Spelunking in Phong Nha – The Tu Lan Caving System

tu lan caving system

Week 77

Day 541

Hanoi, Vietnam

21.0333° N, 105.8500° E

When it came time to plan our time in South East Asia, I had a couple hints from my cousin Matthew who spent some time here last May.

Top on his list were the caves of Vietnam which have recently begun to gain traction due to the National Geographic Feature and article in the New York Times.

I was told to stay at Phong Nha Farmstay (email them for info @ phongnhafarmstay@gmail.com) and his recommendation was spot on.  While it was slightly more than we normally would spend ($45 per night–expensive in Vietnam!) the luxurious bed (once again by Vietnam standards), waterfall shower, and welcome beer were the perfect way to start and end this crazy 2 day trek!  Fellow trekkers who couldn’t book at the farm due to their 2 night minimum stay policy stayed at the Lakehouse and their view when we picked them up had me a little jealous!

The Farmstay helped us arrange a taxi from the Dong Hoi airport out to the farm.  If they can fill it (which we find they often do as it puts money in their pocket!) it’s only $5.50 a person.

We got to the farm right as the sun was setting, enjoyed our welcome beer, did a handstand, order some Pho and downloaded a movie on their WiFi which was surprisingly very good before heading to bed.

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

View of the Phong Nha rice paddies from the Farm

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

The Farm is owned by Ben, an Australian who came to Vietnam 11 years ago.  He married a local and her family is from Phong Nha.  Motorbiking up or down the coast of Vietnam is a bucket list thing to do for many visitors to Vietnam.  The farm started when Ben (the friendly Aussie he is) started inviting bikers back to his house for a cold beer when they stopped through Phong Nha.

Over time his generosity spread and the family said he couldn’t keep bringing nomads home.  So the farm was born.  Apparently it’s popularity spread word of mouth and the place keeps expanding.

Anyways back to to the caves:

We were hoping to do the Hang En cave where you sleep inside the enormous cave on the bank of a river, by alas that trip wasn’t running the day we were in town.  Instead we chose to do the 2 day Tu Lan Caving Encounter which actually has more cave exploration.

Our tour started at 8am.  With a belly full of eggs and Pho, we were picked up by Oxalis.  Stopping a couple more times, we picked up our fellow cavers to round out our group of 8.  The drive from Phong Nha to the trail head is a gorgeous drive with beautiful limestone cliffs jetting out of the ground.  We haven’t been to Ha Long Bay yet, but from pictures I’ve seen I can only describe the landscape of Phong Nha as the land version.

Arriving at the office we were outfitted with rubber and cotton trekking boots and dry bag backpacks, debriefed on the next 2 days, and we were off stomping through a muddy field toward the caves.

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

View from the Oxalis office

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

More from the Oxalis Office

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

Final Vantage point from Oxalis

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

Tom Warm and dry and ready to set off

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

A clean shot of the group

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

Women hauling farming supplies back to town. We were informed by Bih that the woman do all the work in town including caring for and educating the kids, cooking and cleaning, and farming the land. The men hunt and eat 😉

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

Water Buffalo. One of the most dangerous animals in Africa surprisingly roam the fields unchained in Vietnam

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Our first river crossing came about 45 min into the trek and from there on it was a couple days of being muddy, wet, cold, and in awe.

Stopping briefly for lunch at the Hung Ton Cave opening, we finished our trek through the jungle around 3pm, unloaded our gear and set off to explore the first cave of the trip, Ken Cave.

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

The view at our campsite of the waterfall exiting Hang Kim

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

Our Porters were cooking our dinner when we arrived.

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
It was pretty fun swimming into the cave, but I was pretty excited to run back to camp, take off my water logged boots, put on some dry clothes and drink rice wine by the fire.

Dinner that night was a grand feast and maybe the highlight of the trip.  We went to bed early and soon enough we were up for day 2.
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

The day started with a yummy soup breakfast and before you knew it we were hopping back into the river to begin a day of swimming and trekking through 3 more caves, Tu Lan, Hang Kim, and Hung Ton.
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave SystemPhong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

Upon exiting the cave, you head back along the muddy trail to the Oxalis office to shower up before having a quick dinner of Pho Bo in the local village before heading back to to Phong Nha.

Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System
Phong Nha- Tu Lan Cave SystemPhong Nha- Tu Lan Cave System

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t ready for the trip to end, but it definitely was an amazing experience.  Tom called it the ruck march from hell (maybe that’s because we decided to only take 1 backpack and he was carrying all our stuff–thanks Tommy!)  Despite having no gear other than our camera, I don’t think he was far off.  Granted we probably chose the worst time of year to do this trek.  I imagine swimming through caves is a lot more fun when it’s 90 degrees outside rather than the high 50’s.  I can say the scenery was spectacular and Oxalis is a world class tour group.  Our guide Bih was amazingly friendly!  I’ve never had someone offer to take my picture so many times.  We also had an amazing group to go with.  I really enjoyed chatting with all of my fellow trekker about their travels and homes.  🙂

We may also be getting a little snobby with our caves.  In terms of what we’ve seen, the caves of Belize were far more impressive and Crystal Cave in the Philippines is probably still Tom’s favorite cave for how technical it was to maneuver through and so far the price with a guide can’t be beat.  The New Zealand caves also deserve honorable mention since you can navigate them without a  guide.  🙂

What did you think of our time in Phong Nha?  Would you brave the cave trek? 

Leave us a comment below and let us know what you think!

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