The largest cave in the world, Hang Son Doong, sits near the Laos-Vietnam border in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. First discovered in 1991 by a local man walking by hearing the sound of rushing river through the jungle, it was not explored until 2009 by a group of British researchers. Then, it wasn’t until 2013 that the first group of tourists had the opportunity to explore the cave. Whitney and I were so intrigued by the opportunity to join a group to explore this incredible cave we sought out the details. Unfortunately, besides needing to book this many months in advance, we couldn’t spare the 4 days in our now packed itinerary for the trip and certainly couldn’t squeeze out the $3,000 it cost per person. Instead, we opted for a full day adventure with Oxalis Adventure Tours to the slightly smaller Hang Tien, or “Fairy Cave.” With a more acceptable price of about $88 per person and the ability to book only a few days to weeks in advance, we were excited for the trek.
We caught a bus from Hue in the late afternoon arriving in Cu Lac late in the evening. The bus dropped us off right in front of Thanh Phat Hotel where we checked into our room for the next couple nights (the total was about $30 for 2 people for 2 nights including breakfast). It was already late, so we crawled into bed almost as soon as we arrived and the AC kicked in.
Early the next morning we met our staff at the front to get an early breakfast then catch the van to begin our full day tour. We picked up a couple people on our way to the main office located deeper into the national park. Consistent with a portion of our time in Vietnam, the rain was pouring as we drove along the narrow and muddy roads.
Finally we got to the office where we signed the paperwork and grabbed our boots, helmets and headlamps.
From there it was back into the van to head up to the trailhead to the cave. Soon enough we were bogged down on the muddy road and forced to trek an extra couple kilometers to the trail.
Luckily, the rain was easing up by the time we had gotten out of the van and had stopped completely by the time we started along the trail. With our guide in front, the 8 of us hiked along the muddy trail through the thick jungle occasionally peering through the dense vegetation as our guide eventually says, “There’s the cave.” Honestly, I couldn’t see much on the way in, but once I knew where it was I could point it out on our way back.
On we went until the trail led into a dry riverbed. Large rocks and boulders spilled out of the cave providing an image of the rushing river bursting through this enormous cave as it formed over millions of years. Now as a dry riverbed (aside from the current rain), it provides a perfect opportunity for some active photos.
Eventually we entered the opening, turned on our headlamps and trekked into the darkness. Unique limestone formations caught our eyes and huge stalagmites and stalactites seemed to grasp for air.
As we followed even deeper into the cave we saw a small river rushing by. The frightening sight of the fast flowing water in the nearly pitch black cave could give anyone the chills. Carefully taking each and every step, we found ourselves crossing a tiny wooden bridge over the river and further upstream. We squeezed through a narrow passage way and then up a sturdy ladder. As we came over the top of the ladder we could see a bit of light in the distance. A few more turns and we saw the far end of this cave.
The bright green jungle lit through a cloudy sky became the perfect backdrop for a number of photos by everyone in our group. It was such an exciting experience and it was still not over…that was only the halfway point. From there we backtracked all the way through the cave and back to our starting point. Once at the opening we took another pathway that led to the river’s edge where we enjoyed a tasty Vietnamese lunch.
We trekked back out of the valley to the muddy road to catch our van. It was quite a full day of exploring and trekking around 15km through the muddy jungle and cave. We would highly recommend making a stop in this region of Vietnam, but would definitely opt for one of the overnight options to get the chance to go a little deeper and possibly even spend the night inside one of the caves.
We eventually made it back to our guest house and opted for the western menu at EasyTiger Hostel across the street.
Early the next morning we were back on the road heading back towards Hue for another night before heading up to Hanoi. However, for the trip back to Hue, we decided to take a DMZ tour for a few dollars more than the bus. A small van picked us up at the hotel and we headed south. Just a reminder, we found that these tours seem to be best booked at your accommodations within a day or so of going rather than booking online advance often for a much higher price.
Our first stop was the Vihn Moc Tunnels. This network of tunnels was built by the local villagers seeking shelter from the bombings during the Vietnam War. An entire village lived underground for over 2 years. A local guide led us through the tunnels pointing out the living quarters of each family, the entertainment room and even a small hospital space. These tunnels were clearly built more for living rather than the Cu Chi tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh City that were more specifically for war. The frightening sight of huge depressions in the landscape from bombs dropped here continue to remind us of the scars left behind in times of war.
Afterward, we rode down to the Ben Hai River for our next stop. We walked through a small but informative museum built alongside the river that explained the events of the Vietnam-American War. Then with an explanation of the significance of Hien Luong Bridge, we slowly crossed this monumental bridge crossing the 17th parallel. This artificial delineation of a divided North and South Vietnam is symbolically represented by the painted yellow vs. blue bridge. It has become a symbol of the reunification and part of the national festival to celebrate this event.
Our final stop was a small gas station where our driver was kind enough to give us time to stand out in the sun while he gave the van a thorough washing. Ok, so yeah this wasn’t really part of the tour. Anyway, we eventually made it back into Hue to get checked back into our Than Tien Family Hotel for another night and lots more good food in Hue.