Our first week in Vietnam has been fairly wild, involving bumpy nights on sleeper buses from Hanoi and treks around rural mountain villages in Sapa. Yet somehow we (myself, Dominique, and Karen) have summoned up more energy in our battered, underslept bodies to take on an entire day of caving, trekking and swimming at the newly discovered Tu Lan cave network in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng UNESCO reserve.
So here we are, fighting sleep at 8am on a misty morning in Phong Nha, with maple pancakes from Easy Tiger hostel digesting in our stomach. We’re packed into a van with a 6’6 Dutch guy and Brit-American couple, bumping across the scenic Da Deo Mountain Pass. Deep green mountains and valleys blur outside our windows as we rub our bleary eyes. "Monkey", our cave guide, pulls hilarious faces at us from the front seat.
From the Oxalis base in Tan Hoa, we set off into the mountains, trekking across a two-kilometre stretch of peanut and corn fields, wild buffalo dotted here and there, towards the Rao Nan River. Striding across the grass beneath the cloudy morning sun, the landscape reveals itself to us in full, gorgeous glory. Everything is radiantly green, with hills and trees rising out of the ground, moss and vegetation clinging to the mountain faces.
After wading through the river, we leave the bright sunshine and enter into the darkness of Hang Chuot (Rat Cave). Illuminated by our helmet lights, huge limestone formations surround us, some over 250 metres tall. We gaze wide-eyed at ancient stalagmites, stalactites, and glittering fossils perfectly preserved in the stone. Giant spiders perch on rocks, their eyes glittering like diamonds in the darkness. Dom and I quite like them; Karen isn't such a fan . . .
We trek onwards through grassy valleys to reach Hung Ton Cave, a wild, dark cavern in the mountain, home to bats and bugs and a rare underground river. When we reach what I like to call The Ladder of Doom, a 15-metre ladder that descends into a pit of total darkness. I take one for the team and volunteer to go down first. Praying that the safety rope (see: glorified piece of string) is secure, I salute the team and start to descend. It's a surprisingly easy descent, and at the bottom I'm welcomed by the earthy smell of guano - bat poop. Lovely.
As we walk through an eerie, pitch-black tunnel, we hear the sound of water. Moving water. We strap on our lifejackets, swallow our fear, and jump down into the river, each landing with a splash. When I see the ghostly green river glowing beneath everyone's helmet torches, shivers of wonder shoot up my spine. This earth, our earth, really is astounding. Floating here, in this luminescent ring of alien water, I feel extremely moved.
Swimming along in the darkness, I'm both loving the experience and hoping nothing grabs my leg. Soon, daylight winks at us in the distance, and the river funnels us out beside a sparkling turquoise waterfall into a bright blue lagoon, tinged with green and brown, encompassed by yawning limestone mountains.
It is stunning.
Treading water in the middle of the lagoon, listening to the waterfall splattering against the rocks, Karen, Dom and I grin at each other. That last minute decision we made to come to Phong Nha? So worth it.
After all the swimming, it's time to grub. We hang our clothes on tree branches and let our bikinis breathe during lunch, involving baguettes, barbequed pork, bananas, rambhutan, veggies and coffee. As we eat, we chat happily with the guides and each other, swapping stories, finding common ground.
After we eat, we have time for a dip. Everyone else is too full, but Dom, Karen and I refuse to let the opportunity pass us by. We rip off our sexy, mud-stained trekking pants (thanks, Sports Direct!), clutch each other's hands, and jump into the cold, opaque green waters together, high on blood sugar and endorphins.
It's a wonderful moment for us, unanimously a highlight, if not the highlight, of our entire trip.
Time to head back. On a full stomach, and after resting, the steep 3km journey back to ground level is tough. My lips taste like salt and dust; hot beads of sweat trickle constantly from beneath my helmet, down my face.
There’s sweat on everyone’s faces, on all our clothes, dripping onto the sharp rocks below us, as we cling vertically to the side of the Hung Ton Mountain.
It’s 40 degrees celsius; our hearts are pumping fast in the humidity. My face is burning, flushed with blood; my head is on fire beneath my safety helmet and my hands are on fire beneath my gloves. I focus on hauling myself up, rock by rock, ever higher.
When we finally reach our rest point, I turn to Karen and ask, “Is my face red?” Karen, herself a vision of radiant effort, swallows down a gulpful of water, glances at my face, and diplomatically replies, “Er, just a little bit.” Before I can giggle – or take offense – it’s time to for us to carry on climbing down.
Clinging to the rocks for dear life, surrounded by swarms of mosquitos and highly aware of the sheer drop below, I realise that I've never actually dripped with sweat before. Gross, but awesome. Feelin' alive.
We power onwards, legs shaking, until we touch solid ground again. Sweet relief. At the river, we peel off our gloves, our helmets, and splash our dirty faces. Karen and I flag behind the group as we leave the fields, and somehow I immediately sink ankle-deep into a pile of buffalo poo. Karen laughs so hard she nearly cries.
I've encountered a lot of different types of animal poo, today. I'll definitely be leaving my shoes behind.
Back at base, we sprint to the showers. Hot steam massages our aching muscles, and I watch with satisfaction as mud swirls down the drain. Squeaky clean and feeling shattered, we give thanks to the Oxalis team, pile into a van, and conk out on the way back into town, asleep within seconds. It's pitch black when we wake up.
We have a fun dinner at Easy Tiger with the Dutch guy before parting ways. Because the bus to Hoi An isn't until 4am, we decide to check into a room we have booked at the Mountain View Hotel.
This turns out to be a very bad idea.
The hotel is dark and deserted. As we enter our dusty rooms, a horrifying experience unfolds involving two drunk, near-naked local men who try to kiss (yes, KISS) Karen on the mouth as we pass by. To make matters worse, the two female receptionists withhold our passports for almost an hour in an attempt to downplay the whole ghastly situation.
(For the sake of solo traveller safety, just remember: if you don’t feel safe somewhere, it’s just not worth staying there – and if someone tries to physically violate you? GET THE F@*% OUTTA THERE.)
Hilariously, we get charged online for the stay. But $8 is a small price to pay for our safety.
Hotel mishap aside, our spirits are high. The one-day Tu Lan caving experience has invigorated us. Settling into our third dodgy sleeper bus bed of the week, we promise each other that the next time we're in Vietnam, we’ll try out the three-day trekking experience, where more unexplored cave networks and magical mountain mysteries await. For the meantime, we're happy with our next adventure: exploring the beauty of Hoi An.
As the bus lights dim, we curl up together and close our eyes, drifting into dreams of glowing green lagoons.
We'd heard about the Tu Lan caves back in London. The one-day adventure won us over: trekking across fields, wading across rivers, climbing mountains, through jungles, descending into valleys… Did I mention a one-kilometre swim through a pitch-black cave river and having lunch beneath a waterfall? At 2-million Vietnamese Dong (around £62, or $90) per person, it was a total no-brainer. Highly recommended if you're going to Vietnam. Happy to answer any questions!
Mel left London to chase summer around the world, one country at a time. She loves the ocean, writing postcards, and solo exploration. Travel with her on Instagram.