Phong Nha Caving and Trekking

Phong Nha; Phong Nha Ke Bang; Phong Nha National Park; Caving in Phong Nha; Phong Nha Caving; Phong Nha Caves; The Caves of Phong Nha; Tien Son Cave; Paradise Cave; Thien Duong Cave; Oxalis Caving; Oxalis Caving and Trekking tours; Oxalis Caving Tours; Oxalis Phong Nha; Hang En Cave; Tu Lan Cave; Son Doong Cave; Caving and Trekking in Phong Nha, Vietnam; Caving in Vietnam; Caving and Trekking trips in Vietnam; Ho Chi Min City to Phong Nha; Ho Chi Min City to Dong Hoi; Getting to Phong Nha; Getting to Dong Hoi; Dong Hoi to Phong Nha; Travel to Phong Nha; Travel to Dong Hoi; Ho Chi Min City; Dong Hoi; Phong Nha.

Phong Nha Township, and the nearby national park, is not, strictly speaking, off the beaten track. The fact is the location is quite easily accessible by road, rail and air. In terms of mainstream tourism however in maybe construed as being off the beaten track. Accommodation or the lack there of, is the key factor in this regard. If you’re comfortable with backpacker, or hostel, style accommodation then all well and good as there is plenty of this available. If you’re looking for something a bit more private, your own room, then the options are a lot more limited. The only proper hotel of note in Phong Nha Township is the Saigon Phong Nha Hotel – http://www.sgquangbinhtourist.com.vn/phongnha/index.html  At approximately USD 35 per night it is at best a 2.5 star hotel. The rooms are clean and basic and the beds are comfortable enough to provide a sound sleep after a day’s sightseeing. The showers and the hot water seem to be bit of a problem though. I booked for five nights but checked out after four after waking up to a cold shower and being told the power supply would be off all day. Not an issue if it was the summer season, but definitely not acceptable during the coldest part of the year in January. The only redeeming feature is the view from the restaurant area across the river and to the peaks beyond. The menu is adequate but basic. If you’re a person who wants a good amount quality protein in your daily food intake, be prepared to starve for a while. Vietnamese food is all about noodles, rice, vegetables and small amounts of meat. And the majority of the meat on offer is pork. If you’re like me and are not too fond of pork then you should, as I did, bring your own protein source with you. I picked up ten cans of tuna fish in Saigon before boarding the flight to Dong Hoi.

Getting in is reasonably simple. There are buses which actually come through Phong Nha Township from Hue, in the South, and Hanoi, to the North. The nearest sizeable city is Dong Hoi, approximately forty kilometers away – http://wikitravel.org/en/Dong_Hoi – Dong Hoi is accessible by rail and air from Saigon and Hanoi. Flying time from Saigon, with Vietnam Airlines, is approximately one hour and fifteen minutes.

An added convenience, of a stay at the Saigon Phong Nha Hotel, is its close proximity to the cave tour headquarters and departure point for the cave tours. The ticketing office is just a two minute walk from the front gate of the hotel. Office hours are 0700 – 1730. There are four cave sites which the park office offers daily tours for:

Phong Nha Cave – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phong_Nha_Cave

Tien Son Cave

Thien Duong Cave (Paradise Cave) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thi%C3%AAn_%C4%90%C6%B0%E1%BB%9Dng_Cave

Dark Cave

For a more detailed profile of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, and the above mentioned cave sites, please refer to the following: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phong_Nha-Ke_Bang_National_Park

For tours to other remote caves such as Son Doong, Hang En and Tu Lan please refer to Oxalis Caving and trekking tours: http://www.oxalis.com.vn/GL/en/home/

Doing the Double:  The two most popular cave tours, departing from the Park Headquarters (aka the Cultural & Ecological Tourist Center) are the trips to Phong Nha and Tien Son Caves. Both cave sites are well set up for sightseeing with boarded walkways providing safe access and colourful lighting highlighting the beautiful formations within. Travel to both sites is by way of tour boat along the Phong Nha River. Also known as “Dragon Boats,” a fee is paid to the ticketing office for the round trip (approx. 7 kilometers each way) and waiting time during the excursion to Tien Son Cave. The current rental fee is 350,000 VND (USD 17 approx.) for the boat and 120,000 VND (USD 6 approx.) for entry into each cave. The boats will safely accommodate 8 – 10 passengers.

Recommendation: Tien Son cave and Phong Nha Cave are situated next to each other so if you are hiring a boat to see one I would recommend paying the extra entry fee and allowing an extra 1 – 2 hours to do both caves. The journey to both is exactly the same and although Tien Son Cave is roughly two hundred meters up a cliff face the staging point for access to both caves is at the end of the same river.

The entrance to Phong Nha Cave, at river level, on the left. The stairway to Tien Son Cave, by way of the Pagoda, on the right

The entrance to Phong Nha Cave, at river level, on the left. The stairway to Tien Son Cave, by way of the Pagoda, on the right

Tien Son Cave

The boat ride along the Phong Nha River is a leisurely, and relaxed, cruise and it takes roughly thirty minutes to get from the park headquarters to the cave entrances. Having completed the double myself I can safely say the best option is to do Tien Son Cave first. When you arrive at the cave sites the large opening to Phong Nha Cave is at water level and at the bottom of the cliff face to the left of the broad stairway. The boat driver will nose the boat into the bottom of the stairway and you can alight to begin the two hundred meter ascent up to the entrance to Tien Son Cave. The path is well sign posted and the local vendors, positioned around the complex, will point you in the right direction. The hike up is mildly challenging and quite a good aerobic workout.  If you are in reasonably good shape it will take you approx. twenty minutes to reach the cave entrance. Make sure to buy drinking water from the vendors before you begin the ascent as there is none available up at the top. In the cooler part of the year (Dec – Feb) the climb up is quite invigorating in the freshness of the morning. When it gets hotter, later in the year, it’s guaranteed you will sweat by the time you reach the cave entrance. Be assured though the hike up is well worth it as the formations inside the cave are beautifully lit up. Depending on the time of year there may, or may not be, guides available for visitors. If there isn’t it’s not really an issue as the trail through the cave is easy enough to follow with a solid, boarded walkway, with safety rails, providing access five hundred meters into the cave.  For those wanting get in plenty of photo opportunities there are a number of large viewing platforms, along the walkway, at regular intervals to be able rest, admire the formations and work your cameras.

The beautiful formations within Tien Son Cave

The beautiful formations within Tien Son Cave

The round trip to Tien Son Cave, allowing for rest stops and photography, should take about 1.5 – 2 hours. After descending the stairway a rest stop can be taken in the shade provided by the trees scattered about in the vendors complex.

Phong Nha cave

Compared with the trip to Tien Son Cave, sightseeing in Phong Nha Cave is a relatively relaxing excursion. After rejoining your tour boat at the base of the broad stairway you can sit back and take it easy as the boat crew ease the vessel up the 1.5 kilometers of underground river of Phong Nha Cave. The impressive formations within, lit up by the well placed lighting, provide ample photo opportunities. You will also marvel at the beautiful reflections on the rivers surface. After reaching the furthest extent of the penetration the vessel will drop you off at a landing on the way back. Visitors are then able to walk back towards the entrance, along a well situated path, and view more of the impressive cave formations.

The impressive formations and colours of Phong Nha Cave

The impressive formations and colours of Phong Nha Cave

The final passage and exit to the river beyond

The final passage and exit to the river beyond

Caving and Trekking tours:

If you’re looking for a caving adventure a bit more challenging than the tours offered by the Phong Nha Ecological Park Headquarters then a good option is Oxalis Caving and Trekking Tours – http://www.oxalis.com.vn/GL/en/home/ – Oxalis offer a number of tours – extended, overnight and one day – but, compared with the easy outings from the park Headquarters, the Oxalis experience is more Indiana Jones style. The cave systems, visited by Oxalis, are more remote than Phong Nha, Tien Son and Thien Duong Caves. Because of this there is little in the way of infrastructure in place. Instead of properly constructed walkways, safety rails and internal lighting you will be venturing into the darkness of less visited cave systems. The only lighting will be that provided by the lamp on your caving helmets. It is, realistically, much more of an adventure.

Descending into the depths of Tu Lan Cave

Descending into the depths of Tu Lan Cave

Oxalis’ office, admin and logistics H.Q., is approximately two kilometers further along the road from the Phong Nha Eco Park Complex. Most of the hostels, and homestays, in Phong Nha Township will also have the contact details for Oxalis. Even in the depths of the cold season (Dec – Jan) there are single day, and overnight, trips happening on most days of the week.  For the longer trips, such as the tour through Son Doong Cave, a booking is needed well in advance as places are limited. The main sites visited are Tu Lan, Hang En, Hang ken and Son Doong Caves and a certain amount of jungle trekking is required to reach each destination. Some of the terrain is quite rugged, with challenging uphill gradients to be negotiated, so a suitable fitness level is a pre-requisite. The overnight tour to Hang En (Swallow Cave) involves sixteen kilometers of trekking with the final climb out being a challenging upward ascent through the jungle.

Trekking gear being sorted at Oxalis HQ prior to heading out

Trekking gear being sorted at Oxalis HQ prior to heading out

I decided to kick things off with the gentler single day excursion to Tu Lan and Red Cave. The tour also included nine kilometers of trekking and a cave swim. On the day of the excursion the transportation picked me up at the hotel and I, along with the rest of the group, were taken to Oxalis H.Q., for gear issue and a briefing on what we could expect for the day. The tour price was very reasonable – USD 85 per person – and included all safety gear, food, equipment porters and an English speaking caving guide. After taking care of the admin – payment and liability waiver – our local guide for the day, “Bamboo,” explained, with the aid of a large map, our route for the trek. We were then issued with life vests, caving helmets and, if needed, trekking boots. For those with camera gear to worry about water tight drums are available as well as ruck sack style dry bags. With the briefing completed, and all the days equipment issued, we boarded the mini-van for the seventy minute run to the trek starting point. The drive took us on winding roads through jungle clad peaks and, as far as I could ascertain, our final destination – trek starting point – was somewhere closer to the Laotian border. Part of the admin process involved stops at the offices of local officials where records of who was in the group were made. We made a final stop at a village, not far from our starting point, to pick up three porters for the trek. We disembarked from the minivan in the middle of a flat expanse of ploughed arable land. As we sorted ourselves, and our kit, for the trek a swarm of local youngsters gathered in to check out the group. As we took photos, and readied ourselves, the peaks of our eventual destination beckoned in the distance.

The trek starting point – a remote, rural area of North, Central Vietnam

The trek starting point – a remote, rural area of North, Central Vietnam

January in Northern Vietnam is a cool, or cold, part of the year. It is a transition period between the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the cooler dryer months. Even though, for the most part, the rains have officially ended the cloud haze still hangs low on the surrounding peaks. As the group plodded off down the muddy track the low cloud hanging about began drifting down off the peaks  making the atmosphere ever hazier. Opportunities for some decent shots were limited to say the least and just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, light rain started dropping out of the heavens. Luckily the Canon 5D Mk3 is weather resistant to a bit of light rain. We had a 2.5 kilometer stretch of muddy farm track to negotiate before arriving at the river crossing and our first ascent up into the jungle proper. As the track wound its way across the rural, ploughed landscape the group strung out as we slipped, and sloshed, our way towards the peaks up ahead. Those, such as me, with cameras were lagging at the back as we looked for the odd photo opportunity while those, keen to get on with things, kept up the pace with our local tour leader, Bamboo.

Approximately one hour after setting out the river we needed to cross came into view. The track we were on was still skirting the edge of the ploughed fields as we worked our way down towards the crossing point. Once the full group was assembled at what was the narrowest section of the river, Bamboo provided a briefing on what we could expect from there on in. After completing the crossing we’d be working our way into the jungle and up the peaks on the other side of the river. The crossing was a fairly straight forward task and with the water level barely at knee level it was relatively easy going. A few minutes later we were all successfully across and following Bamboo’s lead up the jungle trail and into the jagged limestone terrain.

River crossing up ahead

River crossing up ahead

The view back along the track to the river crossing below

The view back along the track to the river crossing below

The going was difficult in some places with pitted, sharp edged rocks making the gloves we’d been issued a welcome addition to our trekking gear. That, combined with the slippery mud underfoot had us all moving carefully up the slope. A benefit of this cooler time of year is the body, even after a bit of prolonged exertion, doesn’t overheat so quickly. That said, the climb up the first peak had all of us breathing a bit harder by the time we reached the top of the trail. At the top the porters broke out the canteens of water for a much needed drinks break. After another short briefing by Bamboo we were on our way again and heading down into the next valley. Part of the trail down made use of an old logging chute as we moved off a muddy track and onto heavy sets of planks spanning small ravines. Bamboo had informed us the entrance to Tu Lan Cave wasn’t too far away and, as the trail leveled out to flat terrain again, we caught a glimpse of a large, dark opening in one of the limestone cliff faces in the distance.

Approximately twenty minutes later we were all standing in the yawning mouth of Tu Lan Cave. The porters begin affixing lights to our caving helmets as Bamboo explained our objectives for the trip through the cave. We were on the upper level and another one hundred meters further in there was a significant drop to the second, and lower, level. We were told there was a long wooden ladder in place for the descent. Following this we would then move forward to the water course and swim for approximately one hundred and fifty meters to exit the cave. It would then be time for lunch at the edge of a small, jungle enshrouded lake. With nods of approval all round we turned on our helmet lights and moved forward into the waiting darkness of Tu Lan.

The trail down, by way of an old logging chute

The trail down, by way of an old logging chute

The group moving deeper into Tu Lan Cave

The group moving deeper into Tu Lan Cave

A few minutes later the group had worked its way down a pockmarked limestone gradient to arrive at edge of the drop off. A black gaping cavern lay beyond. The top of the wooden ladder was visible above the precipice and before we made any attempt at a descent Bamboo gave us another short safety briefing. We would descend, one at a time, with a safety line firmly in place around our waists. The group took their turns at climbing down the ladder and, as they did so, Bamboo belayed the safety rope through a karabiner affixed to the cave wall. The climb down was a relatively simple exercise with no issues whatsoever about the strength of the ladder. When I arrived at the bottom I took a moment appraise the timber used construction of the ladder. Some very solid lumps of wood had been used and I had to admit it was quite an impressive undertaking by those transporting it all into the cave.

The descent from the first level to the second by way of a ten meter wooden ladder

The descent from the first level to the second by way of a ten meter wooden ladder

Once we were all safely down the ladder Bamboo took us on a short detour to look at some cave formations before getting ourselves ready for the cave swim. Even though one can only be impressed by the amazing length of time it takes for stalactites and stalagmites to form (0.001 mm per year) the lack of fixed, colourful lighting – as one sees at the caves at Phong Nha – makes it seem a bit drab in the soft glow of helmet lights. A few minutes later we were standing next to an expanse of water stretching out into the darkness of the cave. In the distance I could just make out the faint glow of daylight at the exit point. Even though we were well prepped, and equipped, with life jackets and all important personal items (camera gear) safely secured in water tight containers, it was going to be quite a swim. The group approached the water’s edge with trepidation.

Bamboo had informed us already it would be brisk, perhaps eighteen degrees celcius. If you’re from a colder climate, such as encountered in the UK, Europe or North America, the water temperature may not even be considered cold. For those, such as myself, who’ve spent the past few years living in the tropics it could be a bit of a shock to the system. Even so, some of my European team mates didn’t seem all that keen on taking the plunge. There were oohs, and ahhs, as they tried easing themselves into the cold, still body of water. I’m a bit old school in that regard. I’ve always maintained there’s no point pussy footing about when going for a swim. You’re better off plunging in and going for it. As the rest of the group dipped their toes into the edge of the pool I dived straight in and started breast stroking like hell into the darkness. The water temperature, initially, was cold enough to take your breath away but once you got moving the body adjusted. As I stroked out ahead, with one of the porters, I could hear the whoops, and shouts, echoing from those behind. The life jacket provided good flotation and the helmet mounted light provided adequate lighting as we moved through the darkness towards the distant daylight. Less than five minutes later, feeling cold but invigorated, I was scrambling up the rocks at the exit point. As the group emerged into the hazy daylight we were greeted by the sight of a rather idyllic spot for a lunch break. It was a very picturesque setting indeed as we gathered around a small pastel hued, jungle encroached lake. An additional welcome sight was the robust fire burning away in the lee of the limestone cliffs. Two of the porters had gone ahead of the main body of the group to get the barbecue underway. As we gathered around the fire to warm ourselves part of our lunch, fillets of pork on long skewers, were roasting over hot embers.

A nice spot for a bit of lunch, the exit point of Tu Lan Cave

A nice spot for a bit of lunch, the exit point of Tu Lan Cave

As the group toweled themselves off, and changed back into their dry gear, the porters set up our lunch on a nearby, makeshift plank table. As we gathered around Bamboo informed us we’d be making our own Vietnamese spring rolls. He made one, as an example, and then everyone got stuck in. The food was basic, nourishing, and well appreciated as we refueled the energy levels for the climb out of the “hidden valley.” With our bellies filled, and energy levels recharged we gathered around the glowing embers of the fire to enjoy a hot coffee and a Vietnamese dessert; sticky rice sandwiched with ground peanuts.

The lunch break had been long enough for us to warm up, and enjoy the pleasant surroundings, without feeling rushed. At just on an hour, after emerging from the cold waters of our cave swim, we were readying ourselves for the climb out. Bamboo had pre-warned us it would be a reasonably challenging two hundred meter trek up through the jungle. And so it proved to be as we clawed our way, single file, up through the steep, jagged terrain.  Our eventual, short term, destination was the cave entry point on the other side of the peak. But, we had to get there first and the going, in some places was fairly demanding particularly with a camera dangling from one’s hip. A common feature of the terrain, in this part of the world, is the sharp edges of the karst geology. No doubt caused by a long process of erosion it would prove rather hazardous if one was to slip, or fall, onto one of the razor type protrusions. Careful, and precise movement, especially on some of the steeper sections, goes without saying. The gloves, provided for the days outing, proved invaluable in this regard.

A reasonably challenging climb out of the “hidden valley”

A reasonably challenging climb out of the “hidden valley”

The jungle was quite thick in places and, as we bashed our way up to the top, the wet trousers I was still wearing were beginning to dry out with my increase in body heat. Roughly thirty minutes after beginning the ascent we were at the top of trail. The trip down would prove equally as demanding and any thoughts of being able to mentally relax were quickly dispelled as we carefully groped our way over more jagged terrain and did our best to avoid slipping on the, at times, steep, mud covered sections. We eventually arrived back at ground level all in good shape for the trek out. Our route back would be the same as the trek in but with one major difference; when we arrived back at the river crossing we’d make a diversion to another cave nearby. In the drab light of the late afternoon we moved on at a steady clip towards the river crossing. Photo opportunities weren’t the best as the grey haze provided a milky background with any distance, or landscape, shots. For this reason I decided to switch off the camera and wait until we arrived at the cave. Forty five minutes later, with tiredness setting in, we were back at the river crossing. The entrance to Red Cave was nearby, just a short trek away, and the decision was taken to travel lightly for the cave tour; all the dry bags would be left at the riverside with the porters. Bamboo led the way and soon enough we were entering the very large mouth of the Red Cave. With helmet lights affixed once again, we turned them on, and followed Bamboo’s lead into dark interior. After a short walk we were admiring some very impressive formations which I would say were the better of the two caves we’d been into for the day. I managed to get a few reasonable photos but realized a flash would have been worth bringing along. Low level lighting, such as encountered in dark caves, really requires a tripod for shooting without a flash. With the daylight fading it was time to make our way back to the minivan for a couple of cold celebratory beers. It had been a thoroughly good day out.

The group dwarfed by the entry cavern of Red Cave

The group dwarfed by the entry cavern of Red Cave

The impressive formations of red cave before us

The impressive formations of red cave before us

A few observations:

  • If you’re looking for something a bit more adventurous than what’s on offer through the Phong Nha Ecological Park Headquarters, in terms of caving and jungle trekking, then Oxalis is the way to go
  • Oxalis tour prices are very reasonable and they provide all safety equipment needed for the outings; trekking boots, life vests, helmets and lights, gloves, and dry containers. Prior to departure you’ll be given a list of personal items you should take on the trek.
  • Oxalis have a good approach to general safety on the treks and the guides are continually providing briefings in this regard.
  • In terms of photography I would say December – February are not ideal months as the hazy skies create a milkiness in your landscape shots. For bluer skies it would be better to wait until the weather begins warming up in March or April.

 

Safe travels,

MEGA

 

 

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