The biggest draw to the small town of Phong Nha, Vietnam is Phong Nha-Ke Bàng National Park. This remote national park is characterized by its mountains, forests, and underground caves and rivers, that can only be accessed by guided tour through Oxalis Adventures. Taking a Phong Nha cave tour should definitely be a “must-do” on your Vietnam trip! Being in this seemingly raw and untouched wilderness in the heart of Vietnam is truly an unforgettable experience.
Oxalis Adventures offers several different types of Phong Nha cave tours- ranging from day excursions to 4-day/3-night treks. We opted for the 2-day/1-night trek to the Hang En Cave– the third largest cave in the world! This cave has been featured in National Geographic, among other publications, and is a must-see natural wonder in Vietnam.
On the Hang En cave tour, you even get to camp inside the cave next to a beautiful lake! There are porters who carry your overnight belongings and cook a delicious dinner for the group as well. Although this trek was the most expensive thing we did on our trip ($330/person) it was definitely one of the highlights of our Vietnam trip, and was such an amazing and rewarding experience. If you are an adventurous traveler, I highly recommend it! Keep reading to find out more details on getting there and what to expect for the Hang En Cave Trek.
Getting To Phong Nha: We traveled from Ninh Bình. To get from Ninh Bình to Phong Nha, there are two options- bus or train. We opted for the overnight train, which you can book ahead of time through Vietnam Railway. Book the train to arrive at Dong Hoi (the closest railway station to Phong Nha), and then take a 45 min taxi ride to Phong Nha. The bus actually takes you directly to Phong Nha, but the train is more comfortable for getting a good night’s sleep before hiking the national park. If you’re coming from Hanoi, you can travel to Phong Nha by either bus, train, or plane (flying into Dong Hoi).
When booking your overnight train, you have 4 options for the type of seat you select: hard seat, soft seat, hard berth, or soft berth. Since this is an 8- hour overnight train ride, and you are going straight to your Phong Nha cave tour upon arrival, I highly recommend booking the soft berth ($37). The soft berth is a small bed in a 4-bed cabin, complete with sheets, a blanket, and a pillow. There’s room under and above the bed to store your backpack, and there’s a small table in the middle of the cabin with an outlet where you can charge your phone. There’s no WiFi.
You’ll arrive at Dong Hoi train station around 5am. You can pre-arrange a private transfer through Oxalis Adventures to get from the train station to Oxalis’ office for $28.
You’ll arrive to the Oxalis office around 5:45 am, and will have some time to kill before your Phong Nha cave tour to order breakfast, change into your hiking clothes, and enjoy the patio and lake view of their office. Around 8am, the rest of your group will arrive (about 15 people), and you will go over a quick safety training and instructions, and pack your stuff.
They give you bags to pack your overnight items in, and you can leave the rest of your belongings safely behind in their office. They also offer shoes that you can borrow for the cave trek- highly recommended!! You will be walking through deep mud and rivers, and probably don’t want to ruin your shoes for the rest of your Vietnam trip. The combat boots they provide worked great!
You then take an hour bus ride into Phong Nha-Ke Bàng National Park. You’ll start your hike around 10am, descending down a muddy incline through the forest. I didn’t really take any pictures of the actual hike because the mud is so deep and slippery you have to really watch your step! The guides on your trek speak great English, are fun to be around, and are super helpful throughout your hike.
Around noon you’ll approach a minority village called Ban Doong in the middle of the jungle. It’s pretty crazy to think that this village of about 30 people live in this super remote jungle location. The porters from your group who hike ahead of you will have already set up a delicious lunch here, and you’ll stop for about an hour to enjoy.
You’ll then continue on the hike to the cave. After lunch is when the river crossings come into play- you’ll be walking through rivers that can get as deep as your waist, so make sure you don’t have any important belongings in your pockets! The multiple river crossings actually ended up being great, because it temporarily washes all the mud off of you. Also- you don’t have time to stop and take your shoes off, you must walk through the river with them on.
You’ll arrive to the cave around 4:00. The entrance to the cave is jaw-dropping. It’s huge! It really is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. They provide you helmets and headlamps which you will put on upon entering , and then you cross yet another rushing river- this time in the dark cave. You’ll climb over rocks and boulders and then eventually get to your first view of the lake- and your campground for the night!
You’ll take a raft across the lake to the campground, and will have some free time to swim around, claim your tent, and hang out while the porters cook you a delicious dinner. They even set up a nice table with string lights! It’s shocking how great this meal was despite having been cooked inside a cave campground. After dinner, they break out the rice-wine (tastes like super strong saké) and you can play cards and hang out with the group until bed.
The next morning you’ll wake up around 7am to a delicious french toast and pancake breakfast, and then break out the helmets and headlamps again to explore further back into the cave. You’ll first climb up some rocks on the other side of your campground, to the viewpoint made famous from the National Geographic article, for a great photo-op:
Next for this Phong Nha cave tour, you’ll keep going further and discover fossils and crazy rock formations, cross another cave river, and end up at a separate entrance to the cave. This entrance was even bigger than the one we encountered the day before! It will literally leave you speechless. You then trek upstream through the river back to your campground, have lunch, and then start the hike back out of the park.
The hike out is a lot more challenging than the hike in, because you are going upstream for the river crossings, and hike up a steep uphill incline for the last leg of the trek. It’s definitely do-able, though, and the challenge is worth it! Once you get back up to the top where you started from, the staff members congratulate you with ice cold beers. You then board the bus back to the Oxalis office in Phong Nha, where you can use their bathrooms and showers to clean up before heading on your way. You’ll arrive back to the office around 4:00, leaving you plenty of time to catch a 7:00pm train.
Other Things to Know:
Book your Phong Nha cave tour a few months ahead of time to avoid it selling out! They max out the group size at 18 people.
Beware of leeches. Leeches live in the muddy/jungle areas of the hike (not near the water). Make sure your skin is covered- wear long pants, long socks, long sleeves, and gloves. (Oxalis will provide you with gloves). On the hike back out, I was the first person in my group to get a leech (there were several more people after me). I had tiinyyy ventilation holes in the back of my leggings behind my knee, where one must have gotten through. It’s not a huge deal- the guide will pull it off and it only stings for a few seconds.
If you’re tight on time (like we were) it’s fine to take the night train arriving the morning of your hike, and then take another night train the day you get back. Since the train arrives at 5am, it leaves you plenty of time to get to Oxalis before 9am. Just make sure you actually sleep on the train ride!
Packing: less is more. You really don’t need much on the Phong Nha cave tour hike- leave most of your belongings at the Oxalis office. Bring a swimsuit, extra socks and leggings, a rain jacket, and a pair of flip flops to wear at the campground. I bought some cheap tall white socks before the trip just for this hike- your socks will get so muddy that you will want to throw them away after.
It’s also a good idea to pack a waterproof phone case if you want to take your phone along for pictures
There are bathrooms at the campsite- they’re really not that bad
The campsite will have everything you need already set up- tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads- so you don’t need to worry about bringing any of that!
If you don’t want to do the 2/day Hang En Phong Nha cave tour, Oxalis has plenty of other ones to choose from!
Where to next? Check out my full 2-week Vietnam itinerary here.
Questions? Comments? Shoot me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org