On the last morning of the trip we woke early in the beautiful Hang En for an early breakfast. The Oxalis staff had discussed that they thought it would be quite a hot walk back and as a group we were all keen to set off before it became too hot to tackle the steep hill at the end. As we retraced our steps of the first day I noticed that there seemed to be fewer river crossings than I remember and the walk felt a little quicker. I had not taken any photos of the way there and for most of my trip had not actually taken any pictures until we were at a rest stop. I had used a GoPro for the first time and was wondering how that might work out, especially as most of my footage had been in darkness so may not have come out. Captain Caveman was at the front of the group so was able to take some photos as we headed back across the river and towards the bottom of the hill.
The hill back up to the road was the hardest part of the trip for me. Even though I had come down the hill once already on day one it was easy to forget the steepness of it. Despite having been down and back up it once before when I did a Hang En trip, I had certainly forgotten what it felt like to walk up it. I was lucky that Captain Caveman had already gone on ahead – he was on a back to back tour so was keen to get to the starting point to meet his next guests. I was in very capable hands with our other cave expert who was encouraging as I found myself at the back of all the others by a good ten minutes. By the time we reached the top I was so hot that I had had to take off my top and just walk with my sports bra on. We weren’t far off the top when Captain Caveman came back down with his new group and a can of orange drink for me – it tasted amazing and spurred me on for the final hurdle. One of my fellow trekkers gave me ice from the box of drinks that awaited us at the end and our guide told me to put my top back on so we could have some group photos before the porters left us to get in our bus back to Oxalis.
When we got back I was dropped off at home and I had the quickest but most desperately needed shower ever – even in cold water it felt good to wash my hair. I then cycled to Oxalis to meet the others for a lunch of beer and noodle soup, both of which went down so well. I achingly cycled back with mine and Captain Caveman’s wet, dirty clothes (with the help of my friend and neighbor, Chrissy). There was more than one bike basket full of smelly, muddy garments so I was keen to get it in the washing machine. In the evening we were all invited to the Saigon Phong Nha hotel for a celebratory dinner and presentation which was hosted by our guide. The food was not as good at the hotel as we had eaten in the cave and so we moved on in to town for drinks.
At Easy Tiger the beers were flowing and I got up and sang with the band while the group clapped and danced along with others. I cycled back from town late and drunk, glad that I had already packed my bag – my visa expired the next day so I had a 7am taxi pick up to take me to the airport. I was off to Bangkok for a few days, via Saigon.
I should’ve been fitter and I wasn’t prepared mentally to take on some of my fears but the place is magical and feels like it is not of this world, mystical even. I was, and still am, in awe of all the people that work on the tour to make the trip so good. From the porters carrying all of our stuff while wearing plastic sandals, to the amazing chef and the team who fed us amazing meals, I couldn’t believe how much hard work went on. The guides and assistant guides who showed skill and patience, in equal measures with each guest, were a massive part of the trip for me. I was overwhelmed to have had the chance to go to work with my partner, Captain Caveman, seeing how fantastic he is at his job and how much passion and respect he has for the job that he does in the place he calls his ‘office’. Despite all of my shortcomings it was one of the most remarkable journeys I have ever been on.