Spelunking the Third Largest Cave in the World

One of the few activities on this trip that I planned in advance was hiking to Hang En, the third largest cave in the world at 200 meters wide and 100 meters high deep within the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. I hadn't even known about it when I booked my trip, but only a week later I read an article describing the trek in the New York Times about it, and knew I had to do it. The pictures were stunning, and I figured "I hike for work, this will be a piece of cake". (If you'd like to read the NYT article, shoot me an email - it does a much better job, in my opinion, of describing the adventure).


What I didn't plan for is the self-diagnosed tendinitis in my ankle getting worse over the course of my trip from all the walking I was doing on uneven ground. Luckily, I brought my mildly supportive ankle brace. So as I rode the local bus from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha, the starting point of my trek, I began to question what I had gotten myself into. I knew I would do it - I don't quit, even if I'm getting my ass kicked, but I decided there was a definite possibility that my ass would be kicked, and an even higher probability that my ankle would hurt like hell. 


The following morning I woke up, decided what I'd be wearing and bringing (luon is a lifesaver), and boarded a bus with 15 other people - from San Francisco, Amsterdam, Canada, Vietnam, England, and Australia. It was nice to see that some people were feeling as unprepared as I was. My original plan had been to wear my Keens, as I knew part of the trek involved wading through hip-deep water; I instead opted to wear the fashionable camo high tops that Oxalis, my tour company, provided. 


Before I knew it, we were on the road, winding through limestone peaks covered with vegetation and over rivers that in the wet season can be impassable - essentially Ha Long Bay on land. Once we reached the start of our hike, we piled out, were given caving gloves, and started our descent. 


The sandal-clad porters carrying all of our camping gear and food quickly passed us on the 1500 meter descent. Luckily the shade of the trees provided relief from the hot sun, and every once in a while we'd get a nice cool breeze. Despite my ankle brace, my tendinitis was screaming at me with each step down, and I was looking forward to going uphill for a change (I would later regret this wish on day 2). After one final steep drop, we reached our first stream. We had been told we'd cross streams around 40 times (including multiple crossings the same stream) - we clearly had a ways to go and I was wishing for Advil. 


A few minutes later we arrived at lunch; the porters had set up quite the spread - baguettes, Baby Cow cheese, vegetables, fruit, processed meat (in the shape of a hot dog), and cookies. We ate and refilled our water bottles from the nearby stream (via a purifying pump), and then headed out again, this time on flat ground, so my ankle got a bit of a break. Our next stop was at a minority village, where the 62-year leader greeted us with tea and rice wine. We sat around, admiring their village, the tiny school, and the cutest of passed out puppies. 


The rest of our trek was through lush greenery and streams upon streams. The sandy bottom streams were quite easy to cross, even when they were deep and flowing; some streams, however, proved more difficult. Their slippery rocks, coupled with the gushing waters made it difficult to keep your footing and stay upright - somehow we all made it without falling! At one point we saw the rusty remains of a cluster bomb from the Vietnam War, and our guide told me that this whole area had been sprayed with Agent Orange and other herbicides, making it devoid of vegetation during the war. I felt a bit of sadness, and amazement at the power of Nature to grow back with such a vengeance. 


As we continued hiking, now drenched up to our hips, we finally saw an opening in the limestone - we were told it was called "Daylight" and we'd later learn that it's where the sun spills in over our campsite. One more river crossed, and we were at the opening to Hang En, putting on our caving gloves, our helmets, and our lights. We looked like professional spelunkers. 


Now it was time to act like professional spelunkers. We followed the river that flows through Hang En, and then started to ascend a pile of limestone and sand. I don't think any of us were ready for what we'd see at the top - sunbeams flooded through "Daylight", illuminating our campground down below. The porters had set up camp, and our colorful tents looked like tiny houses from an airplane, littering the beach around a turquoise blue pool. It was unreal. We carefully climbed down, still in awe of what was before us. I felt like I needed to be pinched, surely I was dreaming. 


We dropped our bags at camp and headed out to explore the cave - wading through the river and up over mounds of limestone and sand. We saw a very large and very poisonous centipede that I very much did not want to have in my tent, spiders, and heard thousands of swifts in the cave. Hang En translates to Swift Cave (hang = cave, which is why people were confused when I kept saying Hang En Cave, or Cave Swallow Cave) due to the plethora of birds during the dry season. 


Up over another pile of limestone and we were greeted once again by sunlight - this time through the largest opening in the cave, 120 meters high and 110 meters wide. It was massive, and has the ability to make one feel like the tiniest being on Earth (which is saying a lot in a country where many of the people are smaller than me). Our trek back to camp brought us past 300 million year old fossils of snails and insects in the limestone, and past few stalagmites and stalactites, none of which stretched from the ground to the ceiling, since they grow at a rate of less than 10 centimeters per 1,000 years. The cave itself is 300 million years old, but the limestone that speckles the region and is home to these caves is approximately 450 million years old, the oldest limestone in SE Asia.


We all dispersed to our tents, eager to strip off our wet (and not the most beautiful smelling) clothing. Some people went for a quick dip in the two pools, though it was a bit chilly. Before we knew it, it was dinner time, and the porters had delivered yet again. The amount of food was mind baffling - rice, pork, chicken, morning glory, green beans with beef, and more. And of course, rice wine. 


Before eating we all grabbed our shots of rice wine, and together yelled "Mot, hai, ba, do!". Little did we know, that would not be the last time we'd do that - in fact, 4-5 opportunities to down some rice wine presented themselves; I opted to chase the shots with actual rice in an attempt to cover the bitter shock I got with each one. We stayed up, chatting, laughing, and exchanging travel stories. 


That night I slept with only the mesh portion of my tent zipped, gazing up towards "Daylight" as I was serenaded to sleep by the swifts. Unfortunately, the same swifts that lured me to sleep also woke me multiple times in the night (coupled with the hard ground - I'm getting old). As the sun rose and light entered the cave, I watched the swifts fly in and out, listening to their chatter once more. Once I heard people up and moving, I went to get coffee and was pleasantly greeted with bird shit on my arm - the first of four times I was shit on that morning in the cave. I think/hope it's good luck...


By 7am more people were awake and I had the awesome and challenging opportunity to teach a yoga class to a few people of varying levels and varying English capabilities. It was quite the fun experience and felt good to move my stiff legs a bit before our hike out.


Yoga and breakfast done, I slipped my wunder unders back on, opted to use the same, still damp socks so as not to drench another pair, and slid my camo boots on for a little more cave exploration before we headed out. The porters once again passed us in their sandals, this time only having to carry 35 pounds each. Our trek back included a brief pause to let a green viper (definitely poisonous) cross our path, another stop at the minority village (they seemed happy to see us), and a lunch break to refuel before our steep climb - that same one we had descended the day before, and the same one I had said I was looking forward to.


Sixty minutes later, hot, sweaty, and with tired quadriceps, we reached the top, and more importantly, we reached hydration in the form of ice cold beer (or water or Coke)!


A quick but heavenly tepid shower, and the realization that I would not be able to get a ticket on the sleeper bus to Hanoi with some of my new friends, I hopped on the local bus to Dong Hoi, hoping I'd be able to get to get transportation from there. 


I wasn't sure where I needed to get off the bus, or if it would get me there in time. But the universe works in funny ways. There was a lovely Vietnamese girl who spoke English and kindly helped me. As we rode for 90 minutes she explained how the younger kids on the bus all wanted to practice their English with me, but were too scared (even after my encouragement), and how she works for Oxalis. I told her how I had just finished my hike to Hang En, and she took it upon herself to make sure that I would get to Hanoi. Tao skipped her bus stop, got off with me and walked me to the bus station, ensuring that they had a seat for me on the next departure. It's funny how the universe works. And maybe the universe was also working for the two Vietnamese men who got to sleep right next to me for the 10-hour ride.