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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.