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.

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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.

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

All photos in this blog post by Anna Baldwin.

We hate to say we told you so about the Son Doong Cave experience…

With tours selling out a year in advance, the popularity of Vietnam’s Son Doong Cave is undeniable. 2014 is already booked up and there are only a few spots left for 2015…

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Only recently opened up to the public, Vietnam’s largest cave system  is garnering its fair share of attention. After meeting with Oxalis Adventure Tours, Operations Manager Anna was excited to add the caving experience to our repertoire (and her own bucket list).

It would seems we aren’t the only one dying to catch a glimpse of these caves as Vietnam’s tourism authority has announced that the tours have been fully booked for 2014 with much of 2015 booked as well.

Oxalis is currently the sole tour operator with permission to offer treks into the cave, though the local government is reported to be considering allowing others soon.

In September the rainy season starts in Quang Binh, where the caves are located, and the tours must take a break. The local government and Oxalis will discuss later this year if they should open more tours in the years to come given the huge demand.

If Son Doong Cave experience is something that piques your interest don’t delay! Let us build your Vietnam itinerary around this incredible experience.

Vietnam Bucket List

It’s that time of year again! With the madness of high season finally passed and the rains bringing a slower pace, it is finally time to reflect. Having already seen much of Vietnam on the job, including the mystical Halong Bay with her parents, Operations Manager Anna shares what is left of her personal Vietnam bucket list…

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I can’t believe a whole year has gone by since our big Guide Training adventure, which took me and Andrea through some of Southeast Asia’s most beautiful and exciting regions, visiting our amazing teams in the different cities, and giving us the chance to not only refresh our memories but introduce ourselves to some of the area’s more hidden gems.

Looking back on this great journey, naturally I can only start to think about all the other amazing places I have yet to explore in this beautiful part of the world!

The list is long and ever growing so for today I’ll focus my dreams on just one of my gorgeous neighboring countries. Here is my compressed Vietnam Bucket List.

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Mekong Delta

Honestly, I am ashamed to admit that this has not been crossed off the list yet. Vietnam’s “rice basket” is without a doubt one of the biggest must-sees in the area, and one which so often slips through due to limited travel schedules.

From floating markets and fish farms, to bicycle rides and sunset cruises, the variety of sights and activities in the area is endless. A long day trip from Saigon is possible to give you a good introduction, but for those who can stretch out their time a little bit more can immerse themselves in this one-of-a-kind environment. You can take a few days to get lost in this agricultural labyrinth of paddy fields and marshlands, Travel on a rice barge, experience true Vietnamese hospitality by staying in the home of a local family, and you can even travel all the way down the Mekong to Cambodia! For those who have the time, this is much more fun than flying. Check out our sample itinerary here.

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Phu Quoc Island

For me, one of the many highlights of living in Southeast Asia is having access to some of the most stunning beaches and seascapes in the world. With its neighbor Thailand hogging most of the sandy spotlight, Vietnam has until recently avoided many of the international crowds, leaving much of its 3400km-long coastline open to only local tourists and developers.

The hunt for that “secluded spot” is more in demand than ever before, and with international interest growing, these beaches won’t stay secret for much longer.

Top of my list – Phu Quoc. Spotted with plantation and rimmed with gorgeous sandy beaches, this Island off the southern coast of Vietnam still has that unspoiled feel. Bai Khem is rumoured to be the island’s prettiest beach. November to March is the best time to visit, when the sunny skies dominate and temperatures hover around 25-28 Celsius. That being said April – June can offer less crowds, cheaper prices and fairly good odds of reasonable weather.

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Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park

Saving the best til last – the magnificent and magical Son Doong Cave! It is no secret that the caves of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park (located near the Laos border) are pretty much the most exciting geographical discovery in Vietnam’s recent exploratory history. Now claiming to hold the “largest cave passage in the world”, this area is only now just opening up to the public with a strict limit on the number of visitors it will allow in per year. Having grown up with a strong interest in geology, and generally just associating the word “cave” with the word “explorer”, this has been top of my Travel Bucket List ever since it came to light. Read more about these stunning formations here.