Since The New York Times listed Vietnam’s Son Doong Cave – the world’s largest – as a top destination for 2014, visiting Phong Nha National Park and the surrounding jungle have quickly become a must for many travelers. Currently, Oxalis Adventure Tours (www.oxalis.com.vn) is the only company authorized to tour Son Doong and can take a maximum of 220 people per year. But at $3,000 for 8 days, even if it’s not cost prohibitive, spending an intensive week hiking and sleeping in a cave in Vietnam doesn’t suit every vacation itinerary.
If Son Doong isn’t for you, you can still visit a cave and this beautiful region before tourism overruns it. Oxalis also has tours to Tu Lan and Hang En caves – great options for less time and money (under $300). But first you have to get there, which requires some planning.
Caves are impassable during rainy season (Sep.-Dec.). Flights to Dong Hoi (1hr) are preferable over trains from Hanoi (10 hrs), but don’t leave daily, nor do cave tours. Pick a cave, then confirm it fits your travel plans.
Tu Lan entails a 7km hike and cave swim. More family-oriented and less physically challenging; highlights include an overnight outside the entrance, stalactites, stalagmites, flying foxes and waterfalls. (This tour costs $250 pp.)
But the more adventurous (like us) will choose Hang En, the “Swallow Cave” – or as I call it the “Birdsh*t Cave” – possibly the third largest cave in the world, at 120m x 140m. Our group of 7, hiked 9km down a mountain.
We passed through a village of 40 people.
Saw their cattle
We crossed leech-filled rivers multiple times.
Porters set up tents for us on a sandy beach inside the cave, where we slept beneath the swallows and bats.
To experience the breadth of this cave, we waded through a freshwater stream and climbed over rocks
Our lunch on the hikes were prepared outside and dining spots chosen by how hot the sun.
Lunch on the way to the cave – a cold Vietnamese sausage with cucumbers and tomatoes – proved anything is edible with chili sauce and Laughing Cow cheese.
But dinner in the cave was outstanding!
The porter cooked on a little grill.
Ample rice wine (“Happy Water”) put this exhausted hiker to sleep, along with the vodka that the Russian in our group brought with them. Awaking to the toxic smell of urea and echoing birdcalls, I was eager to hike back through the jungle. (Don’t get me wrong, this was an incredible experience even with the bird issues.)
Our guide warned us to let him go first in case of snakes. We hadn’t thought to ask what kind, but luckily, we didn’t see any until the van abruptly halted on the way back to Oxalis. I thought it was a cow, but it was a cobra! One of the Russians jumped out to get a closer look, and when the snake’s hood went up everyone screamed to get back in the van. It was a tense moment, and I’m not sure how well we would have slept, if at all, if we encountered a cobra on the way to the cave. But this made it a truly memorable end to an amazing and unique experience.
Tours include local hotel pickup, a half hour drive to the park, park fees, helmets, headlamps, and trekking boots. Guides speak English, and Oxalis provides them with proper hiking attire. Porters carry and set up sleeping gear, make all meals, and purify water (bring extra water if you can carry it in and out). Conservation in this area without electric or running water is important. Oxalis provides a makeshift toilet, but burns trash on the way back, plastic bottles included.
Overnight at Saigon Phong Nha hotel, which Oxalis can arrange. Next to the river, it’s currently the best in the expanding area. Hot showers, breakfast and working a/c make $30/night a bargain (little English spoken).
Sun Spa Resort is a convenient option near the airport. Just make sure you don’t really expect the amenities of a 4-Star hotel (like speaking English, normal electric currents and a hot shower that doesn’t leak). The beach was closed for renovations from a December typhoon, but the pool is lovely- and a reason to stay.
In Phong Nha, a short walk from the new tourist welcome center, a sign declares “THE BEST SPIT ROAST PORK AND NOODLE SHOP IN THE WORLD (PROBABLY).”
Down the road, Cavern Bar accepts $US, and is the perfect place to swap stories with other weary travelers over rum & cokes and seafood spring rolls or connect with your friends at home (free wifi).
Getting There And Around
Vietnam Airlines, currently the only operator out of Dong Hoi, has flights to/from Hanoi and Saigon. Latest flight schedules available on the website. Book in advance online for the best rates (less than $50/pp each way).
Taxis from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha (~ 30 mins) cost $25-35. Agree to a price rather than the meter. Oxalis also can arrange a private car transfer for $30/each way.
Taxis from Dong Hoi to Quang Binh (~15 mins) cost $15.