t stop 7 or 8 of them from speeding down the jungle valley and careening off the road! They ended their excursion in Saigon and were finally allowed booze; too bad 4 of them ended up in jail and another half dozen wallets were stolen!
Before long we saw our porters mixed with a few jungle folk along the side of the road. One last gear check and into the jungle we went! The hike began on a narrow path with a steep hill to our left. A few uphills were interspersed along the way as we gazed in awe at nature’s beauty surrounding us. Within minutes mother nature had swallowed us whole.
Our first water break came at our last peak of today’s path. All 11 of us (Sheena, Carla, Katie, Chris, Alex, Julian, Toby, Howard, Deb, Myself & Thanh – an English speaking Vietnamese guide) let the porters and Phong Nha people stroll onward while we relaxed int eh shade and began to get to know each other.
Moments later we were moving onward along the steep downhill. This was our first balancing act as the slippery slope required sure footing to reach the bottom. Little did we know that this short journey would be a piece of cake compared to the next few days!
Taking one more water break, we eventually reached the bottom and our first of many river crossings. Wading in just above our ankles was refreshing and everyone splashed around cooling off in this 35°C, feels like 42°C heat. The now leisurely hike included multiple water breaks in between a dozen river crossings over pleasantly flat terrain. Unfortunately Gortex doesn’t let water out either which meant I was sloshing around for the rest of the day. Good thing I prepared with wool socks!
By midday we reached a remote Phong Nha village. Well, actually its a family of 32 with a few buildings and a school. They invited us into their home to enjoy some midday shade and tea as our guides translated their tribal language and taught us about their farming lifestyle and local culture. We were even promised a song on the journey back!
Their farmland was quickly devoured by the jungle as our journey restarted. Still relatively flat yet full of rivers the trek managed to grow wearisome as we dreamed of lunch surrounded by the vibrant jungle mountains. Along the trail Howard pointed to the ridge in the distance. “That’s tiger territory.” He said informing us that they find the same tracks of the brilliant feline with an injured paw so they know its flying solo.
2 more breaks and it was our first mealtime! Our chefs had sliced veggies and laid out quite a spread for our “make our own hot dog lunch.” The individually wrapped precooked franks were actually labeled as “baguettes” but with a little cucumber, tomato, cheese and chili sauce it made a delicious jungle picnic.
The last leg of our first day was quickly approaching. Around the next bend Howard mentioned the faraway mountain with an obvious rock face. Underneath that overhang was the entrance to Hang En where we would spend our first evening. The trail began sporting tall grasses in between wading back and forth across the river.
While it was actually a few kilometers we seemed to arrive moments later and began donning our cave gear. Helmets were strapped on with headlamps attached while everyone put on bright orange gloves to protect against the jagged rocks. We quickly crossed the last river which brought us to our first series of bouldering. After a few dozen rocks the cave suddenly expanded into a vast cavern.
On our right far below us lay a sandy floor surrounded by glorious pools. To the left the boulders continued climbing upwards eventually ending in a massive exit to the dense jungle above. We climbed 3/4 of the way up for a photo op while our porters finished setting up the tents and prepped dinner.
Soaking in the breathtaking view of this massive scene it was hard to believe that this monstrosity wasn’t even the main event! Tomorrow we would enter Son Doong, the world’s largest cave which was so remote we had to spend the night in Hang En’s beautiful foyer. We headed back down and reached the bottom to unpack and enjoy a leisurely evening of swimming in the clear blue waters and getting to know each other over our first tastes of rice wine.