Exploring Caves in Phong Nha National Park

I followed news of the Son Doong Cave in Vietnam with child-like fascination. All the photos coming out made it look like the kind of fantastical and primeval place that dinosaurs would somehow survive in (I played too much Tomb Raider as a child – sorry). See for yourself in the footage from this cave. The first survey of Son Doong was completed in 2009 and made a lot of headlines, including lots of coverage in National Geographic. Although the cave was first discovered in 1991, the sheer size and scope of it was unknown until then. A couple years later, the cave, which at this point was found to be the third largest on the planet, opened to tourists.

When all this happened I was living nearby in Cambodia and the possibility of venturing through this cave was a reality. Well, it was a reality until I saw the price tag. A five-day trip costs $3,000 and books up well in advance. That’s not a terrible price for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it was unfeasible for someone like me used to Southeast Asian prices.

Fortunately, I got my caving fix on for a much cheaper price. Oxalis Adventures, which operates the tour of Son Doong Cave, offers tours of nearby caves within the Phong Nha National Park. It might not to be as amazing as Son Doong, but it’s not too shabby. The national park is a UNESCO World Heritage site that brings in heaps of tourists.

With Oxalis Adventures, my tour group and I stayed well off the beaten path on their 3-day, 2-night “Wild Tu Lan Cave Explorer Tour.” Over the course of several days, we did a modest amount of hiking and explored five caves of various sizes. In Southeast Asia, I’ve seen so many caves that were converted into religious sites or somewhat tacky tourist destinations. These caves were raw and relatively untouched, which made them a lot of fun to travel through.

The Rat Cave. It gets its name because when it floods the rat come running out.
The Rat Cave. It gets its name because when it floods the rat come running out.

We weren’t just walking during the trip. There was a fair amount of swimming (or floating, since we all had to wear life jackets). The water was amazing and floating down the rivers in darkness was surprisingly relaxing. There was one section on the third and final day where we floated through a narrow area where both walls could be touched with outstretched arms. Another highlight was the camp on the first day, where there was a waterfall that could be jumped off and a perfect swimming hole. The BBQ dinner was a nice way to cap the day.

The entire tour was the most expensive thing I did in Vietnam by a large margin (those three days came to more than a week of previous expenses) but was worth it. The food was good, the campsites were great despite the uncomfortably hot July weather and the caves were particularly memorable. Still, I’m still not totally ruling out a visit to the Song Doong Cave in the future. Below are a few more photos from the trip.

Oxalis Adventures offers several tours ranging from one day to four days. The Wild Tu Lan Cave Explorer tour I took cost $329 and I paid by credit card on their website. All the upcoming tours are listed on the site, so it’s easy to plan ahead.

Most people stay in Son Trach, which is easily reached in five or six hours from Hue. It’s a small one-road town with a number of guesthouses, hostels and restaurants catering to tourists. If you want to get out, either to Hanoi or south, there are many buses (including some decent overnight sleepers) making the journey.

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Karge

Karge

I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?