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Tu Lan: Explore One of Vietnam’s Majestic Cave Systems

May 26, 2022
13 Min Read
VietnamAdventure
People on a raft in Tu Lan Cave, Vietnam

Tu Lan: Explore One of Vietnam’s Majestic Cave Systems

Experience one of the biggest cave systems in Vietnam in this 2 Day Tu Lan encounter with Oxalis.

May 26, 2022
13 Min Read
VietnamAdventure
People on a raft in Tu Lan Cave, Vietnam
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Tu Lan: Explore One of Vietnam’s Majestic Cave Systems
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A visit to Vietnam's Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park would be incomplete without exploring one of its caves. Son Doong, which has made headlines in recent years, may come to mind when you think of caves in Vietnam. However, there are numerous caves in Vietnam that are equally beautiful and worth visiting, like the Tu Lan Cave System. 

The Tu Lan cave system just sits outside Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. It comprises more than 20 wet and dry caves that are about three to five million years old. If you've ever wondered what it's like to explore one of the largest cave systems in Vietnam, then look no further!

In this post, you can find a detailed itinerary of the 2-day Tu Lan Encounter with Oxalis. This is based on our recent experience, so don't miss out on many of our insider tips that you won't find anywhere else. We've also included a list of things you need to prepare to ensure you're ready for the trek.

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What is the Tu Lan Encounter?

The Tu Lan Encounter is an Oxalis tour that gives visitors a glimpse of the incredible beauty of the Tu Lan Cave System. It's a chance to see the Tu Lan wet caves and the surrounding scenery. A wet cave simply means that rivers run through it. Tu Lan Encounter is a two-day tour that includes trekking, swimming, and cave walks. This tour is ideal for those with limited time but still want to visit the Tu Lan Cave System.

Only Oxalis has the authority to explore the Tu Lan Cave Systems. So if you want to book a tour with them, we recommend doing so ahead of time because they fill up quickly. You can check their tour availabilities and book your tour on their website. You might also be interested in other cave expeditions offered by Oxalis.

A woman poses for a photo in Tu Lan Cave, Vietnam

How Much Does it Cost?

Oxalis' Tu Lan Encounter costs 5,500,000 VND (235 USD) per person. You might get discounted rates as they frequently offer promotions if you book ahead of time. For our trip, we paid 4,950,000 VND (214 USD) per person. 

Tip: If you've previously taken an Oxalis tour, you should mention it when booking so that you can receive a 10% discount on your next tour.

A group of people walks through a green scenery near Tu Lan cave, Vietnam

Best Time to Go

You can visit Tu Lan anytime during the dry season from January to August. You should avoid visiting during the rainy season. The highest rainfall happens between September and November, so Oxalis does not operate at these times as the caves can be flooded. 

Rock formations covered by trees and bushes.

What to Expect?

You will have a different experience depending on the weather, so check the forecast before booking your tour. The itinerary may also differ slightly because your guide will decide what is best for your group. These are all based on our personal experiences, and the goal is to help you prepare for your trip.

Here’s what our Tu Lan Encounter expedition was like and keep reading to find our top tips!

People have lunch in a cave in Vietnam

Pre - Departure

Depending on where you will be staying in Phong Nha, you will be asked to be ready for pick-up at 7:30 a.m. on the day of your trip. You can also stay at Oxalis Home for your convenience. They offer basic rooms, including a dorm with 8 bunk beds, which is ideal for groups. There is also a restaurant on site where you can order delicious food at reasonable prices.

The convenience of having everything in one place was what we liked best about the Oxalis Home. The staff were also courteous and professional. Aside from that, they have a private beachfront along the Son River with an incredible view of the mountains.

Tip: If you're staying at Oxalis Home, pre-order your breakfast at the restaurant the night before to avoid a long wait the next morning. We also recommend eating breakfast before leaving for the tour.

Read: Complete Travel Guide to Phong Nha

Bird-eye view of rice-fields that meet mountains in Phong Nha, Vietnam

Day 1

Your tour guide will meet you at the Oxalis Home restaurant between 7:30 and 8:00 a.m. If you are not in a group, you will be given a brief overview of what to expect and be introduced to the other people on the tour. 

A van will pick you up around 8 a.m. to take you to the Oxalis Office in Tan Hoa, which is about an hour and a half away. You'll drive around the national park on a winding road with views of endless mountains and forests. Although there will be no phone service for the majority of the drive, the scenery will make up for it.

Yellow rice-fields with mountains in the background, Vietnam

You will pass through a small village in Tan Hoa close to the office. This area gets flooded every year around September and in 2020, the water level was measured to be as high as the town's electric pole. Locals built small houses with four tall poles attached to each corner and barrels at the bottom. As a result, the houses float on the water, providing shelter for the residents during the flooding season. While their animals are moved to the mountains ahead of the flooding.

Barrels under houses in Phong Nha, Vietnam
Houses attached to poles with barrels underneath. This way the houses will float during floods.

You will be briefed on the overall route of your tour at the office. They will also discuss the trek's potential hazards, such as leeches and stinging plants. The tour's rules and regulations will then be explained to you, followed by the signing of release forms. You will be given time to pack for camp, and your personal belongings will be limited to 3 kg per person.  This will be carried directly to the camp by porters and you will not be able to access it along the way. ‍

Tip: Prepare everything you'll need for the campsite ahead of time so you will not forget anything. For better organization, use a packing cube. 

A guide from Oxalis gives a briefing
Dat, our guide, has been doing cave expeditions with Oxalis for nearly 6 years.

A 30-liter bag will be provided to carry your helmet, a water bottle, and a drum box to keep your phone and camera dry. This box is 22 cm high and 20 cm wide, or 25 cm high and 15 cm wide. Note that the bag they provide is not waterproof. 

Tip: Bring your own dry bag instead. Prepare one that is large enough to hold anything you don't want to get wet. The drum boxes they provide can be quite heavy, especially if all you need is your phone. They are also bulky and sit weirdly inside the bag, making it a bit awkward to carry. 

A rack of shoes at Oxalis, Phong Nha

You'll begin by walking on a flat path for 2.5 kilometers, passing through fields and grazing buffalo. Then you'll cross the river in knee-deep water, leading to a steep rocky uphill section. Because it is so short, the local guides refer to this section as "baby hill." The guides will instruct you to wear gloves along the way, but be careful what you touch because the rocks have very sharp edges. You will descend until you reach the Hung Ton cave entrance, where you will have lunch. After lunch, you will be given enough time to rest before continuing.

Tip: Bring a change of socks so you don't have to walk around all day in wet socks. After lunch, there will be no more river crossings.

 

People cross a river in Phong Nha, Vietnam
The river crossing before the first uphill section of the trek.

After lunch, you will continue through the forest, with two more uphill and downhill sections. Again, they call this area "mama hill" and "papa hill." These are slightly longer than the previous hills. After the last hill, you will arrive at the night's base camp located in the Tu Lan Valley, near the small waterfall and with a view of Ken Cave.

You will take a short rest before heading to Tu Lan Cave after arriving at the base camp. Your bags will be left behind, and your porter will carry one bag containing all of the phones and cameras you will want to bring in the cave. 

A camp with rock formations in the background, Phong Nha.
The camp site is surrounded by mountains and greenery.

The Tu Lan cave was named after its shape, which in the local language translates as breast and tongue. From above, the cave has the shape of a breast, and the river that emerges from it mimics a tongue. The entrance also has stalactites that look like uvulas, which fits the name perfectly.

To enter the Tu Lan Cave, you will first swim in the river and then climb up a narrow passageway until you reach the main, larger area of the cave. The Tu Lan cave is magnificent, with breathtaking formations inside. There are numerous photo opportunities, so bring a tripod if you are serious about photography. After exploring the exciting Tu Lan cave, you will cross a few rivers and stop at a small waterfall before returning to the campsite.

People hike through a forest in Phong Nha, Vietnam
People hike through a forest in Phong Nha, Vietnam

You will have the rest of the day to get comfortable before dinner. You can take a bath at the stream next to the campsite, but you cannot use any chemical soaps or shampoos. 

Tip: Instead, bring an organic soap bar. Cut a small piece and bring only what you need, so you don't have to carry the entire bar. 

People inspect rock formations in Tu Lan Cave, Vietnam
The guide explaining the formations in the Tu Lan Cave.

After dinner, the porters will build a campfire for you to relax around before heading to bed. They will also provide some light snacks for your group to enjoy. Our group brought a small speaker, so we were able to enjoy some music at the campfire. 

Tip: Turn the camp chairs upside down and hang your shoes on the legs before sleeping. This will help to dry your shoes while also keeping insects out. It may also rain overnight, so keep your belongings under the tarp next to your tent.

People pose for a photo in Tu Lan Cave, Vietnam

Day 2

You will begin your day early and leave camp after breakfast. Your guide will inform you of the time your group will depart for the day, which is usually around 8:30 a.m. You'll have enough time to enjoy your morning and pack your belongings. Take a seat next to the stream and enjoy the view of Ken Cave. 

Tip: Wake up early and ask one of the guides to bring you closer to the entrance of Ken Cave. The guide will take you on an inflatable raft where you can take your time photographing the cave entrance and waterfall.

Entrance of Ken Cave, Vietnam
Ken Cave as seen from the camp site.

You will leave your bags at the entrance before exploring Ken Cave. Your guide will collect any phones or cameras you wish to bring inside and place them in a single dry box. Your group will also decide whether to swim or take a raft in Ken Cave. When you reach the end of the river, you will be able to explore the formations and take photos.

People enter Ken Cave, Vietnam

After Ken Cave, you will trek for a short distance until you reach the small opening of Kim Cave. It was named after Kim, a woman who discovered the cave by accident. You will ascend the boulders and small crevices in the same way that Kim discovered the cave.

Rock formations in Ken Cave, Vietnam
Inside the Ken Cave

After climbing, you will be greeted by a large cavern with impressive stalagmites and stalactites that have formed over millions of years. The dry passage will come to an end here. Then you will continue to explore Kim Cave as you swim into the river for about 450 meters until you reach To Mo Valley. At To Mo Valley, you will have time to swim in the river and enjoy the day before you have your light snack.

Tip: Find the paddle board and enjoy swimming in the river. 

 

A woman on a paddle board near Ken Cave, Phong Nha

After lunch, you will move to Hung Ton Cave, where you will either swim or take a raft down the river and exit through a 15-meter high ladder. Don't worry, there will be a harness for your protection. Then you'll keep walking until you reach the cave where you had lunch the day before. You will continue on the same path you took the first day, up the "baby hill," and across the river until you reach the 2.5-kilometer flat path leading to the Oxalis office.

People on a raft in Tu Lan Cave, Vietnam

Post - Arrival

You'll reach the office around 3 p.m. and have time to shower. Fresh towels, shampoo, and shower gel will be provided. There are also plenty of restrooms available.

Tip: If the weather is sunny, lay out your wet clothes in the sun. You'll have plenty of time to dry them out, so you don't have to pack them wet.

People walk through a green landscape in Phong Nha, Vietnam

Your guide and porters will take your group to a local restaurant in the village for a delicious lunch before transferring to Phong Nha. A van will take you to Phong Nha town and drop you off at your accommodation.

A guide from Oxalis at Phong Nha national park.

What to Expect at the Camp Site

The campsite is located in the Tu Lan Valley, near the waterfall and with a view of Ken Cave. Oxalis usually offers two Tu Lan Encounter tours on the same day. However, you won't see them much along the way. The base camp is also divided into two sections separated by a river, so you won't be able to interact with the other group.

The campsite has a kitchen area where the porters and chef prepare your food, a long dining table and a covered tent area. There will be two composting toilets and an enclosed changing room. As for the sleeping situation, each person will have a thick mattress, a pillow, and a sleeping bag in the tent.

A tent in front of a small lake in Phong Nha national park, Vietnam

What to Prepare 

Trekking shoes

Make sure they are easy to dry and avoid using Gore Tex. If you do not have one, you can borrow a basic canvas shoe from the Oxalis Office, where you will also receive insoles. You may wish to bring your own. But, it's even better if you have your own shoes.

Thick-woven thigh socks

The thick socks will keep blisters from forming on your back ankles. Especially if you're borrowing Oxalis' shoes. We also recommend that you wear one shoe size up.

Neon long sleeve shirt

It is recommended to wear a long-sleeve shirt to protect your skin from the sun and also from swimming in the caves. Wear a quick-drying shirt and, if possible, a neon color. This is ideal for taking photos inside the cave.

Tip: Oxalis has a shop where you can purchase neon shirts. All proceeds benefit their foundation, which provides assistance to the local community through scholarships and the construction of schools and toilets.

Long quick-drying pants

It is recommended that you wear long pants to protect yourself from the sun and cuts from the sharp rocks. Make sure they dry quickly as well.

High-quality dry bag

Prepare a dry bag that is large enough to hold anything you don't want wet during the trek.

We've also compiled a packing list of essentials you’ll be needing for your trek and another list of things for the camp site. Subscribe to our newsletter below to receive a link with the free packing list.

Download the Packing List for Tu Lan Cave!
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People enter Ken Cave, Vietnam

Exploring the Tu Lan cave system in Phong Nha is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that should be done by anyone visiting Vietnam. Oxalis has done an incredible job curating their cave tours, and we felt safe and comfortable the entire trip. Their guides and safety personnel were all remarkable, and they demonstrated their love and passion for nature, particularly the caves.

This is a tour we highly recommend!

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments section below, and we'll be happy to help. Have a good time caving in Tu Lan. 

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