I’m lying in a hammock suspended between two trees, with a mosquito net above me to keep myself being consumed by insects. My entire lower body aches from climbing, hiking and, admittedly, falling through ten kilometres of dense jungle and caves throughout the day. The soft, sombre sound of rain pattering over my head melodically blends with the crashing sound of the waterfall right next to our camp.
I’m cold, pained and in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle – and I absolutely love it.
I am on my first night of the Tu Lan Expedition in what is known as the Cave Kingdom of Vietnam - the picturesque and phenomenal Phong Nha. This World Heritage listed site contains some of the most beautiful and intricate cave systems in the world. There are hundreds of these systems (many still unfound and unmapped) and underground rivers that flow through these 400 million-year-old caves.
Led by an expert team of British cave explorers as well as a local guide and porters, I embarked on a four day, three night voyage and managed to traverse through eight caves, three huge mountains, countless river crossings as well as bouldering, abseiling and swimming.
If you’re looking for an exhilarating natural adventure, this trek is for you.
The knowledge our guides had was immense. Travellers and explorers their whole lives, our British guides were part of the team who found the largest cave in the world – Son Doong. Every night sitting by the campfire was an experience, listening to their stories of bravery, athleticism and achievement.
Our guides knew the jungle like the back of their hand, almost as well as our Vietnamese porters who were hired from a local town by tour company Oxalis. I was told they previously were paid poorly for illegal tree logging before being employed as a porter which, in comparison, is essentially a dream job – getting paid well to run around the jungle with their mates. Each day they would pack up our campsite in the morning, overtake us and have lunch ready for when we arrived, all while wearing plastic sandals and a cigarette often dangling from their mouths.
One of the most amazing parts of this journey was the absolutely beautiful sights I saw every day. That truly is the beauty of the jungle – one minute it is lush, thick, green expanses, next it’s a raging torrent of water and then a daunting cave entrance 100 metres high. It is a truly, in every sense of the word, unique place.
Every morning, I awoke to the strong scent of rich coffee and stumbled down towards the campsite centre where there was shelter, breakfast, my guides and a fresh brew. I loved the humility of the setting – a couple of saucepans and pans sitting atop a coal fire, whilst we sat next to a waterfall enjoying our breakfast. I tried heating up my cold and damps socks on the fire to combat the weather, but I would later learn that your socks are going to be wet the whole time – accept it!
This trek was my first experience inside a ‘real’ cave. I’d only ever seen what the Gold Coast has to offer in terms of caving and this absolutely blew me away. The sheer size of these glorious natural wonders was insane and it was mind blowing to try and comprehend they were formed from millions of years of water flow. A lovechild of Mother Nature and Father Time.
That night we ‘showered’ in the calm river next to our site and were treated to a glorious dinner of pork ribs, omelettes, beef stew, fresh vegetables, rice and pickled seaweed. After dinner, I sat in the waterfall stream relaxing with my new friends as I enjoyed a (admittedly warm) drink and appreciated my surroundings.
The temperature was a little hot so I slept with the roofing off my hammock and watched the stars as I fell asleep. Being such a technology addict, it was wonderful to be able to fully disconnect, in a place with no Internet, television, reception or link with the outside world - just breathing in the realness of nature.
The next few days were the most strenuous of the trip. I climbed three mountains - one in particular that required me to almost pull myself up most of the way as the incline was so intense. On the way down, I employed a tactic of ‘controlled descent’ which essentially involved falling down the slippery mud face of the mountain.
After this we reached Ken Cave, known for an award winning National Geographic picture of the stalagmite/stalactite formation. Relaxing into the meek current of the cave waters I enjoyed being swept along to the next part of my journey - which turned out to be abseiling down a magnificent cliff edge.
It was a breathtaking and adrenaline-filled experience.
After making our way through a few more wet and dry caves, the time came to leave the wonders of the Tu Lan and begin the long walk home where the views changed to rice paddy fields and farms.
From lying in my hammock watching the stars, getting trench-foot, sharing beers with our guides and pushing my body to the limit after thirty-five kilometres of thick jungle trekking, there is absolutely nothing I would change about my experience of getting lost in the Vietnamese jungle and I recommend you do the same.
Samuel Turner is an Australian journalist with a passion for adventure, travel and food. Follow him on Instagram @turnernator and Facebook Samuel Turner
The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.