The Tu Lan Experience
When planning our trip we hardly booked anything from home. The only thing besides our flights and the first hotel that we booked beforehand was the Tu Lan Experience with Oxalis Tours. That was because even then the one we initially wanted to do (2D1N-Trek with a night in the jungle) was booked out and so we decided to go with the one day trip.
BEWARE: There will be pictures of spiders in this post ;)
FYI: Our information and opinion about this tour is our own, this is no sponsored post whatsoever, just our personal review of our experience.
We were picked up fairly early in the morning at our hotel, and drove to the Tu Lan Caving Center, which took about 1.5 hours. At the base camp we first got a briefing about the route we would be and some safety information. Then we checked what we wanted to take for the days trip. Those things we gave to our guide Tha, who carried them in a watertight backpack. Everything else we left securely locked at the base camp.
The first part of the trip was a 20 minute walk to the first cave. Right in front of it we had to cross a river, about hip deep - for me anyways. With camera in hand we were a little bit insecure at first, but going with the flow of the river we all crossed savely and made our way to the first cave, still dripping water and mud from shoes and pants.
“Rat Cave”, the first cave we visited, was a dry cave. That means there’s no river in it, but it was in no means “dry”, it rather was really wet and muddy inside. But the water dripping from the ceiling of the cave also formed stunning stalactites, stalagmites and columns in the cave. Many of them, hundreds. In a part of the cave we also saw a whole bunch of bats hanging from the ceiling. Before we were through with visiting the cave, a group of local vietnamese people, packed with things, started to climb down from the other entrance of the cave. It was crazy to see how they just walked through with all their stuff, while we slipped around in the mud, even though our guide was carrying all our things.
We exited the cave through the same entrance that we had gone in, after we had a short snack break for lunch in the entrance of the cave. Afterwards we marched on, our way now leading through the jungle on a small track, across a small hill. On the way our guide explained us some of the plants we saw and gave us information on the geology of the region and how the caves had formed.
Then we reached the second cave, this one a river cave. We entered through an upper entrance, then climbed down a steel ladder to the underground river. We walked into to a smaller chamber of the cave to look at “cave pearl”, and some glittering rocks. And then we realized that not all glittering was rocks - a lot of it was actually spider eyes, lit up by our headlamps. Those things in there where huge! When our guide then asked us to turn off our headlamps, so we could appreciate a few moments in the complete and utter darkness, it turned absolutely pitch black. It really was the absolute absence of any light. Not everyone in our group of eight was too fond of that, especially after we had seen all those spiders.
After exploring the dry part of the cave we donned lifevests and then climbed into the underground river. The current slowly pulled us along, we hardly had to do any swimming and instead had the opportunity to just enjoy the experience. Where the river ran out of the cave there was a tiny waterfall, so we had to climb out of the water, walk around it, and then get back in. We swam through a lake formed in the valley right outside the cave to get to the camp situated there for our lunch break.
For lunch break we had summer rolls, banh mi and lots of vegetables and fruit, to collect enough energy for our walk back. We spent some time at the campsite eating, swimming in the lake and just enjoying the view, before we had to get going again. The way back led us across another elevation before we got to the river again. We crossed at a different place this time, where the river was a lot broader, but just as deep. This time we at least knew what we were doing though. Still, I feel like being a bit taller and heavier might have made it a bit easier also, because I felt like I would be drifting away most of the time.
Most of our clothes dried on the half hour walk from the river back to the camp. There we took a shower, had a beer and then got back into the van to drive back to Phong Nha. We transferred to another car as soon as we got back to Phong Nha, to get to Dong Hoi, where we had booked a train to Ninh Binh, our next station.
The train was alright, comfort-wise. We had booked “soft sleeper” berths, so we share the room with more people. It ended up being only one guy though, the other bed stayed empty all the way. I slept alright on the train, but I am so glad I can sleep in any condition. Vietnamese people are not so considerate towards people travelling with them. Or they just don’t know headphones. But everyone on the train seemed to watch videos on their smartphones, with the volume up as loud as possible. And there was one guy in one of the neighbouring compartments of the train that listed to vietnamese techno music real loud.