I have, once again, hit my head against a huge stalactite. Fortunately I am wearing a helmet, a necessary precaution when trekking through Vietnam’s Tu Lan cave system. It is pitch dark, and “trekking” is actually a bit of a misnomer. The caves were created by weakly acidic rain and yearly floods that wash the calcite out of the rocks, leaving behind cavernous spaces. Most of these caves contain large rivers, and the only way to “trek” through them is to strap on a life jacket and swim.
We drift slowly and silently, our headlamps cutting through the darkness, with only the squeaky echo of bats as they swoop low to pick off bugs for lunch. The deeper into the caves we swim, the larger the rock formations become. At some points, stalactites hang all the way down to the water (hence the bumps to the head). Massive columns several metres around formed by the meeting of a stalactite and a stalagmite surround us and often block our watery paths. At the end of each cave, we drag ourselves out of the water, at which point the bugs attack in full force, sucking our blood, rich with sugar thanks to the numerous packs of Oreos the friendly porters have fed us.
Officially discovered in 2009, Tu Lan gained attention in 2011 when a picture by Carsten Peter of the Ken Cave’s glowing green pools won National Geographic’s Photograph of the Year. Tourism has grown steadily, but the caves, nestled near the Laos border, around 70 kilometres northwest of Phong Nha, remain wonderfully untouched, attracting only about 2,000 visitors this year.
The “hottest” cave in Vietnam right now is nearby Hang Son Doong, which made The New York Times’s list of 52 Places to Go in 2014 and is considered to be the largest in the world by volume (one chamber is five kilometres long, another 182 metres high). Discovered in 1991 by a Vietnamese farmer, it was sized up by scientists in 2009 and finally opened to the public earlier this year. My partner and I had planned to explore it for ourselves, until one small issue came up: a price tag of $3,000 (U.S.) each for an eight-day excursion. We instead decided to do the three-day trek of Tu Lan, about one-tenth the cost. For just $325, we also got to camp in the lush, primary jungle near Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park – home to some of the world’s oldest karst formations (limestone hills) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and enjoy a barbecue under the stars.
Tu Lan might not be the largest system, but its size is still impressive. The number of caves continues to increase as more are discovered seemingly every year. In 2012, our guide told us, a tourgoer named Kim from the Netherlands ventured off into the jungle to relieve himself during the lunch break and stumbled upon what is now called Kim Cave.
The air was so quiet, the blackness so impenetrable, I felt ill at ease. After a month in Asia. I had been acclimatized to the constant honking of cars and motorbikes (as one fellow traveller put it: “I think the Vietnamese have just discovered the horn”). This new lack of stimulus was almost unbearable. I picked up a rock and threw it off the edge, into the river, just to have some sort of sensory input.
Of course, it is this absence of people, hawkers, noise pollution and all the things that exist at so many tourist sites in Vietnam that makes the Tu Lan system so amazing. The Phong Nha area is clean, quiet and peaceful, open for anyone to come and enjoy. I hope future generations see the value in that.
IF YOU GO
The Tu Lan system is about 70 kilometres from Phong Nha, which is unfortunately a little out of the way of most transport in Vietnam. Once you arrive in Vietnam, the best way is to fly direct to Dong Hoi from either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City ($50-$150 one way, about a one-hour flight) on Vietnam Airlines, then take a bus or taxi ($3-$15, about 50 km) to Phong Nha. (vietnamairlines.com)
WHERE TO STAY
The best place to stay is the Phong Nha Farm Stay. Located in Cu Nam village just outside of Phong Nha, this place is an oasis for rest and relaxation. Just $40 a night gets you views of the rice paddies, a pool, amazing food and the help of the extremely friendly owner and staff. (If you run out of clothes, ask for Seamus: He will probably give you the shirt off his back.) If you make a reservation, the Farm Stay will set up transport to and from Phong Nha and or Dong Hoi, plus arrange any treks. (phong-nha-cave.com)
WHAT TO DO
If you are coming to Phong Nha, you are coming to see the caves. Oxalis offers a variety of treks for the Tu Lan Cave system (from one to four days, $85-$475), Hang En Cave (two days, $275) and Hang Son Doong (8 days, $3,000). If you are not up for overnighting in a hammock strung up in the jungle, you can enjoy a day-trip visit to the more touristy caves such as Paradise Cave and Dark Cave. (http://www.oxalis.com.vn/)