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Vietnam caving adventures: The underground world of the Phong Nha cave system

A few years ago the Son Doong and Tu Lan Caves were discovered in central Vietnam and my bucket list got a new #1 must-do item.

This past August, those dreams became a reality and I boarded a flight to Saigon, Vietnam, followed by a connection to Dong Hoi and a short drive to Phong Nha, which serves as the home base for Oxalis Adventure Tours – the outfitter for my caving adventure.

Located five hours north of Hue in central Vietnam, the Phong Nha area is perhaps the most beautiful part of Vietnam I’ve seen yet. With rice paddies stretching out to the horizon, limestone cliffs stretching up to the sky, and rivers running through all of it, the views that first morning made my trip worthwhile all by themselves.

Phong Nha, Vietnam
The view from Phong Nha, Vietnam was worth the trip by itself.

In Phong Nha, I also met up with the lovely Anna Baldwin – our London-based Journeys Within Tour Consultant – who would be accompanying me on this adventure… An adventure that was about to get real!

Anna and I took a minibus to the Oxalis staging area and got the gear we would need for our next three days of exploring: hiking boots, headlamps and waterproof bags. Once we were all geared up we headed out through the rice paddies – getting strange looks from the spectating water buffalo along the way – towards the towering mountains in the distance and the amazing caverns hiding amidst their peaks.

Vietnam cave mouth near Phong Nha
Entering many of the caves in this system required a swim.

Our first underground experience in Secret Cave really brought to life this adventure and how grateful we should be to be there. Squeezing through small holes and then entering giant caverns, it felt like we had stepped into another world. And it was only the beginning.

Now, while this other world was indeed amazing, the journey through it didn’t happen without some effort. We trekked for much of the day, literally up and over a mountain – an experience that felt like a combination of a Stairmaster workout and Bikram yoga. I don’t think I’ve ever sweat so much in my life!

However, the reward was worth the effort when we trekked into camp that night and were greeted with a cool swim in a natural pool complete with a shower from the waterfall overhead. After an amazing meal cooked by our porters, we spent the night in hammocks, the brilliant sky framed by lush jungle foliage.

Caving in Vietnam
The size and diversity of the many caverns was something best witnessed first-hand.

The next day was dedicated to swimming… through caves! Many of the caves in the Tu Lan system can only be accessed by swimming and it was by far my favorite day… Floating in a pitch black cave as bats swoop over your head and your headlamp beam catches the shimmer of stalactites hanging above you is a surreal and magical experience.

We hiked and swam and felt like true explorers, and at the end of the day we once again arrived at a camp surrounded on one side by thick jungle and on the other a beautiful pool shadowed by towering limestone cliffs.

The last day was definitely the toughest – it started out hot and it didn’t cool down. We hiked up and over “Papa” Mountain and forded multiple rivers. We saw centipedes and snakes and again marveled at the underground worlds we entered and left.

As we crossed back over the rice paddies and past the sleeping buffalo in their mud holes, the entire experience felt like a surreal dream, only my bruises and sore muscles confirmed the reality of the amazing three-day experience.

Vietnam caving
Gazing out of one of the caves in the Tu Lan system.

All photos in this blog post by Anna Baldwin.

Ha Long Bay – Reflections on the Dragon’s Pearl Junk 3 Day Cruise

By Courtney Ridgel

Guests Julia Cuthbertson and Carlos Jimenez share their experience in Bai Tu Long Bay (the peaceful northern part of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, commonly overlooked by most visitors) while on their honeymoon:

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On board the Dragon’s Pearl Junk

I just wanted to emphasize that we LOVED our 2 night/3 day boat trip to Bai Tu Long Bay – amazing to be the only boat within sight for almost the entire time. The scenery was stunning and we really loved the boat itself – we expected the rooms to be as small, but we didn’t expect them (and the bathroom) to be so nice! I still think about our dinner in the cave our second night – so awesome!  I would highly encourage other travelers to do this tour.

For that matter, we thought our entire itinerary was perfect – we really thought it was the perfect mix of nature, city and temples. We actually have multiple friends and some family who are so amazed by our pictures that they want us to send them over all the details so they can do the same exact trip!

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Relaxing on the upper deck

Information about the Dragon’s Pearl Cruises: The Dragon’s Pearl Junk Cruise offers 2- and 3-day cruises, and includes delicious multiple-course meals. Admire the hundreds of fascinating rock formations rising from the emerald green water as you cruise through Bai Tu Long Bay. You’ll have the opportunity to visit a few of these islands, explore Thien Canh Son Cave, relax on the beach, swim, kayak or relax in the comfortable sun chairs on the top deck. You’ll also have the chance to visit the local floating village of Cong Dam that survives from fishing in Ha Long Bay and learn about their daily lives, the floating school and their fish farms.

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Our Cabin
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An arch in one of the many islands
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Julia and Carlos kayaking in Baid Tu Long Bay
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Kayaking into a cave
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A delicious dinner in Thien Canh Son Cave
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Bai Tu Long Bay
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The Dragon’s Pearl Junk