Adventures in Caving, Part 1: Tu Lan Caves

Part 1 of 2 on caving in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, Vietnam.

Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past year or two, you’ve probably heard of Hang Sơn Đoòng, the largest cave in the world.  If you’ve got $3,000 and can wait until at least 2015 for a spot to open up, you just might be able to check it out.

Unfortunately for us, $3,000/pp would put a huge dent in our budget, and we are here now, not 2015.

Enter: Hang En.  Hang En is the gateway to Sơn Đoòng – you must pass through it to get there, and the six-day Sơn Đoòng trek with Oxalis (currently the only licensed tour operator for the cave) has you camping in Hang En on both the first and last day.

At $285/pp for a two-day trek, the Hang En adventure with Oxalis is a steal.

But, even that was steep for our $50/day budget, so we initially decided to forgo it in favor of a one-day tour of the nearby Tu Lan caves.  Then, we caught a presentation on Sơn Đoòng and Hang En by Howard Limbert, Technical Advisor at Oxalis, and found ourselves signed up for both the Tu Lan and Hang En treks – three straight days of caving.

Let the fun begin.

The Tu Lan cave system, discovered in 2009, is composed of eight caves (and counting) located 70 km northwest of the town of Phong Nha, near Vietnam’s border with Laos.  Several caves were discovered just last year, so Tu Lan is still very much a frontier – a rarity in today’s rapidly developing world.

Our trek started bright and early, with pick-up at our hotel at 7:30 a.m.  We arrived shortly thereafter at Oxalis HQ and met up with our our fellow trekkers – 12 in all.  They hailed from Romania, Slovenia, Thailand (though Aussie by birth), the Netherlands (one native, one American by birth), Canada, and Ireland.  Plus, we had our Vietnamese guide and two porters. It was a melting pot of a group.

The danger with a group of this size is that it is often slower moving and can be hard for one guide to manage.  One straggler can hold up the entire group, which can be not only annoying for everyone else (or guilt-inducing if you are said straggler) but also, and more importantly, dangerous, e.g. nightfall draws near and you are not provisioned to camp (we weren’t) with a lot of ground to cover (we did).

Thus, my first reaction to the group size was that it was too large.  In retrospect, I feel very lucky to have had the group we did. While there were both fast walkers and slower walkers, we managed to stay pretty cohesive, in no small part thanks to our great guide, Bamboo.  What’s more, they were all fantastically lovely people – different backgrounds, interesting travel stories, jovial, and kind – the type of people you feel sad to say goodbye to, even though you’ve known them less than 12 hours.

Back at Oxalis, we had a quick trip orientation with Bamboo, and then got geared up: helmet, life jacket, and “trekking” shoes. A word on the trekking shoes – scratch that, a photo may better paint the picture.  Did you take one look at those things and think, “Those?  For caving???  No way.”  Me too.

They are described by Oxalis as “Cambodian army boots” – what I saw was a pair of high-top Converse, Chuck Taylors with lug soles.  I had reservations, as did everyone else judging by the looks exchanged, about this footwear’s performance in mud, rivers, and caves, but your only other choice is to wear your own shoes and get them soaking wet.  Cambodian Chuck Taylors it is!

Loaded with gear, we squeezed into a minivan and spent the next hour careening around twisty mountain roads toward our starting point, getting to know one another a bit.  Heads spinning from the ride, we stumbled out of the van and put on our gear, creating quite a scene in our bright orange helmets and neon life jackets, pants tucked into our boots.

If you haven’t hiked in a life jacket, I highly recommend it.  You will look like an idiot and will have a blast doing so.

We set off down a small road used by local farmers into the misty jungle, surrounded by towering limestone peaks, greenery dripping off the mountains.  Huge trees, small bushes, vines, and moss cling to every inch and crevice of the rock.  I feel trite even writing this – words can’t describe it, and even pictures don’t do it justice.  It is some of the most beautiful land I have ever seen.

After about 45 minutes of flat, easy walking, we had our first river crossing and put our Cambodian Chuck Taylors to the test. Verdict?  These babies were surprisingly comfortable, drained pretty well, and had much more traction than I would have guessed in the water, mud, and on slick rocks.  Color me pleasantly surprised. Tu Lan Caves Collage 1

After scrambling over a ridge and some big boulders slick with mud, we arrived at the mouth of Rat Cave.  Like most caves, the Tu Lan cave system formed over millions of years as a weak acid (created when rain mixes with CO2 in the air and then further draws out CO2 in the soil) slowly dissolved the calcite in the rock, eventually eating away at enough of the rock to form a cave.  If you want to know more about how caves form, get your science on here and here.

We donned our headlamps, roped in, and descended via ladder into the darkness below, passing some very big spiders along the way.

The Tu Lan caves are known for their beautiful stalactites (formed as water drips off the cave ceiling), stalagmites (formed on the ground when water drips off the cave ceiling), and flows (stalactites and stalagmites that have married).  They do not disappoint, and we spent most of our time in this cave stumbling around in awe of these glittery, ancient formations.  Sadly, our photographs just couldn’t capture it – too much darkness.

Eventually, the day called us forward, and it was time to swim through the cave.  Yes, swim.

While this was massively exciting (when will we get to swim in caves for fun again?), there was quite a bit of trepidation in the chilly air as everyone stripped down to their bottom layers and/or swimsuits and prepared for what was going to be an icy dip.

In the summer months, I can imagine doing this swim over and over again, lingering in the water inside the cave until the guide drags you out.  But this is January, when both water and air temperatures hover in the mid-50s.  Not so much.

We eventually plunged in, H.J. cursing me for being the last one and putting him through the anxious torture of watching everyone else react to the cold.

At first, it didn’t feel that bad…then the water got under the life jacket, and everything changed.  The swim was maybe 200 meters, and it took about half of that distance to get my limbs warmed up and properly responding to my brain’s wishes.  All the while, I could hear H paddling behind me, unaware that he was grunting like a wild boar from the cold.  I so wish I could have recorded it.

Thankfully, the swim was a matter of minutes, and there was a warm fire to greet us as we emerged from the cave dripping wet.

After changing into dry clothes, we were treated to an amazing picnic spread from our porters: DIY fresh spring rolls with grilled pork, fruit, sticky rice cakes filled w/ mung bean and pork, and coffee.  All this while enjoying a little pocket of paradise: water rushing out of the cave, emptying into a deep blue pool ringed by green mountains.  It’s impossible to not feel completely happy in this place.

Alas, the time came when we had to hit the trail – we still had one more cave to explore before the day’s end, plus our trek back to the pick-up point.  Thankfully, no swim this time: up and over the cave we went.  It was not the easiest of climbs and involved a fair amount of slogging through the mud, but our not so little group did great despite the fact that some had very little hiking experience.

By the time we reached Porcupine Cave, it was late in the afternoon, and I was pretty tired from the day.  The only thing that stands out to me about this cave is that it serves as a passageway through the mountains for local villagers, who use it to move both people and goods, including massive trees they cut down in the jungle for use in the village.  This traffic has caused considerable damage to the cave formations, and you could see the evidence everywhere in broken stalactites and stalagmites.  Rat trumps Porcupine, for sure.

Tu Lan Girls Collage 1As we made our way back to our pick-up point, we came across some young girls from the village, who couldn’t have been more than 10-12 years old, carrying back-breaking loads of plants (easily 60+ lbs).  The two Romanian guys on our trip, who were some of the most caring and gallant people I have ever met, would not let this stand, and soon they and H.J. were tromping off down the road carrying the girls’ loads.

The girls, meanwhile, made fast friends with the Irish lass in our group – they absolutely adored her and giggled all the way home.  I didn’t think I could get happier than I was during our picnic that afternoon, but then there was this.

We all toasted the day with a cold beverage back at the van, changed into blissfully dry shoes (and clothes for some), and piled in for the long, winding ride home.  After enjoying dinner with the Romanians and Dutch, who were staying at our hotel, it was all we could do to shower, set aside gear for the two-day trek to Hang En, and pack up the rest of our stuff (to be moved to a new room after our trek concluded) before passing out.  I am still shocked we pulled this off given how dog-tired we were.

While I wish we had a day of rest in between the treks (if you do multiple treks, I highly recommend this), there was no way we were going to skip Hang En.  Ok … we may have contemplated it briefly but decided we would regret it forever if we bailed.  That was the right call.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Adventures in Caving: Hang En.  Or as I like to call it, the great tease.

Peace, love, and happiness –




15 Responses

  1. Natasha
    | Reply

    This sounds amazing, although I don’t know if I could swim in that cold water! Living in El Salvador has thinned my blood a lot and now I need some kind of light sweater/pashmina if temperatures dip below 75. Looking forward to reading part 2!

    • courtneyderr
      | Reply

      Honestly, the anticipation is SO much worse than the real thing. The dry clothes for after, though, were absolutely key. Those who didn’t bring them were in a world of hurt.

      You’d be a perfect fit in Vietnam. It’s been in the 70’s here in Hanoi, and everyone is walking dressed for 40 degrees!

  2. […] Hang En is a worthy cave in its own right: enormous and stunningly beautiful.  And, as I said in Part 1 on our caving adventures in Phong Nha–Kẻ Bàng National Park, the Hang En trek is a steal at $285 and is still accepting trekkers unlike Sơn Đoòng, which […]

  3. […] Aside from Hang En, there are plenty of other caves in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, some of which you can see on your own. Oxalis also offers one- to four-day treks to the Tu Lan Caves — read about the one-day trek here. […]

  4. Son Doong On the Cheap
    | Reply

    […] Aside from Hang En, there are plenty of other caves in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, some of which you can see on your own. Oxalis also offers one- to four-day treks to the Tu Lan Caves — read about the one-day trek here. […]

  5. […] Aside from Hang En, there are plenty of other caves in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, some of which you can see on your own. Oxalis also offers one- to four-day treks to the Tu Lan Caves — read about the one-day trek here. […]

  6. […] Aside from Hang En, there are plenty of other caves in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, some of which you can see on your own. Oxalis also offers one- to four-day treks to the Tu Lan Caves – read about the one-day trek here. […]

  7. Dee
    | Reply

    Seems to fall within the ‘makeup bag’ question, but aside from the recommended packing list noted on Oxalis and personal preferences, any additional clothing advice?
    Currently really stoked about my trip in April. Reading everything i can get my hands on, your great blog included. Suffice to say, I’am now more than excited for the food.


    • Courtney Derr
      | Reply

      Hi Dee – Excited for you and your trip! We went in January, and it was pretty cold. I imagine it would be warmer in April, but I’d bring a few layers and a rain shell just in case. Also, be sure to bring a dry set of clothes, socks, and shoes to change into after you’re done wading through water. As for gear, I’d bring your own headlamp (Oxalis’ kind of suck), TP, and water (they are really stingy on water, and I am a camel!). We also brought a Leatherman, lighter, spare batteries, a basic first aid kit, snacks, and water purifier (SteriPEN). This stuff is optional, but our rule of thumb is to be prepared to survive on our own should anything go terribly wrong (i.e. another client or the guide gets injured, dies, whatever). Chances are slim, but “always be prepared” is a motto for reason. Let me know if you have anymore questions, and have a great time!

  8. Margaret
    | Reply

    Hi Courtney,

    Thanks for sharing your trip!
    A friend and I are hoping/planning to go in mid-late November. Apparently Tu Lan will be the only cave open because central Vietnam floods in Sep-Nov.

    Anyway, I was wondering what camera you used to document this trip, given that there are so many opportunities to drop it in the water!


    • Courtney Derr
      | Reply

      Hi Margaret – You will certainly be there during a rainy time! Pack lots of warm layers.

      Regarding the camera, we used a Canon 7D. It’s definitely a bit of a risk to have an expensive camera with all the water around, so we used a camera clip from peak design. It fastens right to your backpack strap so you have easy access, but it won’t swing around and hit stuff as you climb about. Of course, there is a still a danger of dropping it in the water when you take it off the clip, so you’ll have to decide if it’s right for you.

      If you’re in the market for a cheaper camera, consider the Panasonic LUMIX. It’s a point-and-shoot that captures RAW images (crucial if you’re going to be doing a lot of post-processing) and has a respectable at 18 megapixels. It also has a larger zoom function than most point-and-shoots as well as some cool features like the built-in GPS which tags your photos in real time so you can know where each shot was taken.

      Hope that helps, and have a wonderful trip!

  9. Chris Baldwin
    | Reply

    Hi Courtney,

    Great posts – entertaining, comical, and extremely informative. From doing several days of research in anticipation of my trip in November, these have, by far, been the most helpful. Thank you.

    One question which I’m struggling with, though, is in regards to prioritizing cave excursions given a limited amount of time. I’m looking to dedicate 3 nights in the region, but can’t decide which route/s to do – Hang En, Hang Ken, Tu Lan, Paradise Cave, or another one in the area. Any recommendations or ranking?

    I’m leaning towards doing an overnight for one excursion (Hang En?) and a full day trip for another, but am struggling. Any thoughts or pointers would be helpful. Thanks in advance.

    Chris, NYC

    • Courtney Derr
      | Reply

      Hey Chris – thanks for the kind words, and very glad to hear our advice is helpful! There is scant good tourist information available on rural Vietnam (if you end up going way north along the Chinese border, you’re pretty much on your own).

      I’ve answered your question quite a bit via email, so I’m glad to finally address it on the blog. I definitely vote for Hang En. It’s just the experience of a lifetime – the kind where you just keep saying how unbelievable it is over and over again. Given that there has been talk of putting a cable car in for tourists, that could all change very soon. Now is the time.

      One caveat: if you can, book a private expedition or at least insist on meeting the people you are trekking with beforehand. We ended up having an absolutely insufferable (and more importantly, inexperienced) person placed with us. It makes for a good story now, but she didn’t have the appropriate experience or fitness level, which caused minor problems that could have easily been major ones. Trust me when I say that if you are in need of rescue or serious medical care out there, you are in deep shit.

      For your remaining day, you could do the Tu Lan one-day or do the cheesy thing in Paradise (the Farmstay runs a very popular one-day tour). Tu Lan is cool but not worth the $$ in my opinion, especially after Hang En. Though the caves are amazing, I recommend renting a bicycle and pedaling around the countryside (you can do it yourself or the Farmstay also offers a bicycle tour, which sounds pretty fun). It is a truly magical place with lovely, warm people.

      Hope this helps, and please let me know if you have further questions. We spent 4 months exploring Vietnam bottom to top, so happy to offer advice if you’re going elsewhere in the country.

      P.S. See my notes in both the post and comments section on packing, especially if you are going in the winter.

  10. Chris Baldwin
    | Reply

    Super helpful…again.

    I will email you about a few remaining questions (unrelated to this article). Thanks!

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