Tu Lan caving, an experience of a lifetime!

‘Non-touristy’ is our thing, yet in a country like Vietnam it’s almost asking for the impossible. In fact, it’s the very reason why it’s taken us so long to travel there.

Our time in Phong Nha (pronounced ‘fong nya’) was one of contrasts. It was the last destination to be added to our itinerary, yet it was also our most anticipated. Before the holiday, our routine trawling of other blogs and online musings from fellow travellers unearthed this town in the middle of Vietnam that neither of us had ever heard of before. And the main attraction? Caves!

We arrived in Phong Nha expecting to see few westerners or other international tourists. Research fail. How wrong could we get?! Much of our first day was spent in the company of a small group, exploring Paradise cave, only minutes out of Phong Nha. I say ‘exploring’, but in reality it was a case of ‘follow the hordes in front of you along the well trodden boardwalk’. There were literally hundreds of tourists swarming through the massive natural amphitheatre, clambering over fences into prohibited areas and either walking on or touching the fragile rock formations. We’d had zero sleep the night before and, for the first time ever, in pure frustration I actually told a child off! The surroundings were stunning, yet so emotionally distant.

Our second and third days in Phong Nha couldn’t have been any different.

I say Phong Nha, but in fact we were more than 30km away (as the crow flies, more than 70km by road) near the tiny village of An Thọ Thôn, the launch pad for one of the most memorable experiences we’ve had anywhere in the world!

Day 1 started early, with our tour guide Phuong picking us up from the Phong Nha Lakehouse Resort in the Oxalis van at around 8am. In the hour and a half or so it took us to get to the Oxalis base camp at An Thọ Thôn we picked up six more intrepid explorers (two Kiwis, two Yanks and two Brits) and listened to Phuong explaining our itinerary for the next couple of days. Some of it was superfluous, detracting somewhat from the incredible scenery passing us by, but most was incredibly useful, explaining how the cave systems had evolved in the Phong Nha region and hinting at some of the exciting activities we’d be getting up to!

We arrived at An Thọ Thôn mid-morning, piling out of the van to stretch our legs, pack our bags, and listen to one last briefing (it was music to my ears to hear that, unlike some of the other cave tours Oxalis offer, by some quirk of nature there wouldn’t be any leeches in the section of jungle that we would be walking through!!). Packing was an interesting experience to say the least!

We were going to be spending a lot of time up to our necks in water, and we were also going to be spending a night in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle, so packing involved separating clothing, electronics and other gear into different piles, some to be stored in ‘dry’ bags, others to go in holey dry-bags (ie. not dry at all…but they told us that up front!) and others to be carried ahead by the porters. With most of us in holiday mode, it was a logistical nightmare…but we got there in the end!

Our hike into base camp consisted of three stages:

  1. An easy walk of around an hour across the flat valley floor through some light drizzle. It was really interesting to hear Phuong talk about the devastating floods that have sometimes filled the valley, with locals now taking to strapping 44 gallon drums underneath their houses so that next time they float instead of getting inundated. In hindsight it was pretty funny watching the apprehension on our faces at our first shallow river crossing. Wet shoes and feet were to become second nature to us…
  2. A short but steep scramble up and over a ridge to a smaller valley on the other side, lathering ourselves with insect repellent on the way, with lunch (hot dogs and Happy Cow!) to be eaten sitting inside Hung Ton cave looking out over the valley we had just walked up…
  3. A much tougher scramble up, along, and over another ridge and down to our camp. The distance isn’t huge, but the humidity and gradient really give you a good workout. The volcanic rock in this region is extremely jagged, meaning we had to be careful with every step and every handhold to avoid twisting ankles or cutting flesh. Unfortunately one of our team took a tumble on the way down, resulting in one very badly twisted ankle. On hearing the scream we all feared a broken leg, but thankfully she was able to continue. Our brothers and sisters across the ditch are clearly made of tough stuff!

By mid-afternoon we found ourselves emerging from the dense jungle to be greeted by an absolutely fantastic camp site, with the river gushing out of the mouth of Ken cave over a two metre tall waterfall and then flowing gently past our dining area, hammocks and tents. An unexpected oasis!

After choosing our hammocks and gulping down an instant coffee at the communal dining table we sorted out our dry bags and got straight into our first cave exploration. No faffing about, we climbed up and around the rocks you can in the photo above and launched ourselves (literally!) off the rock ledge and into the warm water!!

With the beams of our head torches piercing the darkness like lasers, we slowly swam up the river drinking in the amazing rock features (not the water!), occasionally rolling over onto our backs like otters to watch the cave mouth narrowing with distance as the absolute darkness closed in around us.

It wasn’t long and we were hauling our wet and dishevelled bodies out of the water and carefully climbing up the side of the cave to a large ledge looking out over the water and a massive calcium carbonate column.

Our first caving experience was pretty awesome, but so much more was to come the next day.

We swam back the way we had entered the cave and on getting back to the waterfall were given the choice of either taking the easy route back over the rocks, or to climb out over the algae-slick edge and jump over the torrent of water into the pool below. If you get the chance, take the plunge!

Some spent the rest of the day keeping cool in the water, others settled in for a chat at the table, while yours truly got busy with camera and tripod 🙂

Dinner was incredible considering the limited facilities. Curries, grilled meats, salads, vegetarian dishes, and all washed down with some of the local ‘happy water’ (rice wine)!

After an eventful and immensely satisfying day, we jumped into our hammocks and quickly fell asleep with the sound of the river and jungle insects in our ears, interspersed by the odd snore or other unexplainable noise of human origin.

There were no wakeup calls, but for some reason we all seemed to wake at around 6am, eagerly anticipating more caving (except one of our number, who in very laconic fashion wasn’t going to let ‘the ordeal’ get in the way of a good sleep in!).

Breakfast was sensational. The freshly cooked pancakes came with sugar, lime, chocolate syrup and bananas, with any combo being perfectly acceptable and equally as tasty.

A short walk through the jungle later and we were at our first cave for the day, Tu Lan cave itself! On the way Phuong spotted this extremely well camouflaged frog sitting in the undergrowth.

Another water entry, but no diving this time.

As you can imagine, taking decent photos inside the caves was nigh on impossible (I was able to take the SLR with me into the caves the day before, but this second day had far too much swimming to risk it, and so I was stuck with the waterproof camera), so you’ll have to trust me when I say that the interior of Tu Lan and Kim caves were spectacular, full of cave pearls, gushing waterfalls and scary looking critters!

Apparently Kim cave was recently discovered by a Dutchman (called Kim…duh…) who wandered too far from camp one day…what a find!!

There was a lot of rock scrambling, and swimming, through these caves, with our efforts culminating in one final climb up this massive ladder. On getting to the top and walking to the mouth of the cave we realised that we were in the same cave in which we’d eaten lunch the day before! The circle of life….

After a quick stop to say g’day to another group coming in, we lathered up on sunscreen and made our way back to the Oxalis base camp the same way we had walked in. With sunny skies overhead it made for a fantastic finish to what had been an incredible 48 hours!

After redistributing and packing our gear for the final time, we drove into the village and stopped for one final meal together. Such great memories; coming together as strangers yet leaving as friends.

The gang (check out the size of the melon on Rochelle’s foot from her accident the previous day!!)

In summary?

Do it.

Yes, at US$260pp it’s one of the most expensive activities you’ll do anywhere in Vietnam, but the experience is worth every cent.

This isn’t just another run of the mill tour. Oxalis are the only group that can take you into this region and they run a very tight operation. They are a fantastic team of professionals that plough a hell of a lot of their profits back into the local communities and preservation activities, to ensure that irreparable damage doesn’t occur and that future generations will also have the opportunity to experience what we’ve been through.

We went in with high expectations, and we walked out exceeding every single one. This was the tour of a lifetime!

Tips and tricks

While a lot of great info is provided by Oxalis on their website, by email before you arrive, and in person on the day, there are a few tips and tricks we came across that might be of interest to you.

  • Other tours: This isn’t the only tour run by Oxalis. There’s a range of tours on offer, varying from single day up to a 5-day hiking and photographic odyssey into the world’s largest cave, Son Doong. Drop by the Oxalis website for more details: Oxalis Adventure Tours
  • Fitness: The trekking component of the tour was a little tougher than I had imagined, but most people should be fine. If you are wide of girth or have mobility issues then it’s likely you’ll struggle; not in terms of fitness but more from the fact that some sections of the tour are extremely narrow and require some dexterity to crawl/scramble through. In saying that, there may be alternate routes available, so it would be worth checking with Oxalis as you really don’t want to miss out on this opportunity!
  • Nychtophobic? It does get dark in the caves, but at any one time there will always be a half dozen or more lamps providing some illumination either in the immediate vicinity or on the walls/ceiling around you.
  • Packing: Take the time to read their instructions regarding what you do/don’t need to carry with you and what does/doesn’t need to go in a dry-bag. They’ll explain it all on the day, but it’ll speed things up considerably if you’re prepared.
  • SLR Cameras and Tripods: I took a pocket camera that was either in my zipped pocket or attached to my wrist at all times (Olympus ‘Tough’), my SLR (Nikon D7000) and my tripod (Gitzo GT1544T).In addition to the dry bags they also have a single waterproof screw-top container into which they will put all the non-waterproof cameras or phones that people have brought. It’s a reasonable size, but in hindsight I was lucky that I was the only person with an SLR, because two or more would not have worked at all. The alternative is to put the SLR in the dry bag and carry it yourself. This option will work so long as you take the time to close the dry bag properly every single time, and so long as your dry bag doesn’t have a hole in it (they did seem to be of a decent quality, but best check just in case). The bes option would be to take in your own dry bag as they weigh very little and take up next to no space, and simply take care when navigating the caves so that you don’t knock your camera around.My tripod is carbon fibre, packs down very small and is extremely light. It actually fit in the dry bag…just; however most tripods won’t. If you don’t mind your tripod getting wet then you can always carry it in the non-dry bag. Carrying it in your hands is NOT an option.
  • Phones: Our mobile phone (Viettel) had extremely limited reception in the cave in which we ate lunch on the first day, and at which we finished on the second day, but other than that you are unlikely to get any reception anywhere else. Apparently in camp if the stars align, stand on one leg and sing the Kazakhstani national anthem in French you may occasionally get a single bar, but don’t bank on it.
  • Hammock or tent? Go the hammock! You may never get the chance again. They are remarkably comfortable and have good mosquito netting. Getting in and out required a little bit of care the first time, but is quite easy once you’ve got the hang of it.
  • Clothing: They’ll send you a list of recommended clothing. My advice is that you take at least one pair of long quick-dry pants and one quick-dry long-sleeved shirt. Take two of each if you’ve got them, as you’ll want to change out of your wet gear at the end of the day. Both items of clothing will protect against scratches, but more importantly, will protect against the mozzies that are everywhere! You’ll also want to bring a spare pair of socks to wear around camp (not essential, but again it beats relying on insect repellent to keep them off your toes). I neglected to bring a long-sleeved shirt, but found that they sell all manner of Oxalis branded gear at base camp, with the shirt being VND400,000 (a good souvenir!).Wet clothing doesn’t dry completely overnight. However, I wore my damp gear to bed and found it not only kept me cool in the early evening, but it was dry by morning.
  • Insects: You’re in the jungle; there will be insects..lots of insects. Mosquitoes are ever-present in the jungle and you will need to apply repellent multiple times throughout the hike. Some repellent will be brought by Ozalis for all to share, however I strongly recommend that you take a bottle of your own as well (the Oxalis one ran out on us on the last day).
  • Toilets: Try not to have to use the loos for No. 2’s if you can help it…they do the job but the environment isn’t all that conducive to extended metaphorical ponderings. The seat itself is quite high, mozzies will try to get you and apparently there was a rat in the rice husk barrel. Hand sanitiser is provided.