After some city sightseeing and a rather comfortable way of travelling in the past few weeks, I had the urgent need for some action and adventure again. And it did not take me long to find something suitable. The mountains and cave systems around Phong Nha have been in my mind for quite a while, so I booked a 4 day tour named Tu Lan Expedition which consisted of jungle trekking and more important, exploring some of the many caves in the area.
Compared to other caves I have visited on this trip, the caves around Phong Nha were discovered only recently and most of them are completely undeveloped and remote. Many of the caves are only reachable on foot by walking for hours through the jungle. It sounds like a perfect adventure to me.
Preparations for the Expedition
Because the Tu Lan Expedition was a spontaneous decision, I still needed to arrange a few things such as proper socks, long pants, and a sweater before leaving Hanoi. As we only returned at 17:30 from the Halong Bay cruise, I had around 3 hours to do so. Also, I needed to organize a tripod, as taking handheld pictures in caves is basically impossible. However, I did not have enough time for everything, so I needed to organize a tripod in Phong Nha.
Getting to Phong Nha
There is a night bus from Hanoi directly to Phong Nha, however, as I won’t sleep much during the expedition, I preferred flying into Dong Hoi and take a short taxi ride to Phong Nha. After some negotiation with the taxi driver and a 45 minute ride, I arrived in Phong Nha at noon, so I had half a day available for getting everything ready, as the tour started at 7:30 the next morning.
Day 1: Leaving Civilization
Phong Nha is only the gateway to the caves. After being picked up in the morning, we drove around 75 minutes into the mountains to a small rural village where we got equipped with everything we need for the coming four days and repacked our backpacks into supposedly waterproof PVC bags, which as we were explained were not waterproof anymore due to various holes. Luckily I had two dry bags with me to keep my photographic equipment and clothes dry at any time.
After packing and a short instruction session, our group of three left the village and started walking for about an hour through rice fields and other agricultural land. At the end of the valley, we reached the mountains and our first river crossing took place. After the crossing we climbed up steep to visit the first cave on the tour named Secret Cave. It was not a very tall cave, but beautifully decorated with limestone formations and some very narrow passages to squeeze ourselves through. Being tall did not give me a big advantage.
After exiting Secret Cave, we had a quick lunch at the cave entrance and then continued through the jungle for another two hours to reach our camp where we would spend the night that day. After depositing our bags and only packing the most important things, we started exploring Ken Cave, which is a so-called wet cave, meaning that it is partially filled with water. It was time for us to put on our life jackets and jump into the cool water at the cave entrance. After swimming around 200m into the cave, we climbed out of the water and explored it as well. It is really a very special feeling swimming inside a cave where your only source of light is your caving lamp attached to your helmet, but at the same time very refreshing, as the trekking in the jungle made us sweat constantly.
At the exit of Ken Cave, there was even a small waterfall where we could jump down and swim across the lagoon to our camp where the chef already prepared a nice and filling dinner for us. After eating and chatting with the guide and his team, we went to inside our tents at the camp and tried to get at least a few hours of sleep. I am glad I brought along some earplugs, because the frogs and the other animals in the jungle plus the waterfall nearby made quite some noise.
Day 2: Three More Caves
The next morning started with a big breakfast and a thunderstorm which hit us quite by surprise, as the weather forecast did not predict any rain for the four days. Luckily the rain stopped right when we started off from the camp, but the rain made many of the paths very muddy, as we discovered later during the day.
The first cave we visited on day 2 of our Tu Lan Expedition was the one that gave the expedition its name: Tu Lan Cave. We entered the cave through its upper entrance on foot and made our way to a 15m high rock wall, from where we put on climbing gear and used a rope to go down the wall and landing directly on a floss that was waiting for us below as the lower part of the cave was filled with water. Once everybody made it down the rope, we rowed slowly out of the cave and back to last night’s camp, where we picked up our bags and continued trekking through the jungle. This was another exiting way of seeing a cave, especially the abseiling in the complete dark was thrilling.
After a while of hiking, we reached Kim Cave, which we also entered on the dry side and used it to go under a mountain to reach our lunch site, a lagoon in the middle of the mountains. While the cave was not that special compared to what we have seen so far, the lagoon surrounded by jungle was wonderful. Unfortunately there were two other tour groups there, so it was not as idyllic as it could have been, but that’s complaining on a high level.
The last cave for today started on the other side of the lagoon and was named Ton Cave. It was another cave that we entered through its wet entrance and swam through it for a while, and then exited on the other side of the mountain again. The height of this cave was truly impressive, especially in the dry part where we had to climb a long ladder to make it to the upper exit.
After exiting the cave, we were hit by the hot temperatures outside and walked for two exhausting hours through deep mud over two mountains until we finally reached our next camp for the night. The program there was the same: After another excellent dinner that the chef prepared for the group, he also cooked another dish with frogs and some sauce for the tour guide and his helpers. I was offered some as well, but as I already had plenty of dinner before, I happily passed on that meal, even though the frog meat, when cooked, looked no different from chicked.
Day 3: A Full Day of Trekking
Day 3 turned out to be the toughest day of the Tu Lan Expedition. There was no cave to visit, but we had to cross several mountains to reach the caves that we would visit on day 4. And the weather was as hot and humid as it could be, in addition, the path was very muddy and slippery again. Luckily there was a river every now and then where we could refresh and cool ourselves down.
While the first half of the day, the scenery was not too special, the second half was very exciting, especially when climbing the last two of the mountains through dense and pristine rainforest, listening to the sounds of the rivers and the birds. But after a long day of hiking, we were all glad to arrive at our camp for the last night, where the guide and his team surprised us with cold beer and ice that they carried it from the village.
The camp that night was the most beautiful of the three we visited, and probably one of the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. The river that flows next to the camp exits the mountain from an underground cave system that belongs to Tu Lan Cave that we visited the other day just a few meters away. Directly at the river mouth there is also a beautiful lagoon for swimming, which was perfect after an exhausting trekking day.
Last but not least, it was almost full moon that night, and anyway I was not in a sleeping mood. While everybody incl. the guides went to their tents at 9, I grabbed the tripod I could borrow from Jacey, the Vietnamese tour member, and took pictures of the lagoon in the moonlight.
Day 4: Two Giant Caves for the End
After a night with not so much sleep and again a filling breakfast, we started climbing for about 20 minutes up to the giant entrance of Tien 1 Cave. The entrance way more than 100 m high, and the volume of the whole cave was really stunning. We walked deep into the cave, and the sounds all the water flowing below us was very impressive. There is also a subterranean lake in one of the corners of the cave, and sharp rocks in all formations that have been carved by water over millions of years all over. In the middle of the cave, we used a so-called flying fox to cross part of the cave, and then climbed up to one of the upper exits of Tien 1 Cave where we were greeted by the humid jungle heat.
After another 15 minutes of intense jungle trekking and climbing, we reached Tien 2 Cave that has only been discovered recently. As the entrance is very small, the cold air from the cave channels and there is a strong wind coming out of the exit. But the phenomenon only lasts for a few meters, once the cave is wider again, no wind can be felt. Tien 2 Cave seems not much smaller than Tien 1, but has much nicer rock formations. Some of the stalactites are up to 100 m tall, and the ground is made out of sand terraces, formed by the water that flows through the cave during the wet season.
After visiting these two huge and impressive caves, we went back to last night’s camp and had a last excellent lunch there before hiking another hour through dense rainforest to reach the road from where a car brought us back to the beginning of the adventure.
In the evening, the whole group incl. Dai, our guide, had dinner together and enjoyed the comfort of a shower and a decent bed.
An Incredible Experience
It was really wonderful to be out in nature, completely off the grid without phone reception and the big tourist masses. It is a privilege visiting these caves that are still in its original undeveloped state and hopefully will remain like this for future generations. What made the adventure so special is that I really had to earn it, but got rewarded again and again with countless impressions, be it with the vegetation, the mountainous scenery, the dimensions of the caves, or the kindness of the local people who make such an expedition possible at all. But now I need a few days of recovery and am heading to Hue, where I will reunite with Ilinca and spend a few calmer days at the seaside.