Caving in Vietnam

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.

Typical sight on the jungle hike

Typical sight on the jungle hike

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.

The could be filled with water

This formation could be covered by water

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.

One of the guides resting during the hiking portion

One of the guides resting during the hiking portion

We passed through a village of 40 people.

One of the 4 houses in the minority village

One of the 4 or so houses in the minority village

Saw their cattle

IMG_1727and garden.

IMG_1728On the way back, we had tea with the chief of the village, who set up camp there in the mid 1970’s presumably to escape the war.

The chief tending a pot of strong green tea

The chief tending a pot of strong green tea

We crossed leech-filled rivers multiple times.

IMG_1735And braved the scorching sun before reaching the cave.

Cave entrance

Cave entrance

Porters set up tents for us on a sandy beach inside the cave, where we slept beneath the swallows and bats.

Our campsite

Our campsite

To experience the breadth of this cave, we waded through a freshwater stream and climbed over rocks

IMG_1843 to reach the other entrance, which leads to Son Doong.

Other side of the Swallow Cave

Other side of the Swallow Cave

Our lunch on the hikes were prepared outside and dining spots chosen by how hot the sun.

Preparation for lunch by the river

Preparation for lunch by the river

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.

Cold hot dog for lunch- surprisingly ok

Cold hot dog for lunch- surprisingly ok

But dinner in the cave was outstanding!

Preparations for dinner

Preparations for dinner

The porter cooked on a little grill.

IMG_1756 He tenderized the meat by the freshwater inside the cave.

IMG_1757 Then we feasted on soup with leaves picked along the way, succulent pork expertly grilled over hot coals, tofu with tomato sauce, spring rolls, veggies, rice and more.

IMG_1871

This was only half the food for our group!

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.)

Crossing back through the leeches

Crossing back through the leeches

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.

Could you imagine seeing a cobra in here??

Could you imagine seeing a cobra in here??

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.

To Stay
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).

View of river in back of hotel

View of river in back of hotel

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.

IMG_1891Food, except for breakfast and chicken wings, is overpriced and not very good.

IMG_1889

Wings in fish sauce!

To Eat/Drink
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).”

IMG_1712Not sure about the noodles, but the pork belly sandwich with garlic and lemon sauce was one of our best meals ($2/sandwich).

IMG_1715

IMG_1714

So much meat! The green sauce here was what I was trying to recreate in my parsley scallion pesto recipe. It arrived slightly after this pic was taken.

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.

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