Table of Contents
- 1 How to Get to Phong Nha
- 2 Where to Stay in Phong Nha
- 3 Tu Lan 2 Day Encounter
- 4 Some Final Tips
If you’ve come here to read just one sentence, let it be this one: Of all the Phong Nha cave tours, I highly recommend going with Oxalis Tours.
If you’re in for the long haul, I promise to give a full overview here of everything you need to know to go on said caving adventure.
O.K. to be fair, there are a whole bunch of tour package options and I only went on one so I really can only speak to that one, Tu Lan 2 Day encounter.
How to Get to Phong Nha
Phong Nha is situated in the middle of Vietnam, in the ‘skinny bit.’ These are the Central Highlands and they’re pretty spectacular. Phong Nha isn’t the most straightforward place to get to though (that’s a good thing, it keeps the lazy masses out). Most likely you’ll be coming from one of the major cities in the country or including this stop on your larger Vietnam journey. Here’s how to get to Phong Nha.
Ho Chi Minh City to Phong Nha
As I was based in HCMC this time and every time I’ve lived in ‘Nam, I flew up to Dong Hoi from there. The flight, all things running smoothly, is 1:20 wheels up to wheels down. To get from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha you have two options.
The first is to book a car transfer, that can be easily done through your hotel and means you’ll have someone waiting for you out front of the airport. It’s 500,000 VND one way, which isn’t cheap, but keep in mind it’s a private transfer and about a 45 minute drive.
Alternatively, you can take the public bus. The bus takes about double the time but is only 33,000 VND per person. The bus stop is to the right on the main road which runs in front of the airport. It’s the B4 bus. The bus makes multipl stops through Phong Nha so my recommendation is to have an offline map ready to go and track where you are so you can ask the driver to stop when you get close to your accommodation.
Hue to Phong Nha
If you’re traveling the country and coming from the south you’ll probably be coming from Hue. There are a few ways you can get from Hue to Phong Nha, the distance of which is about 200 kilometers.
You can take a train which is a journey of about 3 – 3.5 hours but gets you to Don Hoi, not directly to Phong Nha, which means you’ll then have to choose from one of the transfer options listed above.
There’s also a bus option which you can book through Sinh Tourist. This trip takes about 5 hours but gets you directly into Phong Nha and costs just 179,000 VND
Finally, you can also choose to book a private transfer the whole way. This journey will still take about 5 hours but the cost will be nearly 2 million VND.
Where to Stay in Phong Nha
No matter which of the Phong Nha cave tours you choose to book with, I recommend spending time before or after in Phong Nha. Since the Oxalis tour departs early in the morning, you’ll want to, at the very least, stay the night before in Phong Nha. I can hands down recommend Phong Nha Farmstay. Set in the middle of rice fields, which end only when the areas limestone mountains begin, Farmstay is an oasis. If you fly up from Saigon, like I did, it may be hard to imagine that a log fire could have any appeal, but I promise you, the two at Farmstay, along with the red wine on the menu, are everything you will want.
Top that off with two pools, a life size chess board, happy hour, free bikes for use, an immensely helpful, friendly, and personable staff, and I have yet to find better accommodation in the country.
One tip: request a second floor room.
Bonus points: Tell them I sent you, Caitlin, The Country Jumper and get 10% of your stay.
Tu Lan 2 Day Encounter
What I packed
I was honestly a little overwhelmed at how to pack correctly for this trip, but it turned out to be much more straightforward than I had thought. My one critique of Oxalis is that the packing list they provide beforehand is a bit confusing. So here’s what I ended up doing…
To carry on my back
- Sunscreen (consider a reef safe brand)
- Mosquito repellent (I know DEET is awful, but this is the jungle and mosquitoes are bastards with nasty diseases)
- Camera (I recently upgraded to a Canon 77D and am very happy with it)
- Tripod (I use a mefoto – and having it is essential for good photos in the caves)
- Dry bag (when it’s time to swim the porters will carry your electronics in a dry box, we doubled up and put them inside a dry bag first, just in case)
To go with the porters
- Warm clothes to switch to when the day is over
- Long leggings
- My VT Flannel (use my code: JUMPER for 10% off – I was honestly so glad to have this with me!)
- Flip flops (you MUST have a change of shoes)
- Toothbrush and paste
- Coconut oil –the only beauty product I brought, just to help freshen up a little bit
- A change of socks
- A change of underwear
- A change of sports bra
- Portable charger (there’re no power outlets out there so if you’re using your phone for pictures you’ll want to have a portable way to charge it)
- I didn’t bring it but you might consider a silk sleep sack to be a bit more comfortable in the provided sleeping bags
- I also didn’t bring but wish I had brought a deck of cards – it gets dark early and there’s not loads to do out there.
What I wore (and re-wore)
- Sports bra
- Rash guard (I have a long sleeved Roxy)
- Long 100% polyester pants with elastic bottoms
- High socks (no ankle socks!)
- Sneakers (I have Nike Free RN’s which worked just fine for this.
Oxalis will come pick you up wherever you are staying in Phong Nha (you can also arrange a Dong Hoi pick up with them at an extra cost) between 7:30 and 8:00 A.M. That means eat breakfast and have your bags packed before then.
Then you’re off. It’s about 30 minutes walking along an entirely flat dirt path through fields of water buffalo before you get to a river crossing. Our river crossing didn’t even reach our knees, I went in February, decently far from rainy season which is why the water level was as it was. Do be aware of the time of year you are going and what that means for your tour. Know that Oxalis ceases tours for two months during rainy season as supposedly the flooding in the area is so bad that the entire valley is a lake. Immediately following that you’ll encounter higher water levels which means stronger currents and longer swimming distances, so do take that into account when choosing the tour you book.
It’s about an hour and a half drive from Phong Nha to the Oxalis office and the starting point of your trek. At the office you’ll have a briefing of your trip, the opportunity to borrow a pair of the companies trekking boots (I opted not to and wore my Nike Free RN’s and they got me through just fine), you’ll sign another release form, and you’ll divide up your luggage. You’ll pack three bags, one to stay at the Oxalis office – you can leave valuables separately, one to carry on your back through the first part of the day, and a third for the porters to carry directly to camp. Check what I packed to see how I divided my stuff.
Day one sees you climbing three ‘mountains’ dubbed baby, mommy, and daddy for their sizes, the height really isn’t anything to be worried about, it’s rather that the climb gets a bit technical. For me it was coming down that was more difficult than anything else. The ground was click and muddy as were my shoes and at times there’s nothing to grab on to to keep yourself from sliding down the path or landing in the mud.
After climbing up and over baby mountain you’ll arrive at the mouth of a cave for lunch, we arrived around 1:00 PM. Lunch was made up of delicious summer rolls which we stuffed and rolled ourselves, this along with bread, cheese, fruit, and plenty of cookies got us ready for the second part of the day.
Lunch was followed by mommy and daddy mountains – in that order. Getting up and down both of them took a total of about 1.5 hours. At the bottom of daddy was camp.
Camp is basic but very well done. In the middle of a clearing, with a waterfall thundering in the background is a tent with two long tables where you’ll have dinner and breakfast. Around the are open sided roof shelters, two which cover tents for everyone on the tour along with your guide, cook, and the porters, and a third which covers the cooking area. In the back of it all is a compostable toilet which uses rice husks and a western toilet seat and is actually quite passable.
When you arrive at camp you’ll have a few minutes to break and have a cup of warm tea or coffee before suiting up and finally heading into your first cave.
Since all the caves on the Tu Lan 2 day adventure are wet caves you’ll be wearing a life jacket throughout, this is a non-negotiable requirement. You’ll also have a helmet with a headlamp attached. At this point the porter will pack any electronics into the dry box and those will go on his back.
The first cave is right there at camp. We walked over, scrambled across some rocks, and got in the water. I was not expecting it to be as warm as it was. In fact, I was very anxious that I was going to be freezing and miserable, I wasn’t.
I believe this first swim was about 250 meters. I am not a strong swimmer, at all, and I was made even more useless in the water by the life jacket which pulls you into this awkward nearly seated position. But the guide and porter make sure everyone is o.k. and we all made it to the back of the cave, no problems.
When you first enter the water you have the light from the cave entrance guiding you but as you get deeper into the cave the light becomes less and less and you switch your headlamps on. This causes every bug imaginable to swarm at your face, which drove me mental. But, it also gets the bats out, hunting the bugs in front of your face. Bats terrify me, like most things which fly, except the knowledge that they so often have rabies kinda puts them even lower on the totem pole of my mind. But, these bats were strangely calming. They screeched and swooped, but as bats do, they never once made contact. And we were also assured that there has never been a bat test positive for rabies in the area.
At the back of the cave we pulled ourselves out of the water. Our guide spoke to us about Vietnamese folklore, the history of this cave specifically, and then he told us to switch off our headlamps.
Back at camp we all pulled off our wet clothes as quickly as possible and changed into the warm overnight clothes the porters had carried over for us. It wasn’t long before a massive buffet of every imaginable food was laid out in front of us along the two metal tables. Oxalis checks with you beforehand about any dietary requirements and accommodates any needs. Luckily, my whole tour was all in on all the food. There was pork, chicken, beef, veggies, noodles, everything. It was delicious and well needed after a long day of physical exertion.
As we wrapped up dinner someone inquired about the time – 7:30 – we looked at each other with a bit of panic as to what we were going to do now (remember how I mentioned I wish I’d brought cards – yeah.) it was dark but it was still far too early to fall asleep. Luckily, our guide had a deck of UNO cards. We played round after round of a strange Vietnamese hybrid of UNO. We made it to around 9:00 when we decided we might be able to sleep. I did, though not well. The tents are of course provided with sleeping bags and mats, but it’s still not comfy.
Day two starts with breakfast around 7:30 – another buffet to get you ready for the day ahead. And then it’s time to get ready for a day of caving. Our clothes which had been hung out the day before were very much not dry at all. It was a bit painful putting them on but it would be all of 5 minutes before they were soaking wet again anyways. Bags are packed, the same as the day before, some things to go on your back and others to go back to the office with the porters. And you’re off.
More Caving and Trekking
Cave one is just behind camp. This one involves the most scrambling. It’s only for a very short moment but you will need to pull yourself up into a small crack in rocks with ropes that are drilled into the sides.
Cave two involves a combination of swimming, trekking, and photo ops before breaking for a snack, then it’s on to your third cave of the day and final cave of the tour. This one has lots of twists and turns through river tunnels and alternates regularly from walking to swimming in short spurts.
Finally, you’re out the other side where you hand over your life jackets to the porter and begin the trek back over baby mountain, through the river, and across the buffalo fields to the Oxalis office.
Back at the office Oxalis provides towels, shampoo, and soap which you will be glad to have and use under their hot showers. You’ll collect all of the belongings you left behind and head to a local cafe for lunch with your group before getting the transfer back into Phong Nha. And, if your group is anything like mine, you’ll all pass out on the drive back.
Some Final Tips
If I can give you one tip, it’s this: Go. I was a little bit nervous that I might be underwhelmed. I wasn’t. I’ve been in many underwhelming caves lined with rubber pathways and overhead lighting. This wasn’t even remotely like that. This was truly an adventure.
Be careful with your electronics. Generally, everything was fine, but know this, it is very damp out there. The risk of damaging electronics does not come just from dropping them in the water but also just from the air which doesn’t allow quick dry clothes to dry overnight. I have an iPhone which is a hand me down from someone who cracked the corner and deemed it unusable. It’s been totally fine for a year, but after this tour it has not been the same. Presumably moisture got in the crack and the touch screen now has spasms from time to time.
I got away with it thanks to a kind security guard, but he informed me that you are not allowed to fly with tripods carry-on in Vietnam. So, if you’re flying in, carry a tripod at the risk that it might be taken, or check it.
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