The feeling of being in Hang En cave is difficult to describe, let alone capture in images.

But maybe you can picture standing inside some Grand Cathedral and looking up in awe, except this is a space so many times bigger than that — and formed by the crushing of tectonic plates and millions of years of erosion. It’s like something out of a dream.

First explored in 1994, Hang En is now known to be the world’s third-biggest cave. It’s almost trite to say that it is amazing. Of course it is. It’s the world’s third-biggest cave. What did you expect?

But what makes visiting Hang En cave so special is not just the sheer size, but its remote location and the way in which you get to spend time inside it.

First, you have to hike for a half day through the stunning Phong Nha Ke Bang national park. Then, you get to camp in tents set up inside the cave. When you wake up, you’ll see the first sunlight beaming through the cave entrance. Making it feel even more special is that the tours to Hang En are kept wonderfully small-scale; only one company is licensed to run expeditions there and they will only take one group of up to 12 people at a time.

I loved the hike up to Hang En, which follows some small paths through the jungle up to a bamboo hut village. During flooding season, this entire area gets covered in water, which is why the government would really like the villagers to move somewhere else. But they consider the jungle their home and so they stay. Last year, the village got connected to the electricity grid.

It’s the Khin people from this village that knew about the cave all along, going there sometimes to collect bird eggs. But while it was not undiscovered by humans, it was only until the 90ies that British cave explorers surveyed the cave and realized its enormous size.

Not everywhere are paths, so the hike to the cave also follows some streams and rivers. Walking with our feet submerged was a great way of cooling off in the searing heat. We spotted several lizards along the way and flocks of butterflies swirled around the streams. Someone asked me if I’d seen nature this beautiful anywhere else in Southeast Asia — in the moment, I struggled to think of any other place I’d been that would even make a fair comparison.

Once we got to the entrance of Hang En it was time to take some group photos. Then we strapped on our helmets, headlamps and gloves. The entrance seems deceptively small from the outside, but when you get to the first chamber, you realize just how big it is.

To be clear: it’s fucking big. Motherfucking feel-like-an-ant big.

During flooding season, much of this enormous space is submerged in water. But during the dry season, only a small river remains, as well as a sandy beach on which the temporary camp is set up by our porters. The river allows for a refreshing bath after hiking through the hot jungle, though you’ll have to ignore that you’re probably stepping through thick layers of guano.

We had a surprisingly tasty meal (especially considering we were inside a remote cave!). Over dinner, I was able to chat a little more with the other members of our group. Among them was a couple who were both producers of wildlife documentaries for the BBC and National Geographic, and quizzing them led to a few interesting stories. After a few drinks of happy water (a local aguardiente) we dispersed to our tents. I soon fell gently asleep, listening to the chattering of the thousands of swifts that make this cave their home every night.

The next morning was spent going deeper into the cave, exploring other caverns and a second side entrance. Along the way you’ll see many stalagmites, stalactites, and something I hadn’t seen before: stalagoids. These are stalagmites that are also shaped by the flow of water, which rises during the flooding season.

During our time in the cave, I often kept staring at the ceiling, just trying to take it all in. Eventually, we had to make the trek back home, though it was difficult to say goodbye to this remarkable place.

Purifying water from the river

The way back proved to be much tougher than on our way in. The sun was out in full force and instead of following the streams, we went up a steep mountain path. This required a dizzying effort, my head heating up so much through exertion that I feared my brains had been turned at least medium-rare. I admired our porters who seemed entirely unaffected by the heat.

When we finally got to our minibus back to Phong-Nha there were already cold beers and sodas waiting for us, letting us toast on an amazing experience.

Is Hang En worth it?

The tours to Hang En cave are not necessarily cheap. The only company running these tours is Oxalis Adventure Tours and they charge $330 for the 2-day experience. For many travellers, this will surely raise the question as to whether it’s worth it.

I’d say that if you’re in Vietnam on a limited backpacker budget, you might want to carefully consider the expense. For the price of just one 2-day cave tour — and assuming a generous $30/day travel budget — you could easily spend 10 days travelling in Vietnam instead.

But if your budget allows, it’s definitely worth it.

I paid for the tour with my own money and felt it was a unique and unforgettable experience. If you think you can spare $330 and if you’re enticed by the idea of sleeping in a tent inside a giant cave, then you’ll surely be very happy.

Hang En is an amazing place to visit, but you also have to admire the small scale of these tours. Good things often end up destroyed by uncontrolled mass tourism, especially in a country like Vietnam, but this has not been the case here.

There were rumours a while ago that another company would build a cable car in the nearby Dong Soong cave (the world’s biggest), which would open it to mass tourism, but thankfully these plans were suspended.

As an ecotourism operator, Oxalis runs their tours in a sustainable way and to benefit the local area. They employ over 600 people, nearly all of them Vietnamese and many of them from the Phong-Nha area. Funds from the tours also help to improve the lives in local communities, for instance by installing wells or sanitation.

The money earned with the tours further helps protect the caves and the Phong-Nha National Park. Many of Oxalis’ employees were once loggers or hunters, but now gain an income by being a porter or safety assistant.

In other words, this is a great example of ‘good tourism’.

Even though the expedition is expensive by Vietnamese standards, it’s also easy to see why it’s set up in this way. Not only will you get a unique experience and a highly professional tour, but the entire project helps to conserve the natural environment and encourages sustainable tourism development. While it may not be in everyone’s budget, I highly recommend it.

If Hang En is a bit out of your price range, it’s good to know that there are over 30 other caves that can be visited in Phong Nha National Park, some of which are publically accessible. Of course, these caves aren’t as big, but they are also highly worth seeing. To learn more, be sure to check out my guide to the Phong Nha caves and national park.