Adventure Hiking Phong Nha Vietnam

The Phong Nha Caves: Finding Strength in the Vietnamese Jungle

August 14, 2018

Having recently returned from a three-day/two-night jungle caving adventure through Central Vietnam (in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park), Nathan and I reflected on what was one of our greatest physical and mental challenges to date.  Find out why we recommend taking things up a notch on your next holiday – because anyone can lay on the beach but you only so many opportunities to make memories like these.

If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?

– T.S. Eliot

Some blog posts flow easily, word after word cascading onto the keyboard.  Other experiences are harder to comprehend; difficult to really put into words.

Our adventure through the Vietnamese jungle falls into the later of the two categories.

Why?

Because it was a serious challenge.  The type of challenge that leaves you quietly reflective afterwards, pondering just how you ever made it through.  The type of challenge that can’t help but also leave its mark on you and a newfound belief that maybe you are stronger than you thought.

It’s the type of challenge that leaves you googling ‘quotes to push you on, overcoming challenges‘.

Seriously!

Of course though, we made it through our caving adventure – a little bruised and a little tender but with a whole lot of pride in our accomplishment… and in the end, I have no doubt that our adventure through the jungle and caves of Phong Nha will form the basis of countless ‘I can’t believe I did that’ stories when we’re older.

With all that said, just what are the caves in Phong Nha all about and why should you consider trading in your cushy vacation for one that will really challenge you?

Join us as we share our thoughts on our greatest adventure to date…

The Tiger Cave Series Adventure

Jungle Hike: A 20km loop across uneven terrain and valleys

Caving:  5.5km exploring three caving systems – the Tiger Cave, the Hang Over Cave and Hang Pygmy, the 4th largest cave in the world.

Swimming:  300m (optional) + a dip deep within the final cave, should you dare

Adventure:  Abseils, rock scrambles and plenty of bush-bashing

Fitness Level Required: High.  This trip is strenuous, especially with tropical Vietnamese weather added into the mix.

Comfort Level:  It all depends on how you look at it.  You’ll be camping but the porters do everything they can to make the trip comfortable whilst in the middle of the jungle.

What to Expect on Your Jungle Boss Caing Adventure

Deep in the Vietnamese jungle, our expectations were fairly well tempered – how many creature comforts could we really expect?  Knowing that everything we’d need would need to be carried in and out again was one thing but chowing down on delicious meals and watching our team hard at work was quite another!

Guides

I have no doubt that our fabulous guide, Captain, got me through our two jungle hike days.

He motivated me, dragged me up hills when I was too tired to walk (yep, he literally dragged me!), dosed me up with vitamin water and never once ran out of patience.  He carried my bag when I needed a little break and always had a fabulous calmness about him.

Without Captain’s support, I’d still probably be perched somewhere deep in the jungle!

Porters

The powerhouse of the crew, our amazing team of porters made our hike possible.  Hurling massive bags through the jungle, these guys were up before us and asleep long after us.  When we arrived at our campsites and instantaneously collapsed, they busied themselves collecting and purifying water, setting up our tents and toilet, building a fire and preparing delicious meals.

I’ll never understand where they got all of their energy from but I will remember their incredible strength and work ethic whenever I think back to our time in Vietnam!

Food

Yes, we’ve already touched on the food that our porter team prepared but it was so good that it deserves its own little celebration!

Every evening we enjoyed Vietnamese family-style meals, always with a great variety of meat and vegetarian dishes served up with rice, sauces and egg.  The dishes were all tasty, freshly prepared and plentiful; if I hadn’t seen them cooked in front of me, I’d never have believed they were cooked jungle-style!

Lunches and breakfasts were just as good with banana pancakes, omelettes, beef phở, fried bread, fresh fruits and more on offer.

After a long day of hiking, there was nothing better than tucking into a massive, tasty feed!

Equipment

All gear that we were supplied was of high, professional quality.  With recognisable brands like Petzl offered up, we had everything we needed to ensure that our caving adventure was not only fun but also safe.

Camping Experience

Let’s face it, sleeping on the ground is unlikely to ever be particularly comfortable but Jungle Boss do the very best they can to make it so.

Our fabulous porters carried tents, inflatable sleeping mats and sleeping bags from campsite to campsite for us.

Though I wouldn’t exactly describe our nights of sleep as being restful, the campsites were home to levelled out sleeping spots, making camping as comfortable as possible.

Caving

I always expected our day underground to be the real highlight of our adventure and I was spot on in my prediction.  Cool, pitch-black and practically untouched, the caving systems were beautiful.

The highlight of all three for me was definitely Hang Pygmy – its sheer size and beautiful jungle entrance was just incredible to see in person.

Hiking

If you hadn’t already figured it out (and let’s face it, you have), I found the hiking portion of this trip fairly challenging.

With that said though, it was the struggle that made this trip memorable.  Had it not been challenging, I wouldn’t have come out the other end with such a great sense of achievement.  Not only did it make the trip all the more worthwhile but much of the hiking was through beautiful jungle with stunning views.

Creepy Crawlies

Hiking through the depths of the Vietnamese jungle, coming across some creepy crawlies was always inevitable.  At times we spotted some well-sized spiders but we always managed to avoid them.  On the bright side, we were also pleasantly surprised by the lack of mosquitos and flies!

The biggest scare-factor for these city-slickers though were the leeches.  I must admit, I’ve always been pretty creeped out by them but after 15 minutes spent on the trail and having sprayed a few of them off of my pants, I realised there was nothing to be afraid of.  The vast majority of leeches that made their way onto our clothes never made it to our skin (hence the long shirts and pants) and the few that did certainly didn’t hurt – you don’t even feel them attach themselves.

Armed with our bug spray, getting rid of those pesky leeches really wasn’t a problem.

Toilets and Showers

First of all, let’s remember exactly where you’ll be on this hike – in the middle of the jungle, sleeping in caves and walking along trails that only a handful of tourists have completed before you.

Unsurprisingly, there are no showers whilst out in the jungle (but there are a couple of opportunities to bathe in pools).

Whilst walking from campsite to campsite, you’ll be limited with toilet options (though there’s always the good ol’ bush toilet), but when you get to your temporary home at the end of each day, the porters set up a portable composting toilet.

A large bucket with a toilet seat, housed inside a toilet tent, you really couldn’t ask for more considering just how remote you’ll be!

Gear List: What to Take on Your Phong Nha Multi-Day Hike

Depending on the season and your chosen hike, you’ll want to check in with the Jungle Boss team but the following serves as a great starting point for your packing.

  • Long sleeve exercise top – quick-dry if possible
  • Long pants – hiking pants or exercise tights
  • Hiking boots or quality trainers
  • Long socks – merino if possible
  • Change of underwear
  • Shorts to sleep in
  • Jandals/sandals for around camp
  • A lightweight travel towel (we love Turkish cotton towels) both for drying off after a swim and also to use as a sheet
  • A toothbrush/toothpaste
  • Deodorant
  • A camera with empty SD cards

Optional Extras:

  • Sunscreen (though we barely used ours because we were under tree cover)
  • A neck buff and/or fan
  • Vitamin tablets to add to your water (like Berocca)
  • Talcum powder – we couldn’t get our hands on any but it would have been good to dry out our feet at the end of each day
  • Tiger Balm
  • Baby wipes
  • A dry bag for electronics
  • A power bank to charge up electronics (or spare batteries)
  • Hiking poles – we didn’t take ours but in retrospect, I would recommend having them

What you don’t need to worry about:

  • A cap/sunglasses – ours never left our bags
  • Insect repellant – the team will give you some to get rid of leeches
  • Water, snacks and food – plenty is supplied

Try to minimise the amount of gear that you carry in.  Anything you take will need to be carried either by yourself or the porters and let’s face it – you’ll end up smelly and dirty no matter how many changes of clothes you have, so there’s no need to have a fresh set for every day.

Is the Tiger Cave Series Really That Hard?

When we first arrived at Jungle Boss HQ and met our lovely adventuring buddy, Dor, I must admit, I was suddenly struck down with a pretty serious case of can-I-actually-do-this-itis.

Our new friend was not only a fit and healthy 25-year-old, but an ex-soldier from the Israeli army.  Whatsmore, when asked why he decided on this hike in particular, he told us he was looking for the most challenging trip possible.

Suddenly I’d found my very-curvy, pretty unfit wee body signed up for a Vietnamese adventure that was going to test even the fittest of cross-fit going pro-soldiers.

Ahhhh really?

A challenge only becomes an obstacle when you bow to it.

– Ray Davis

To really explain the level of challenge is difficult though.

Without a doubt, our three days out with Jungle Boss were amongst the hardest we’ve ever experienced (and we’ve completed some pretty serious multi-day hikes now).  I moaned, I ached and I struggled.

I also laughed, grinned from ear to ear and dusted myself off every time I fell.  I pushed myself and somehow came out the other end feeling tired but surprisingly not quite as exhausted as I’d expected to be.  Though I lost track of the number of times I exclaimed “man, I can’t go any further”, I know that somehow I would have found the energy and determination to continue on, regardless of my exasperations.

This isn’t the type of challenge you undertake because you want it to be easy – this is a true challenge from go to whoa and honestly, despite my moaning throughout, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end.  It’s not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it’s a day you’ve had everything to do and you’ve done it.

– Margaret Thatcher

It’s difficult, yes, but for your averagely fit person, it’s totally achievable (and trust me, I’m far from fit!)

Challenge yourself to head out into the jungle when visiting Vietnam – you only live once!


Up for a real adventure?  Pin this post!

Thank you to Jungle Boss for so kindly hosting us on this hike for the purpose of this review and for providing additional photography.

Whilst in the region, we recommend staying at the Jungle Boss Homestay – it makes life incredibly easy when connecting with your tour and above all else, it’s incredibly comfortable and the food is delish!

As always, all thoughts are our own.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Maggie August 16, 2018 at 1:12 am

    This sounds AMAZING!!!! I love hiking and finding remote, off-the-beaten-track types of places. I’ve been in caves, but never one in the middle of nowhere, like this. So neat! Also, I’ve never heard of a portable toilet before, haha. Whenever I’ve gone camping, it’s always just the good ‘ol “go in the woods.” But I guess that would be pretty difficult when you’re in a cave!

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