Floating through the Tu Lan Caves of Vietnam

Proudly contributed by Paul Eshoo

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For those who want to experience the world-class features of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Vietnam but want to travel lightly and avoid the crowds, there are tours to the nearby Tu Lan Cave system offered exclusively by Oxalis Adventure Tours. I recently did the three-day tour, and it was the best cave experience I have ever had. Not only were the caves we visited beautiful and the information provided by the guides interesting, but we were allowed to experience them by floating through the caves individually, with life vests and headlamps. In other river caves I’ve visited, travel is by boat only, which isn’t bad but doesn’t compare to floating through a cave on your own supported only by a life vest.

Oxalis has quite a story, too. The company was founded in 2011 by a local villager from Phong Nha village, Chau A Nguyen, with the help of British cave explorers who were exploring and researching the area since the 90s. The company started small and has grown into one of the world’s premier cave exploration companies, and one of Southeast Asia’s star ecotourism examples. On our trip, it was clear what made the company earn this reputation. There were local staff, guides, porters, cooks and program facilitators, working on our trip and all the other trips coming in and out simultaneously. The implications for local employment from this one company is obviously significant—and the guides and staff were extremely helpful and friendly, which is typically a good sign for the share of benefits.

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There was obviously a lot of care taken to minimize the impacts on the caves. Every tourist is given a pair of gloves to wear inside the caves so that there is no damage to rock formations from the oil on our hands. There were also continual explanations and warnings so that we did not damage rock formations. Trip size is kept to 10 per group, and groups within the area are staggered, with two guides with each group.

The area was clean and the camping seemed quite low impact overall—despite the company operating at high capacity. Our campsites had composting toilets, a simple practice that is not common in Asia unfortunately. The tents were not luxurious, but it didn’t matter since the campsites had great views of the karst and forest and a nice area for sitting and dining. Food was typical Vietnamese cuisine, which was nice, as a lot of high-end ecotourism programs around the world tend to offer more international food at the cost of authenticity and local benefits.

After our trip was done, our guide took us for lunch at a local noodle shop and arranged a taxi to the Vietnam-Lao border at Cha Lo-Na Phao where we hitched a ride with a truck to cross into Khammouane Province, Laos and go to Thakek.

There are a lot of different Oxalis tour programs to choose from depending on your time, budget and interest. If you do have the funds, an expedition is highly recommended, such as the Son Doong Expedition, which takes you to one of the most impressive caves on the planet with international cave experts.

Links:

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Oxalis Adventure Tours

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