For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by caves. The idea that over the course of millions of years, water carves away at rock to form massive caverns is pretty incredible. That same water then creates beautiful formations from minerals within in the rocks. Caves are mysterious, rugged, and usually a bit dangerous. But, if you are willing to make the effort, squeeze between narrow passages, and swim in dark waters – you will be rewarded with sights that will take your breath away and leave you speechless.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
In central Vietnam, about 500km south of Hanoi, there is an incredible National Park that many people are not aware even exists, let alone know about the unbelievable sights which it contains. In 2003, UNESCO designated Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park as a world heritage site because of the elaborate cave systems and geological values. Prior to 2003, there were very few tourists visiting Phong Nha and the town did not have any infrastructure to accommodate tourism. Once the word started to get out to those around the world about the amazing caves that littered central Vietnam, the tourists started to come and there are now a handful of places to stay in Phong Nha.
Tu Lan Cave System
After seeing viral photos circulate on the web about a year ago of the discovery of the world’s largest cave in Vietnam, Son Doong, I set my sights on being one of the first to explore this incredible cave and added it to my bucket list. Oxalis Adventure is the sole tour operator for Son Doong and the Vietnamese Government granted them permission to begin tours through Son Doong in 2014. They offered a limited number of permits for a 7 day adventure into Son Doong, which carried a hefty $3,000 price tag. Unfortunately, this didn’t fit well into my backpacker budget.
After reviewing other options, I decided the next best option would be a 3 day/2 night trek through the Tu Lan cave system. The idea of trekking through the mountainous jungle, six different caves, and camping under the stars, sounded like the best way to celebrate my birthday abroad! 🙂
*BTW…was I the only one that had the Nintendo game, Spelunker?? Maybe that is why I like caves…
Our Oxalis guide for our tour, Duc, picked us up from our and we set off to drive 70km outside of Phong Nha town to the Tu Lan cave system. We were a group of five – two American, one Australian, one Dutch, and one Indonesian – along with our guide, Duc, and our porter, Nam. We reached the Oxalis office after a beautiful 75 minute drive through the National Park. We were briefed on the plan for our trek over the 3 days, what we could expect, what we needed to pack, and safety. From there, we tried on our boots, packed our dry bags, strapped on our safety gear and embarked on our epic adventure!
We trekked away from the small dirt road toward the jungle and towering mountains surrounding the Tan Hoa village. We walked through peanut fields and land that was dominated by the roaming buffalo and cows. We encountered our first (of many) water crossings which found us waist deep in refreshingly cool water on a very warm day. Shortly thereafter we reached our first cave, Hang Chout (Rat Cave). This cave had a very large opening and was large throughout. Duc explained to us about how the caves were formed millions of years ago, the features of caves, how to find fault lines, etc. Meanwhile our porter, Nam, was setting up our picnic lunch on the floor of the cave. We all indulged in the sandwiches with fresh vegetables, cheese, sausages, banana, ramboutans, watermelon, crackers, and plenty of sweet treats too – Oreos, Choco pies, and candies!
Full of energy (or possibly ready for a nap) and covered in a thick layer of insect repellent, we were ready for a fairly strenuous climb through the thick jungle and steep mountainside. Thankfully we had a strong group and within 30 minutes, we all arrived at the top with a few new mosquito bites and a natural glow (aka, sweaty messes!)
We trekked another few kilometers and arrived at our second cave, Hung Ton Cave. Local people used to live in this cave high above the valley. During rainy season, the valley commonly floods and surprisingly, one year it flooded all the way to this cave, over 30 meters! We explored the dry cave and found all kind of shells and fossils – just another reminder of how incredible these caves are. At one time, this limestone resided on the ocean floors before the tectonic plates forced them up to create mountains. The erosion of the limestone then created these massive caves. When you stop and think about it…mind.blown!
About halfway through this cave, we encountered a 15m ladder which, with the help of safety ropes, we climbed down further into the cave. Here, we ventured deeper into the cave to see some of the unique features – wavy stalactites (which Americans refer to as “cave bacon”), beautifully rounded rocks known as cave pearls (I named them “cave eggs” to follow the breakfast theme – only seemed right), sparkling mineral deposits that resembled snowy mountains, gold and silver streaks, terraced basins that were formed when the cave filled with water – resembling terraced rice paddys, to me. It was absolutely beautiful! Bats covered the ceiling and danced for us upon our arrival. We decided to turn off our headlamps to see how dark the caves are without visitors. BLACK – pitch black! We attempted to try and walk back to where we left our bags (joined tightly together). I thought after a minute or two my eyes would adjust at least a bit….nope. There is no light source there so it remains completely dark.
We continued on in Hung Ton Cave until we reached the portion that was filled water. We put on our life jackets, threw in our bags, and jumped into the refreshing water to swim 200m toward the cave exit. I could hear rushing water ahead and soon learned that the water lead to a small waterfall and into a lake. We got out right before the waterfall and were greeted by our camp for the night in To Mo Valley. I was in heaven! There were two other porters that had trekked ahead of us to set up our camp. The setting was absolutely amazing….hammocks hung under the rocky overhangs of the cave, set right next to the waterfall, our own private lake, surrounded by some of the most beautiful, jungle covered mountains, dinner being cooked over an open flame. While swimming with my friend, Laura, I told her…I am in my happy place! 🙂
Back home it is summer and this is the time where, along with good friends, we venture to the mountains every chance we get and camp. I had been missing this and it was just what I needed! I only wish my friends (and all our dogs!) could have enjoyed this slice of heaven with me!
Our feast, errr…I mean dinner, was served as the skies darkened and the stars came out. After working up an appetite from trekking all day, we all dove into the amazing food – rice, soup, pork, beef with pineapple, vegetables, tofu, morning glory, and beef with eggs. We all ate to our limits!
We spent the rest of the evening under the stars….singing! As Duc told us, the Vietnamese love to sing, so we all joined in. Although I couldn’t understand the words they were singing, their songs were beautiful! They even taught use a few lines…..Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh!! 🙂
As I snuggled into my hammock for a nights rest, listening to the natural sound machine of the waterfall and the crackling fire, and staring at the night sky, I was reminded how fortunate I was to be having this adventure. The hard work and sacrifice over the last few years were nothing compared to this experience. Truly fortunate.
I woke early and found the porters already up and preparing breakfast. One had left at 530 to trek back to the village, get more food and supplies, and made it back by 800 – before some people were even up!! These guys work SO hard! Breakfast was spring rolls, noodle soup, fresh fruit, coffee and tea. We fueled up and were ready for day 2.
Right off the bat, we started with a swim which brought us to the entrance of Hang Kim cave. This cave was actually found by a Dutch tourist and named after him. [*Sidenote* – new life goal: find a cave!]. We swam through this cave and admired its unique formations too.
Day 2 was our easiest day of trekking, so we took our time and eventually arrived at our camp in Tu Lan Valley. Again, the porters went ahead and set up our hammocks and had prepared our lunch for us while we swam in the lake. After lunch, Duc and Nam took us into Hang Ken. This was my favorite cave of the trip. We climbed up slippery rocks next to the waterfall coming from the cave. We jumped into the water and swam upstream deeper into the cave with just our headlights guiding us. I found myself floating on my back while gazing at the ceiling of the cave about 30m above. I felt like I was in another world. I imagine that this is what another planet would look like – not here on Earth. Truly an amazing moment.
We got out at a point where we could climb up about 10m where Duc showed up an enormous column (formation created when a stalactite and stalagmite combine) in the middle of the water below. This formation was featured by National Geographic just a few years ago when they visited the cave system. Again….this had to be hundreds of MILLIONS of years old based on its size. It just all took my breath away.
Duc then took us over to the Tu Lan cave, which the group of caves in the area is named after (all the water from the caves flow into Tu Lan Cave). We swam into the cave and were welcomed by nearly every cave formation you could imagine…a dozen columns, cave pearls (…eggs), terraced sections, and beautiful minerals glowing throughout. We exited the cave on the opposite side and had a 30 minute trek through thick jungle before arriving back at our camp.
That evening, we had another amazing meal prepared by the porters. We sang, danced, and had such a great time. We all turned in for the night before the rain began to fall.
Our final day of trekking was to be our most difficult as we had a few mountains to climb before arriving back in Tan Hua village. We filled up on breakfast of beef pho, fruit, pancakes, coffee and tea and set out on our last leg. The rain overnight made the steep climbs through the thick jungle and up and down Mango and Hung Ton Mountains more difficult as it was quite muddy and slippery. We all made it out safely, just a bit dirtier than we started! Our final walk through the peanut fields and we arrived back at Oxalis!
The Oxalis office has showers that were available to us complete with shampoo, soap, and towels. This was very much welcomed after 3 days of my body being covered in sweat, insect repellant, and sunscreen. We all then loaded up in the van and went into the local village to enjoy lunch of fresh beef Pho. We said our goodbyes to our amazing porters and started the drive back to Phong Nha.
As exhausted as I was, I did not fall asleep on the drive back. I found myself staring out the windows and reflecting on the amazing adventure I just completed. The images of these caves, that have been explore by so few, were fresh in my mind. I wanted to try and remember them as best as I could so I could try and put them into words. It is utterly impossible. The pictures do not do this justice. It is one of these places that you must visit to understand how incredible it truly is.
I cannot recommend this trip highly enough to anyone that visits Vietnam. After 3 weeks in the country it was by far the best thing I did while here. I would go so far to say that it ranks in the top three adventures I have ever done – right up there with mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda and scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It is an adventure that I will not soon forget.
Tips for Cave Exploration in Vietnam:
- Exploring nearby Caves: There are hundreds of caves in the National Park and you are able to reach many on your own or by boat from Phong Nha town (Phong Nha, Paradise, Dark, etc.)
- Oxalis Adventure: Oxalis is the sole tour operator for Son Doong, Tu Lan and Hang En cave systems. They are professionals that are led and trained by British caving experts and truly are the best.
- Embrace the water: If you choose the Tu Lan cave tour, be prepared to be wet the entire time. With the humidity, our clothes never really dried!
- Beware of the mozzies: The mosquitos were thick! I became a buffet for them just in the amount of time it took for me to change clothes. Bring the best repellant you can find.
- Clothes: Bring an extra set of clean, dry clothes and leave them at the office (They kept my whole bag while trekking) so that you have something to wear after showering on the ride back to Phong Nha.
Has anyone else ever visited Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and been caving?