Upon arriving to Phong Nha, both of our jaws well and truly fell off the motorbike and hit the floor. The mountains that surrounded us were absolutely breathtaking as we rode into the entrance of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park.
We checked into our hotel and both had one thing on our minds... CAVING! We had researched and read tonnes of blogs about the different caving courses you could do in Phong Nha and had heard plenty of testimonials from travellers out here to back them up. We'd heard lots of good things about a company called Oxalis, so we decided to head down to their office and check out what they had on offer.
Nils (our German bestie), Jac and I went for the 3 day, 2 night Wild Tu Lan course, which cost a whopping 8,000,000VND per person (£248/$351). Jac and I exchanged a cheeky "oh my gosh" look to each other when the sum of 16 million VND came up on the card reader, just imagine see that coming up on a card reader back at home in British Pounds! (Card would be swiftly declined)
The Wild Tu Lan Adventure Tour sounded perfect for us. It was a 3 day, 2 night course that combined just the right amount of trekking, caving, climbing, squeezing and swimming, with the addition of two over-night camps , next to waterfalls in the jungle. Wow, right?! As if this didn't sound good enough, you get to explore a generous helping of 6 caves during the tour, one of which is exclusive to oxalis as a member of their team only recently discovered it in 2017. Another bonus was that we were going to be heading into Rat Cave, which is where some scenes from the movie "King Kong" were filmed.
Rat Cave, Ken Cave, Kim Cave, Hung Ton Cave, Song Oxalis Cave and Tu Lan Cave!
Super-excited with what we had just booked, we all had a read of the kit list to see what we would need. Word of advise if you are looking to book a caving tour - do not pay a lot of attention to this kit list. On it are things such as 2 long sleeve quick-dry t-shirts, 2 pairs of long trekking trousers, 3 pairs of long thick socks, 1 pair of hiking boots. On the course, I wore a pair of leggings, a vest top and a light cardigan as I didn't actually bring a long sleeve t-shirt away with me, and we didn't want to buy one from the extortionately priced trekking shop, conveniently located a few doors down from Oxalis. Jac wore a smart, cotton, white shirt (normally worn on nice occasions) and a pair of trekking trousers. Nils had a long sleeve shirt already, but no long trousers. As we only had one item of clothing that was long sleeved each, we were all running around like headless chickens the night before, scouring the market for long-sleeved t-shirts. Nils found some sort-of-trekking-type adidas trousers in the market, which actually looked really cool when he wore them. However, Jac and I found no tops, so thought we would just have to make do. When we were on the course, we realised how silly we were being trying to buy the extra clothes. The majority of the course did change their clothes every day, but the difference between them and us was that these people were on short holidays and had the budget to buy new items of clothing. However, Nils, Jac and I wore the same outfit every day and managed just fine. Our clothes were still soaked when we put them on again each morning, we smelt a little like stale water mixed with a hint of B.O... But it's OK, no one cared and we were all about to be in the same boat when we got into the water inside the cave. The clean, brand-new Under Armour hiking top that everybody had bought from the trekking shop next door was only going to get soaked like yesterday's new clothing, so we completely recommend just sucking it up and slapping your wet gear on from the day before! If anything, it was less washing and more money in our pocket when the course had finished!
The long sleeve t-shirt is needed because there is poisonous ivy along the trail in the jungle, although there isn't much of it, if touched it can cause serious itching and irritation for at least 7 days! (Jac joked that my nickname should be Poison Ivy, not sure why?!)
Hiking boots are definitely needed for the course, but Oxalis provide these for you! Under no circumstances do you want to bring your own, these will get super-muddy, soaked and will only be a pain for you to clean the next day. The boots provided by Oxalis are super-comfy and great for swimming as they have drainage holes in the side of the shoe.
The real kit list for the course should look a little bit more like this (below). Anything else you bring will be a bonus, but you can definitely do the course with the following:
1 long sleeved t-shirt (to cave in)
1 pair trousers/leggings (to cave in)
2 pairs long thick socks
1 t-shirt for evening
1 shorts/trousers for evening
1 jumper for nighttime as it gets cold
Underwear/toiletries (don't bring shampoo as you don't shower for the whole 3 days, mmmm!)
The Oxalis bus picked us up from our accommodation at 7:30am. Luckily, our hostel owner was so cute and let us leave our bike inside her hostel for the whole 3 days. She didn't speak any English, so we hoped she knew that's that was what we meant we hand-signed "moto - leave here??" The best we could. It was either that or she could have thought we were giving her our rented motorbike for free! Thank god she understood the first one!
We were introduced with everyone else on the bus by our amazing tour guide Canh. There were such a great mix of people on the course; overall, there were three from Germany, three from Vietnam, two from Australia and us two from England.
We drove for around 2 hours until we reached a little village called Tan Hoa. The Oxalis office space was amazing, fully equipped with briefing spaces, an onsite restaurant and with, what we think, were the best showers in the world, especially after a long weekend caving!
They issued us all with kit here, supplying us with caving boots and issuing individual waterproof bags for everyone. Although saying that, they weren't the least bit waterproof and anything in them came out sopping wet after 2 minutes of swimming in the caves, if you have anything valuable - TOP ADVICE - bring your own! We ended up buying a waterproof bag from the fancy trekking shop next door to Oxalis for 350,000 VND, after having originally turning down an offer of 300,000VND in Hue, thinking we could have got it cheaper in Phong Nha.
After sorting out all our kit and dividing what we would carry ourselves and what the porters would carry (God bless these men), we went through the safety briefing as a team with a coffee.
After the safety briefing, we set off for our first cave, bags packed and more than ready for the next 3 days ahead. We trekked 2.5km to the Rao Nan River, we crossed the river and made our way into the first cave - Rat Cave! We went into the massive entrance of the cave, which was pretty cool as it's where they recorded scenes for King Kong- Skull Island. Funny bit of inside knowledge coming up - when they were filming for Skull Island, they rented a humongous area of land, right next to where Oxalis Office is based to run the filming from. However, on this bit of land was a large population of cows, which kept doing their business and wondering into tents that contained actors such as Samuel L. Jackson and Jack Black! To stop this from happening, the producer paid one of the locals to take the cows away to another field at the hefty price of 100,000VND per cow/per night! Therefore, the locals now refer to that same field as the Cow Hotel and say that the filming crew are welcome back anytime for the same service! Another crazy story - filming for the movie could take place for 2 weeks in the beginning as the film crew had so much equipment needed to be taken to the cave. So much so, that they actually had to build a brand new road going from the entrance of the field, all the way out to the entrance of the cave!
We stopped for lunch before exploring the rest of the Rat Cave. We had a picnic style lunch on the floor of the cave, which was pretty amazing as our first snapshot of what was to come in the next 3 days. We are not kidding when we say, we take our caving helmets off to the guys at Oxalis for the food they supply during the course. It was literally amazing! For lunch, they served all the ingredients for fresh spring rolls (which you made yourself), a variety of meats, a generous amount of sweets/chocolates, a tonne of baguettes/dairylea slices/salad for sandwiches and plenty of fruits. It was literally more than we could all ask for!
We explored the Rat Cave after lunch, venturing 300m inside and getting our first look at a proper cave! I'll be repeating myself a lot in this blog if I explain to you what the caves looked like inside, so I'll leave that to the pictures throughout. They were all just very cool in their own individual way. It's a different world walking through them and it's crazy to think that they are all just naturally made like that by water over the years. We couldn't get our heads around it!
After the Rat Cave, we climbed the first (Lom Com Mountain) of 3 mountains to be climbed that day. It wasn't tough and we actually loved this part of the day as we were trekking so deep into the jungle! We were having to duck and dodge fallen trees, shield ourselves from poison ivy and pull our boots out of the mud with all our might, we loooooved it! After reaching the peak of this mountain, we started the descent only to be warmly welcomed by the ascent of the next mountain (Flat Rock Peak), then onto Mango Mountain before coming the end in Tu Lan Valley. All in all, we trekked around 17km that day, which is more than what you will do in the next couple of days put together, don't worry!
We arrived to our campsite, gobsmacked at the beauty of it. The chefs were already busy preparing dinner for us under their gazebo with a fully equipped kitchen. There was a huge seating area in the middle, which had free a free water, tea and coffee station station sat nearby. The tents were all set up under canopies and the toilets, well the toilets were compost loos, which don't sound too great... But they were! They had a normal toilet plastic toilet seat, air freshener and toilet roll, so it literally felt like you were glamping with these. I had a funny run in with a couple of mice in the middle of that night around 3am. One mouse came running up and out of the toilet seat as I opened it and ran behind the bag of rice used to cover your business down the toilet. Sitting a bit wary and wide-eyed on the toilet, I started seeing the rice bag shaking where the mice were crawling around inside! Safe to say, I pulled up my PJ's quite quickly and hurried back to my tent! Luckily, I don't mind mice but be ready for the heebie-jeebies if you do!
The campsite itself was all based on a big patch of sand... Right next to a beautiful lake with a waterfall, which served as the entrance to the cave we would go into on day 2. The whole setting was so gorgeous and was just what we all needed after a long day trekking. We all took a dip in the lake before dinner was served in the evening. Dinner was to die for - tonnes of meat, soups, rice, spring rolls, vegetables, crisps, tofu, peanuts and more, all washed down nicely with several shots of rice wine. It was amongst the best food we'd ever had in Vietnam! We all sat chatting after dinner, had the briefing for the next and settled our tired little heads down for bed.
We woke up the next morning to the beautiful sound of the waterfall down by the river. Yet again, we had another amazing meal for breakfast then we headed out to Ken Cave, which is the longest cave in the Tu Lan Cave System. We swam directly into Ken Cave which was so good! The water was a bit chilly, but after a few minutes swimming, you soon warmed up! The cave was pitch black without torches and went on forever. It was really cool as you were swimming as the bats were flying low on the water, meaning that they flew right in front of your face!
After Ken Cave, we went back to the camp for another unbelievable lunch. After lunch, we explored Tu Lan Cave, which is another cave at was used for the filming of King Kong. We swam around 200m into the cave before exploring some more. After Tu Lan Cave, we trekked 1.5km through the jungle to Hang Kim Cave, where we swam 450m into the cave before exploring 500m more on foot. We exited the last cave almost directly next to our new campsite for the night in To Mo Valley. The second campsite was just as amazing as the first, with another waterfall and gorgeous river to swim in. Although, none of us took a dip in the river that night as we had been sopping wet all day that day anyway! Dry clothes, campfire, dinner time - where you at!
On the last day, we explored another two caves, meaning that we explored 7 caves in total on our trip! After breakfast, we started with Song Oxalis Cave. This was definitely the best cave in mine, Jac and Nil's eyes as it had only just been discovered 7 months ago by a member of the Oxalis Cave, hence why it has been proudly named after Oxalis. The cave was humongous and had a whole river flowing through it. We literally couldn't believe someone had just "found it", I mean c'mon, imagine finding that!
What this cave did have the most of was flies/bugs! When you are caving, you wear a head torch which is blessing and a nightmare all rolled into one as it helps you see but attracts every single little moth in the cave to keep flying straight into your forehead, nostrils, eyes and mouth! At one point, Nils turned his light off in front of me as a joke, I asked him what he was doing and he started laughing as blammmm, about 50 little moths from Nils head torch lost their light and came straight over to mine! I was literally being swarmed and Nils was in hysterics! Another insect you won't be short of seeing in the caves are spiders. But when I say spiders, don't picture just any old spider, picture the sort of spider that would be produced if a spider mated with T-Rex! They are absolutely huge! Jac held his hand up close next to one (don't ask me how, I would have died!) and took a picture, as you can on our title! One of the porters poked his fingers in between the spiders legs on the wall, laughing away whilst he did it. It was impressively brave but straight-up crazyyyyy if you ask me!
The last cave, Hung Ton Cave, was pretty amazing to finish on. It was enormous inside and had stalagmites/stalactites the size of two houses put on top of each other. There was one part of the cave that worked well for shadowing onto the wall. We all took it in turns doing poses in front of one of the head torches, shadowing an image that was 20x the size of us on the blank stone wall behind. We then walked around 4/5km, back to Rao Nan River/Tan Hoa Village, where our course ended with a much needed shower! In fact, two of the ladies on the tour managed to blag a lift back with the porters. Jac point blank told me that I had absolutely no chance of going back the last 2km on a motorbike!
We had a hot drink waiting for us, warm showers with free shampoo/shower gel and all of our bags were ready for us to collect. It was so nice to be back and in warm, clean clothes. After we were all changed and settled, we went to the on site restaurant for a celebratory bowl of Pho and a well-deserved beer. We were dropped back by the mini-bus one by one, saying our goodbyes as the bus stopped each time. We'd grew to be a family with the people we'd caved with, they were a great bunch and it made the 3 days an absolute pleasure!
What we would say is... If your super-fit, this course is a bit slow. Jac, Nils and I are all relatively fit and healthy and love a challenge when we come across one. However, due to being on a big course (10 people) with varying levels of fitness, there were a few too many breaks when going up mountains, which took away the challenging aspect of the course for us! But nonetheless, it was an amazing course and we couldn't recommend it more. Oxalis were amazing (particularly the guides who even taught us a Vietnamese card games in the evenings and drank rice wine with us), the caves were unreal and the food, well the food was out-of-this-world. It was such a great experience and we'll remember it for many years to come. Make sure you get yourself booked on!