Tu Lan Cave Trek

The view as we left Tan Hoa village and the river we had to traverse early on in our trek.

We floated our way towards the black opening set in the side of the karst mountain. The entrance resembled the gaping mouth of a shark waiting to swallow its prey as we closed in on the jagged stalactites dropping from the cavern’s ceiling. Our adrenalin began pumping as the river brought us from the jungle to inside the mystic and eerie slit in the limestone. Darkness surrounded us and soon we were completely engulfed by the cave. The gallery was huge and our voices echoed off the walls as we called out in awe at the formations lit up by our powerful headlamps. We were deep in the caves of Tu Lan, and it was phenomenal!

Tu Lan Cave Tour

Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park in Central Vietnam has quickly gained fame as being the home of the world’s largest cave, Hang Son Doong. Across the entire park there is over 300 caves, with many of these yet to be surveyed. There is even speculation that the enormity of Hang Son Doong may be surpassed by another cave in the region that has not been discovered yet. For now, only a handful of these caves are open to the public, and many of the best ones require trekking and camping through the jungle to explore.

We left the town of Phong Nha after a much-loved stay and stopped off in the village of Tan Hoa to check out one of the expeditions on offer by the sustainable adventure tour company, Oxalis. A two day, one night trek to check out some of the caves in the Tu Lan system, actually outside of the national park boundaries. We jumped at the opportunity to be on board and were lucky enough to be put on the first mission of the season, even before the official opening date.

For the two days we trekked 12km through wild jungles and traversed fast flowing rivers. We gingerly stepped across man-made bridges and scrambled our way through ancient rockfalls. All in all we ventured through the mysterious world of four different caves: Hung Ton, Hang Kim, Tu Lan and Hang Ken. We slept in hammocks at the base of cascading waterfalls and swam through caverns that surrounded us like huge cathedrals.

The adventure of exploring the Tu Lan caves became one of the favourite memories of our epic travels so far. Stepping back out of the jungle and into civilisation was hard, and left us longing for more. We will no doubt be back to the town of Phong Nha to discover the rest of the caves in the Tu Lan cave system, and throughout the national park.

Jazza Hiking Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

Jazza beginning the 6km trek on day 1.

Tan Hoa Village View Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

The views that greeted us as we left Tan Hoa village. Working farmland and limestone mountains surrounded us.

Muddy Feet Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

Even though we tried for the first 30 minutes to keep our feet dry, we eventually realised that it was futile. We trekked through the mud and got used to our feet (and rest of our bodies) being soaked for the remainder of the tour.

Crossing Creek Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

One of the rivers we had to walk through to reach the Hung Ton Valley. In the flood season this small creek turns into a raging torrent, with water levels rising to over 10m above where they are now.

Hung Ton Valley Jazza Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

Jazza taking in the view over the valley from the entrance of Hung Ton cave, where we had lunch on our first day.

Timber Ladder Hung Ton Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

The timber ladder we descended to reach the bottom level in Hung Ton. For this section Dzung, our guide, secured us by rope to an anchor point in the limestone at the top to help ensure our safety.

Snail Fossil Hung Ton Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

The ancient fossil of a sea snail embedded in the limestone – giving a clue as to the age and origins of the cave system.

Hung Ton River Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

As we emerged from Hung Ton we found ourselves at a wide point of the river, completely engulfed by cliffs and jungle. The only way out was through the next cave, Hang Kim.

Hang Kim Climbing Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

Inside Hang Kim some sections got quite tight and treacherous. Discovered by a Dutch tourist only a few years ago, you now crawl your way through Hang Kim to get to the campsite. One false move could end in disaster as you carefully make your way down the jagged rocks.

Waterfall Campsite Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

When we made it to the campsite we were greeted by the fast-flowing river and cascading waterfalls coming from Hang Ken. This would be our campsite for the night, beneath the towering cliffs.

Hammock Camping Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

Our comfortable hammocks, complete with mosquito net and tarpaulin shelter, which would be our sleeping quarters for the night. After a full day’s trekking and caving we were passed out within moments of laying down.

Chef Breakfast Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

In the morning we had breakfast deliciously prepared for us by our chef and porters. This is Toan from the Tan Hoa village, cooking up our feast for us.

Hang Ken Mouth Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

Looking back at the mouth of the cave in Hang Ken as we made our way inside the limestone gallery.

Hang Ken Mouth Cave Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

One entrance of the incredible Hang Ken cave. Imposing and eerie, it managed to both warrant exploration and insist trepidation. Inside is where the 2011 National Geographic award winning shot of a limestone column was captured. Tried as we might, we of course couldn’t duplicate it.

Lesh Ladder Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

Earlier on this day the staff from Oxalis had rebuilt this bridge to traverse across a gaping hole in the rocks. We were the first guests to try it out, and luckily it held strong.

Lesh Valley Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

Lesh bashing her way through the overgrown Hung Ton valley on our way back to Tan Hoa.

Jazza Trekking Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

Jazza using a broken log as a platform to aid climbing onto the next section of path. When in the jungle you sometimes have to improvise to make your way through safely.

Farmland View Tu Lan Caves Oxalis Expedition

Finally exiting the valley and staring out over the farmland, taking us back to Tan Hoa village. After 12km, four caves and a huge amount of adventure this moment marked the final leg of our Tu Lan caving expedition.

Alesha And Jarryd

Hey! We are Alesha and Jarryd, the award winning writers and photographers behind this blog, and we have been travelling the world together since 2008. Adventure travel is our passion, and through our stories and images we promote exciting off-the-beaten-path destinations and fascinating cultures as we go. Follow our journey in real time on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

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