Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Wild Tu Lan Cave Explorer (Quang Binh, Vietnam) - Tan Hoa to Tu Lan Valley

Day one of a three day guide trek of the Wild Tu Lan Explorer with Oxalis Adventure Tours, this first day takes hikers from Oxalis' headquarters in Tan Hoa to the first campsite at Tu Lan Valley. Introducing hikers to the Tu Lan Cave System with a walk through Rat Cave, the rest of the day features challenging but spectacular jungle trekking to camp. An excellent start to the Wild Tu Lan Cave Explorer.

Distance: ???
Gradient: Some very steep ascent and descents over the course of the day, with some scrambling required.
Quality of Path: Largely clear and well maintained through the jungle, with some uneven sections of rocky limestone. No formed path through the caves. 
Quality of Signage: Non-existent; this is a guided walk that must be done with Oxalis Adventure Tours.
Experience Required: Previous Walking Experience Recommended
Time: 7Hours
Steps: Informal steps throughout with some ladders.
Best Time to Visit: Not during the wet season.
Entry Fee: Yes; walk must be completed with Oxalis Adenture Tours. 
Getting There: Pick up from a local hotel is included in the price of the tour.

After a hot, busy and eventful December (that didn't include much in the way of hiking), Alissa and I ended 2017 with an overseas trip to India and Vietnam - two of the four places we visited during our honeymoon in 2013. To celebrate the start of a new year and the extension of our hiking season thanks to being in the northern hemisphere's winter, Alissa and I made the most of being in Vietnam by booking in for our first multi-day overseas hike - the Wild Tu Lan Cave Explorer run by Oxalis Adventure Tour. Located in the Phong Nha region that is also home to Son Doong (the world's largest cave) the ₫68,700,000.00 price tag for the Son Doong Cave Expedition ultimately meant it was out of our price range, however the Wild Tu Lan Cave Explorer's three day/two night itinerary looked to be the most exciting and varied of Oxalis's other offerings, and a great way to tackle something completely different to our usual hiking in Australia.

After being collected from our hotel, Alissa, myself and the others booked in for the tour were taken to Oxalis's headquarters in Tan Hoa, where we were given a tour briefing and overview by our expert guides Ken and Hiếu. This was an excellent opportunity to get a sense of what we were about to do, as it was not immediately clear from the itinerary available online that the walk worked geographically as a clever loop through the jungle and caves of the Tu Lan system.

After the briefing, the group headed off along a very muddy road alongside several fields. At this stage, the group was walking at a fairly slow pace, and given the fact that our gear was being carried to the campsite by porters made Alissa and I think that this was something of a luxurious bludge; we would later be proven very wrong. 

Even at this early stage of the walk, Alissa and I were blown away by how stunningly beautiful that landscape was. In spite of the cloudy conditions, the limestone karst mountains were incredibly beautiful. Although we've explored a lot of different mountain ranges such as the Stirlings, Grampians, Hamersley and Main Range in Australia, I love how ever mountain range has its own peculiar characteristics that makes it unique and special, and these in Phong Nha were no different.

Along the way, our guides stopped us to point out an inconspicuous field on the other side of the river. The guides revealed to us that this field was used as a shooting location in the film King Kong: Skull Island for a helicopter crash scene. We were pretty excited to learn that the guides had met Samuel L. Jackson as they had worked on the shoot, and one of the other members of the tour - a film critic from Mumbai - half-jokingly asked the guide if Samuel L. had called him a 'motherfucker', in reference to Samuel L. Jackson's propensity from playing bad-ass characters known for their coarse language.

From the King Kong shooting location we continued along the river bank. At this point we could see trails on the other side of the river and wondered if we would be crossing the river at this location. Ken informed us that we would indeed be crossing the river at this point, but that it would be at the end of the journey when we would cross back over the river to complete the loop.

Our first river crossing was a short distance further downstream, however due to the high water levels and fast-flowing river, we were ferried across by one of our porters instead of having to walk across.

Although the road to the river crossing had been rather muddy, this was the point where the proper single file walking track and the extreme muddiness began. Squelchy and slippery, this outdid the already muddy walking we had encountered on the Overland Track just over a year earlier.

After the river crossing, it was only a short walk through a rugged passage to the entrance of the first cave of our walk.

Called Rat Cave (but thankfully lacking in rodents), this cave was also used as a shooting location for King Kong: Skull Island. While smaller than some of the other caves, this was nevertheless one of the most massive and expansive caves Alissa and I had ever seen.

Although early along our walk, we were all delighted to discover that a delicious lunch had been prepared for us in Rat Cave. While a far simpler picnic lunch than some of the more elaborate meals we would have later in the trip, the bananas and mandarins were particularly delicious.

After our meal break, we all donned our hard hats and climbing gloves and began our journey into the darkness of the cave.

While some of the caves on our second day of the circuit would be even more impressive, we were all amazed by the size and quality of the cave formations.

While mainly consisting of large, cavernous spaces, there were a few moments that required moving through narrow passageways between the formations. Something that was of interest to Alissa and I as people used to the clean white colour of the cave formations in Margaret River in Western Australia was how the floodwaters that come through the caves in the wet season had resulted in a brownish tinge to many of the cave's formations.

While not as beautifully lit as show caves can be, exploring Rat Cave in its wild state had its own charm and I was surprised by how well our relatively low powered head lamps did at lighting the cave.

After about 15-20 minutes of making our way through Rat Cave, the group reached the cave's exit as the passageway narrowed to a smaller tunnel.

Once out of the cave, we found ourselves back in the dense, wet and muddy jungle. We waited briefly for the entire group to make their way back out of the cave before descending steeply.

With the walking to Rat Cave being fairly easy, this was our first taste of the type of rough terrain that we would encounter for the rest of the day.

Descending to the valley, the trail heads along a village farm. Rat Cave had been known to the locals for many years, however they feared the darkness of the tunnel and instead used a much longer route to reach the farmlands. After the cave was proven to be safe and easy to travel, Rat Cave became a regular shortcut used by the locals to get from one side to the other.

After walking through some open grassland, we made our way through more dense jungle. Our guides warned us of many of the less than friendly plants growing along the path, including some very spiky trees as well as poison ivy!

The trail led us to the banks of the La Ken River. We were advised that this is the usual spot for the picnic lunch on the first day, however due to the forecast rain it had been brought forward to Rat Cave. While the river is not a bad spot for a lunch break, eating in a cave was a fun way to start the walk and I'm kind of glad that it ended up the way it did.

From La Ken River, the jungle walking really began. This was steep and muddy going, and was the hard trekking that was advertised in the online material. Alissa and I have definitely done muddy and steeper walks than this before, but we'd not experienced muddy and steep together like this, and we agreed that this would definitely be classed as a Class 5 walk on the Australian Walking Track Grading System.

The reward for the challenging walking was superb views of the dense jungle, with its mix of trees that were very alien to the various different forests Alissa and I know so well in Australia.

Closer to the ground, the fungi growing in the forest were equally enthralling. Hiếu pointed out some wood ear mushrooms that were very much edible, but then pointed to the dark ones pictured above and commented that these beautiful mushrooms were highly poisonous.

The jungle trekking consisted of three mountain ascents, with the first being the steepest and most slippery due to the mud. The terrain changed considerably on the second mountain, with a lot of scrambling up jagged limestone formations all the way along the track. 

While on the second ascent, a constant light drizzle set in and unfortunately my lens became wet from the rain, resulting in a slightly smeared quality to the following photographs. While the scrambling was far from easy, the abundance of hand holds in the limestone formations made it fairly easy going. Used to the brittle coastal limestone in Australia's South West, I was happy to find the limestone to be more similar in shape and quality to the sandstone of the Grampians or Kalbarri National Park

There were some pretty alarming moments along the walk where we had to follow somewhat makeshift looking bridges across precipitous drops. The most scary part of the walk came shortly after the bridge seen above, with a sheer drop being clearly visible just to the right of the track. As we continued along the hillside track, Ken pointed at a mountain in the distance and said that our camp was on the other side. This seemed horrifyingly arduous given how tall the next mountain looked from this point, however we realised that we would be heading via a mountain pass that would take us around the mountain without a particularly steep climb.

The third peak was relatively easy, and we reached the high point before we knew it. From there it was a very slippery, muddy descent to our campsite. By this stage we were already covered in mud, and having to lower ourselves carefully down muddy ledges to avoid falling meant getting even filthier!

Finally, after just under three hours of jungle trekking, we arrived at the Tu Lan Valley campsite. Given the muddiness and humidity, we were glad to find the campsite by the banks of the river as it meant we could get in, wash the mud off our boots and clothes, and cool off after the hot day. The campsite was well set up, with cooking and dining shelters, and tents set up under an additional two shelters. With our porters serving up a delicious cooked meal of grilled meats, stir fry and rice, this was a great way to end our first day of walking.

Post from RICOH THETA. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

This first day of the Wild Tu Lan Cave Explorer was arguably the hardest of the three days given the predominance of muddy jungle trekking and rock scrambling, with the humidity and continuous light drizzle making it even harder. While challenging, the stunning jungle scenery made it worth the effort, and Rat Cave was a stunning introduction to the Tu Lan Cave System. All in all, this was an excellent first day that had us excited about the next two days of trekking to come. 


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