Hot springs & waterfalls – a hidden paradise in Wulai, Taiwan

Wulai was without a doubt my favorite part of Taiwan.  Sure I only had a long weekend to explore but everything I loved about Taipei was in this quaint mountain town’s market too.  But the real attraction of Wulai isn’t the night market you can find in the capitol, its the lush natural surroundings & friendly locals.

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Directions to Wulai
849 bus from Xindian station (end of the green line.)
Bus fare – $15 NTD ($.50US)
Taxi fare – $600 NTD ($20US)

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Wulai 2

Upon first arriving in Wulai its impossible to miss the stunning bridges criss-crossing across the river augmented by the Wulai Waterfall.  A column of water 80 meters high plummets to the river (making it Taiwan’s largest waterfall) just across from the natural hot springs where you’ll find locals inviting you to join them for an afternoon soak.

 

 


Wulai Bridge


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Son Doong Day 2 – Jungle & Descent

Mother nature’s alarm clock began to ring as soon as light shone through Hang En’s massive entrance above us; with any luck we’d arrive at Son Doong by this afternoon but as the chorus of cicadas and swifts convinced me to check my watch I decided that could wait.  5:15AM, I think I’ll snooze for another hour or so.

My second wake up was on my own accord as I met Howard, Deb and Thanh by the fire.  Declining tea or coffee I opted for a brief swim to wake me up instead.  Over a steaming breakfast of  Vietnamese noodles with veggies and eggs we discussed some of the cultural American anomalies and stereotypes.  After deciding colour vs color, why the imperial system is just plain ridiculous and hearing a few caving stories it was time to get moving.

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Departing Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam

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Departing Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam

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Departing Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam

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Departing Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam

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Departing Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam

First we took a brief detour staying in  Hang En’s main chamber.  Bouldering up the sandy rocks afforded us a dazzling view of our campsite below.  In spite of being half-broken down by our porters it was still a spectacular view.  We soon climbed back down and donned our remaining gear.  The trek out of Hang En sported some massive passageways and difficult terrain.

We crossed the Son river at least once and climbed some hundred odd meters to a glorious overlook.  Playing with the silhouettes and lighting we were able to snag some sweet shots as the porter team disappeared in the distance.  But now it was time to say goodbye to this former contender for world’s largest cave.  We began our descent and quickly approached the monstrous mouth of the cave and exited back into the jungle.  We would follow the river for nearly 2 hours before climbing up the gigantic riverbank and back into the undergrowth.

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

Along the trek the sun beat down on us as butterflies stole the stage.  Every few hundred meters we encountered a swarm of the symmetrical critters.  Howard learned (from a National Geographic team) that the best way to attract the beautiful insects is actually to urinate.  No one tried it since they seemed to be flocking to us anyway.

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Butterfly!

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

Sloshing through the knee-deep river when it finally came time to exit the waterway we were quite ecstatic.  Little did we know that the wooded path before us would be much more difficult.  We weaved around and over muddy rocks and logs while the trail snaked upwards as slippery as it was steep.  Deb pointed out hand and foot hold as I trailed the group taking photographs of our jungle journey.

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

Distracted by the natural chorus and beauty all around I ignored Deb’s hand hold trusting my own balance when the  log beneath my feet suddenly gave way!  Reaching out I caught my camera in my left hand and grasped a slick log with my right.  Luckily my left foot landed firmly on a rock after only sliding a foot or two.  Checking myself for injuries I was relieved to find I only banged up my shin but it certainly was a necessary wake-up call as to the potential peril’s of our trek.

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

After a quick recovery and another 30 minutes of climbing the trail leveled off.  We were told “5 minutes more” before a lunch break within view of Son Doong’s entrance!  Slowly finishing our morning journey Deb and I were chatting away.  I probed her with questions about the jungle and the local people, I was intrigued by her and Howard’s worldly adventures that frankly seemed otherworldly to a simple laymen like myself.  Suddenly I spotted something black and yellow glittering just above our heads.  “Stop!” I shouted to Deb, “What is that?” I pointed to a spider hanging just off the path.  A wondrous web was sprawled out nearly a meter across with a fist-sized Golden Orb spider lurking in the middle.

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Golden Orb Spider (roughly the size of my hand and they eat birds!)

I mentioned to Deb  that I’d seen much smaller Golden Orbs in the Costa Rican rainforest near Arenal Volcano and she reminded me that the natives collect the web for nets just like the aboriginal Costa Ricans.  I went around the next bend to grab any non-arachnophobia companions and show them the journey’s biggest creature so far.  We posed with gloved hands for scale of the black and yellow critter.  It’s spots and stripes shown in the afternoon sun as our stomachs rumbled louder luring us back to the permanent camp for Son Doong’s “guards.”  There are two rangers/guides posted at all times just in case.

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om nom nom nom!

Upon arrival we were greeted with heaping plates of homemade spring rolls, fresh watermelon, bananas and snacks galore.  We ate and enjoyed some bird watching as the anticipation of our momentous descent became too much to handle.  As we finished eating the porters began fitting harnesses while Howard and Deb reviewed some safety techniques and protocol.


The first few feet of our descent brought a cool embrace from a light breeze exiting the black abyss below.  A short rope climb brought us to the last stretch of jungle before I squeezed feet first through a tiny hole.  Crouching low my backpack snagged on a rock behind me; I reached behind and detached my tripod releasing me from the clutches of the sharp stone.

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Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

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Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

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Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

Bats swooped around the corner just over Deb’s head.  As I came around the bend I noticed my companions peering into the blackness as Howard and the rest of the Vietnamese team checked the ropes.  After getting the all clear we got a quick tutorial and began one at a time.

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Son Doong was discovered by Ho Khanh in 1990 before being explored by our guides Howard & Deb in the late 2000’s

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Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

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In awe at what we are about to do. Become among the first 200 people to enter Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

A series of 4 ropes would bring us  halfway to the bottom.  In between each we had to disconnect and reconnect with some veteran help.  Below us the river rambled through rock formations in the darkness.  The second half of our entry would bring us closer to that waterway but didn’t require safety ropes.  Carefully we climbed down the bulbous stalagmites to arrive at the first river crossing.  An orange rope dangled above as a handhold in case the current was swift in this waist deep passage.

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Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

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Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

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Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

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Holy Crap, Son Doong!

After crossing we took a water break while the bats continued to zip around us.  Howard told more stories from his treks around Vietnam and most notably Son Doong’s original exploration.  Eager to see more of this main event scoured the vicinity with our headlamps.  This damp chamber was full of fabulous rock formations but Howard sensed our anticipation and we quickly moved onward.

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Day 1 inside Son Doong

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1st river crossing, Son Doong

The pathway ahead was strewn with massive boulders.  Thanh led the way under each rock as our passage grew narrower you got a sense that above these massive stones the chamber was many times as big.  Before long we met the next river which would act as our guide over the next series of boulders before we arrived at the crossing.  On the other side we took our packs off, grabbed some soap and had a group “bath.”  This would be our last wash for the next 3 days!

As clean as we could get deep in the Vietnam’s jungle we set out one more time.  The trail on the far side of this river was slippery but we managed to keep a good pace anyway.  The following chamber’s sandy pathway weaved through spider webs.  No, web isnt’ the right word.  These are more like nests of white silk half-burrowed into the sand.  As the webs thinned out the crickets grew more prevalent when someone spotted fresh mushrooms on the left, perhaps they would be added to tonight’s dinner.

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Son Doong’s darkness

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mushrooms, rocks & spiders

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Black stalagmites covered in sand

Suddenly the cavern expanded; blackness surrounded us as we hugged the right wall and were told a great landscape lay just ahead.  The Hand of Dog is a massive stalagmite, not quite as large as the world’s biggest in the previous chamber.  The structure itself is dwarfed by the chamber surrounding it instead of taking up the almost every cubic meter making it a much more formidable sight in one of the most voluminous caverns in the world.  To make it even more impressive just past Hand of Dog’s peak is the first doline, a collapsed portion of the cave where light and rain come in turning it into a green oasis.

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Son Doong, aka the world’s largest underground darkness

Deb was sent ahead to climb the stalagmite while Thanh posed significantly closer on a “small” round stalagmite.  Kate set up shop on another rotund rock near the cameras and after a few practice shots Howard assigned “light painters.”  Their job is to pan back and forth with their headlamps while we use a long exposure to capture as much of the scene as possible.  In a few takes we had what everyone hoped were stellar photographs (see for yourself!) and continued towards the sunlight in the distance.

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Hand of Dog silhouetted in front of Watch out for Dinosaurs, Son Doong

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Hand of Dog with Deb on top

We crept closer to Hang Son Doong’s first doline, aptly named “Watch out for Dinosaurs.”  As we approached following the line of stalagmites along the western wall it was instantly apparent that the abyss beneath us fell off in a sudden cliff.  Focused on the encompassing darkness I nearly missed the stunning campground that appeared as I slipped past Hand of Dog.  A cloud formed just beneath the doline as the temperature changed.

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2nd campsite in Son Doong with cloud cover in front of Watch out for Dinosaurs, a jungle inside the world’s largest cave!

The green gours in Watch out for Dinosaurs peaked through a cloud that formed above our tents but would elude us until the following day.  Arriving at the 2nd campsite our tents were already set up by the porters and soon began our feast.  Tonight’s Vietnamese dinner was a barbecued set of pork ribs, beef paired with a chicken & veggie stir fry.  One of my new favorites, a spicy tofu was present with our rice & rice wine staples.

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2nd campsite in Son Doong

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2nd campsite in Son Doong

After eating Thanh taught us the Vietnamese version of the card games Uno and Asshole/President (Mau Mau & Tien Len).  These games are wildly popular among the porter team but after arriving at camp by 4pm we were still able to hear Howard’s jungle rescue story after a flash flood trapped some of his team in a distant cave for nearly 2 days.  He reminded us that the breathtaking view here would easily make it the “best toilet in the world,” the alien jungle bursting forth in the distance promised an enjoyable stay on the throne but wasn’t enough to keep me from going back to the card games.  Unfortunately they instituted a “loser gets painted with charcoal” rule.  You can tell us foreigners need practice.

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Foreigners losing at Vietnamese card games, Son Doong

Son Doong Day 1 – Through the jungle to Hang En

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.

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The crew (From L-R) Thanh – Vietnamese Tour Guide, Julian, Alex, Kate, Chris, Deb – British Tour Guide, Sheena, Toby, Mr. Khanh – discovered Son Doong, Howard – British Tour Guide, Carla, Me

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.

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Trekking through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park Ranger Mr. Phuoc

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.

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Trekking through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Trekking through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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!

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Approaching a minority village in the middle of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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A minority village in the middle of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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!

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A minority village in the middle of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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A minority village in the middle of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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A minority village in the middle of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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A minority village in the middle of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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.

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MOOOOOOOO!

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Trekking through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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.

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om nom nom nom nom

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.

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Trekking through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Trekking through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Trekking through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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.

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The entrance to Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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The entrance to Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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.

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Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Campsite 1 in Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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A second entrance to Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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A second entrance to Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Campsite 1 in Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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.

 

 

Hang Son Doong Itinerary – Day 7

Today I should be making my way back to civilization and this will be the last of my automated posts.  I’m taking a 7:30 AM bus tomorrow, August 1st, to Hue where I hopefully will internet access (If I don’t have any by tonight).  After checking Facebook (obviously) I’ll try to Skype with my family and get a quick post up here to relieve my mom and anyone else questioning my sanity for this adventure!  If I didn’t make it out Ben can have my room, oh wait he lives in Texas and my parents already are renting it.

I guess I’ll have to follow John Oliver’s cue and leave you with an adorable video of a tiny hamster eating a tiny burrito as a thank you for following me through this awesome week!

The next 16 days will be spent making my way south to Ho Chi Mihn City, on to Siem Reap in Cambodia and flying back to Hanoi before returning to Seoul on the 18th.  Ill update when I can as I stop in relaxing & cultural sites along the way.

Day 7 – July 31st

Depending on the weather we sometimes leave the camp early to beat the sun and usually arrive back at the drop off point at around midday.  Back to the hotel for a shower and final meal and party at 6pm.

 

Hang Son Doong Itinerary – Day 6

Departing the cave will undoubtedly be bitter sweet.  I wonder how long appetite for adventure will be sedated for.  Since my journal and photos aren’t ready to go online just yet you can check out National Geographic’s first expedition write up here!

Day 6 – July 30th
[See a beautiful viewpoint and start heading back out of Son Doong and to Hang En.]

8.00 Breakfast

9.00 Start back.  Climb up to National Geographic viewpoint.  Steep and care required.  Descend back to main passage, cross river twice and proceed to entrance climbs.  Put on harnesses and climb out.

Climb up to entrance camp for lunch.  Descend to river for a long awaited swim and wash.  Walk down the river to Hang En and follow the river through the cave and back to camp.

Swimming/washing in the river next to the camp.  Dinner and rice wine with the porter team.

Another night in this awesome campsite.  Swimming next to the campsite is very popular.