Photo: Entering the cave by boat.

Hang En

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Hang En may not be the world’s largest cave – that title goes to Hang Son Doong just three kilometres away – but a two-day, one-night trek to Hang En is a once-in-a-lifetime experience in itself.

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Hang En_camp at night_550

Simply amazing.

Everything seems bigger in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The epic scale slowly sinks in as we trek down through the jungle in the shadow of giants: karst raised and hewn, valleys carved and whittled to shape over the course of 400 million years. Our guide Seven tells us more than 35 river crossings lie between the trailhead and the cave; we lose count after the fifth one. It feels like we’ve completed a 12-kilometre gauntlet when we finally arrive at a towering fortress of rock, a nondescript opening at its base with water, wind and darkness pouring out. Our sore, soggy feet protest but with excitement brimming, we plunge into the void.

We’ve been fortunate to have been on some terrific treks in our life, camping in some unusual, wild and memorable places. Could they really be topped? Yet as we finally make it over the mountain of large boulders, our pulse quickens, our mouth drops agape and a string of ecstatic expletives escape before we are humbled into reverent silence. We are on top of the world looking down at our camp for the night: a cave 100 metres high, 180 metres wide with a river running through it. We are deep underground, yet the sensation feels like we are soaring.

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The tiny tents cheerfully situated on the sand next to the river provide some scale.

Further explorations of the cave the next morning reveal some mind-blowing features. We don’t want to spoil too many of the surprises: You will see sea fossils in the walls, see how plant life can grow in the darkest of places and formations that look like they belong on another planet. You’ll also learn how Hang En, which means “cave of swallows”, gets its name.

Who says spelunking and speleothems have to be serious?

Who says spelunking and speleothems have to be serious?

The Son Doong expedition shares the same route in/out as Hang En and in fact, they camp the first and last night in Hang En, so this trek does give you a taste of what that expedition is like. Though it doesn’t break records, Hang En has riches in its own right. The trek ranks as one of our most memorable in Southeast Asia.

How's that for scale?

How’s that for scale?

As of 2016, Oxalis is the only company allowed to operate tours inside the cave. If another company offers a “Hang En trek”, this will mean trekking to the cave but camping outside of it. There are usually two to three departures a week, and the maximum group size is 12. The two-day, one-night trek costs 6,500,000 dong including all meals, guide, porters and camping equipment.

Tent and eye-popping view provided.

Tent and eye-popping view provided.

Caves can be dangerous and require expert guidance. We found the trip to be extremely organised and well-run. Emails were promptly replied to, using Oxalis’ online booking system is easy and staff are professional. As for the trek, the equipment was in good working order. Tents and sleeping bags were clean, the campsite tidy and hygienic – there are wash stands and every one must sanitise their hands before meals. And those meals are terrific – you won’t go hungry. Remember that everything is brought in and out by porters, a 12-kilometre trek through the jungle to get to the main road.

Porters, the true hero of any trek.

Porters, the true hero of any trek.

The whole operation is very sensitive to the environment, except for the individual instant coffee sachets which we suggested in the trip evaluation they eliminate. One thing is for sure, they do a good job with the toilet: Screened for privacy, the compost toilet is a Western toilet seat over a frame with a bucket. After doing your business, you scoop in rice husks to cover the waste which stops the smell. The team will remove the bucket, carry it outside, dig a hole away from any water source and bury the waste with bacteria that quickly breaks it down. We were also impressed that the toilet tent was regularly cleaned. So don’t worry about the crap.

Keeping it green.

Keeping it green.

Oxalis’ website gives a thorough explanation of what to wear and pack, and we have some information to add learned first hand. With more than 30 river crossings, some coming up to you thighs and waist, your feet will be wet. Trekking boots or shoes are required. Sandals, no matter how sturdy or rugged, are not allowed. If you don’t have boots or you’d rather not have yours soaking wet for two days, Oxalis provides Cambodian army jungle boots (size 36-46) which are minimalist but they do have excellent grippy soles (soft, sticky rubber treads), the canvas allows the water to drain and it goes above the ankle – by raising your socks and tucking your pants into the boot you prevent leeches. There is absolutely no cushioning so you will feel every rock and root underfoot. If you have sensitive soles, popping in a cheap insole would do the trick. We also recommend thick calf-length socks – proper hiking socks, wool being the best, will prevent blisters. Wearing double hiking socks will also prevent the rubbing and friction that leads to blisters.

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Yeah, we felt small.

Oxalis provides all the cave equipment, including helmet, gloves and torch. They are emphatic that your daypack must be large enough to fit the helmet and it cannot be clipped on to the outside (they even sent an email reminder the day before the departure) but about half our group didn’t and nothing was said.

Deep reflections.

Deep reflections.

If you want to keep your camera on you during the trek and it’s not waterproof, then bring your own dry bag. Long trekking pants are a must. Leeches are possible on the first half of the trail through the jungle.

Safety briefing:

Safety briefing: “Don’t play with snakes.”

If you’re in need of last minute gear, Oxalis sells decent and affordable hiking pants, dri-fit type long sleeve pullovers and cotton T-shirts, with profits supporting their charity. Wild Travel Outdoor shop is your best bet for anything else. It’s mostly knockoff items but they do have men’s and women’s hiking pants, shirts, shoes and socks that would get you through a trek. The shop is in the centre a few down from Bamboo Cafe.

Umpteenth river crossing.

Umpteenth river crossing.

Hang En trek is available from late December to mid-September when the flooding season begins. There’s a chance to see picture-perfect sunbeams from January to March. The best time to trek is between February and May, with pleasant daytime hiking temperatures.

Oxalis Adventure Tours: Phong Nha Commune, Son Trach Village, Bo Trach; T: (052) 367 7678 F: (052) 367 7679;;

What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Phong Nha.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda or Booking
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Phong Nha.
 Read up on how to get to Phong Nha, or book your transport online with Baolau.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
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