Every so often, we do something on our travels that after we’re done, we say, “Man, this is going to make a great road story!” Our adventure to Truong Lam cave is probably one of our most epic travel stories to date. So, here it goes!
The weekend after we explored Ninh Binh, we knew we wanted to stay in the Nghi Son area. I still wanted to do something, but we wanted to stay close to home. Since information about tourist destinations close to Nghi Son is scarce, I jumped at the chance to visit a cave that was advertised to be 20 km away from Nghi Son Economic Zone. I wrote down the name of the cave, and took it down to the front desk to make sure it was a good place to go with the boys. The front desk staff looked at each other, and said, “You want to go there?” When I responded affirmatively, they said, “You can go there. It is very beautiful!” We texted our taxi driver, Mr. Taxi, and were on our way. We drove for about 15 km on normal roads, and then turned off onto some pretty rough, rutted dirt roads. Mr. Taxi’s taxi was a van, so it was not the best vehicle for the rough roads, but he managed. At one point, he asked for directions and crossed a narrow bridge where we were pretty sure he was not going to make it without scraping the sides of his van. He even got out to check!
We continued on rutted roads, and then started going up a rough logging road that was very steep. At one point, Mr. Taxi’s van could not go up the hill any further. A logging truck was blocking the road ahead, and even when the truck moved, he did not have traction on the gravelly, rutted road to continue up the hill. At this point, he said that the cave was 1 km up the hill, and that we should walk. So, Austin strapped Owen on his back and we all started trekking up this really steep hill. Some of the men working with the logging truck had scooters and offered to take us up to the cave on the back of their scooters. Imagine Austin, with the added weight of Owen on his back, sitting on the back of a small scooter without suspension holding on for dear life as a logger speeds up a steep hill. Another man put Landon in front in between his legs, and me behind, and we sped up the hill much faster than I thought was prudent given the road conditions! We have to pay them 100,000 dong each (about $5), but after riding for OVER 1 km on the back of the scooters, we made it to the cave entrance. Those guys saved us; I don’t think we would have ventured far enough to find the cave without them!
I’m not sure what I was expecting at this point. The road to the cave was virtually impassible. I thought that the cave might just have one big chamber and we would say, “COOL!” and maybe stay there for a few minutes and then go back down. I was maybe expecting a visitor’s center and park rangers? I don’t know. Well, when we reached the end of the road, there was a few dilapidated wooden shacks and lean-tos, and a whole group of men sitting around in the shade. None of them spoke English, of course, but the logger men (who also did not speak English) motioned to us that one of these men was going to show us around the cave, and then they would take us back down to Mr. Taxi on their scooters. Along with the buildings, there was a clotheslines and dogs, chickens and goats wandering around. The boys started chasing the animals, so we motioned that we wanted to go to the cave. A man started getting ready to be our guide. First, he found a light bulb and then took the electric battery out of his scooter. Then he found a length of insulated wire and hooked up the flashlight to the battery. Once he was prepared, he motioned for us to follow him on a short trail to the cave. On the way, we saw whole groups of green butterflies congregating on the side of the trail. It was cool to see so many in one place!
Outside of the cave entrance were several Buddhist statues with small altars. There were offerings on the altars, which means that people make it up to the top of the mountain to offer these offerings. The terrain was very rocky, but like everywhere else in Vietnam, plants grow like crazy, so the rocks were covered with greenery. It was so beautiful! At this point, I had no idea where the cave entrance was located. We followed our guide through a narrow place between two large boulders, and then the earth just opened up below us. We descended down a few stairs, and were in the mouth of the cave!
The incredible, untouched cave formations started almost immediately. It makes sense that because Vietnam has so much rainfall and excess water, the formations grow faster. In the mouth of the cave was another altar with offerings, and then complete darkness beyond that. It became clear early on that this was not just a one-cavern- five minutes and you’re done sort of cave. There was a good reason that we had a guide with a light bulb! He did not speak English, but he knew the cave system well and made sure to shine his light bulb on all the most impressive formations. It looked like through some sections of the cave overhead lighting had been installed, but I think they only used it for larger groups, or it was not working. Either way, it was super neat to walk through this cave only by the light of our guide and one extra flashlight. Right when we started our caving, a few men with another guide emerged from the darkness and gave Landon one of their flashlights. Landon appreciated that!
This was one of those times where I wished we had brought a geology nut with us to explain things. We did a cave tour in Wisconsin earlier in the year, and so we knew some basic terms and different formation types, but all on a very simple level. We identified stalactites, stalagmites, ribbon stalactites, massive flowstones, soda straw stalactites, and columns. There were areas of different colors, including really sparkly white deposits that we did not see in the Wisconsin cave. The photos do not do it justice! When we started out, we were walking in an underground river, which seemed quite adventurous. Then we climbed over some big boulders to access the rest of the cave after the river turned. We were legit spelunking with a five-year-old, one-year-old strapped to my husband’s back, and a guide walking around in flip flops with a light bulb attached to a scooter battery for light. What were we thinking!?
After it became apparent that this was going to be a longer adventure than I had planned for, I worried about how Owen would handle being in the complete darkness on Austin’s back. There was no need to worry! He seemed to love the adventure and all the climbing up and over boulders and shimmying through small places. In one particular area, there was a narrow opening that the guide took Landon and I through, but he motioned for Austin to go around because it may be too small for him. He tried anyway, and Owen started yelling “TUCK! TUCK!” to alert Austin that his legs were stuck and they were not going to make it through. Other than that, he was quite the happy camper for most of the hour and a half we were exploring the cave!
At one point during our exploration, the guide asked us if we wanted to go further, or go back to the entrance. We figured since we were there, we should explore a little more, and Landon and Owen seemed up for it. He led us up an embankment, and then in order to go to the next section of caves, we had to climb a rickety wooden ladder across a large opening to the next landing. The ceiling was low and there was not much room on either side for us to wait. First, our guide climbed across, then he and I helped Landon across. I went next, and then silently prayed that Austin would not break the ladder with Owen on his back. We made it both up and back, but Austin needed coaching on how low to crouch many times as to not scrape Owen against the roof or walls of the cave.
Landon was a champ! There were several times where we needed to borrow his flashlight to give Austin enough light to find his way, and he was perfectly fine to stand in the darkness while Austin maneuvered his way through. Some of the formations seemed very fragile, but Landon took great care not to touch them and leave them for others (as crazy as we are) to enjoy. We got super muddy from sliding around on the wet ground, but I think he loved the whole experience. It was a crazy adventure we will never forget!
After a long hike back, we made it out of the cave! Our guide was great at helping keep Landon safe and picking the best way to maneuver through the large boulders. When we emerged, he motioned that this cave is one of seven large caves in the area, and asked using hand signals if we wanted to visit any other caves. Austin and I looked at each other and pronounced that we had had more than enough adventure for the day, and we would like to head down to Mr. Taxi. When I thought the cave was just going to be a short stop, we had planned to go to the beach afterward. We were so sweaty, tired and gross from the cave that we just decided to go back to our hotel instead.
Austin wanted to make sure it was documented how invisible this cave was from the surface. It was so hard to tell there was a cave there at all! I think it would have been super cool to discover a gigantic cave like this and just marvel at what water can do over time. It is really quite incredible!
Before the guide and his friend took us down the mountain, they made sure to pump up their back tires so that Austin’s feet wouldn’t completely drag on the ground, and so they wouldn’t get stuck going through larger ruts. On the way down, part of the road was on the side of the mountain looking out at the landscape below. Our scooter driver stopped and I ran back to take pictures of the scene. Austin and I both appreciated it on the way up, and wanted to preserve it for posterity. Vietnam is a gorgeous country!
Ok friends, so here’s the hard part. This was an epic, super cool adventure. I’m not sure that tourists looking for adventure would come to Nghi Son just for this. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park has a larger assortment of caves, and organized tour groups to explore them. We looked at visiting, but it was too far away, and none of the tours seemed suitable for children. They looked AWESOME though, with kayaking, ziplining, swimming in the caves, and some even offered expensive tours of the world’s largest cave. If you want to explore caves in Vietnam, go there. This place was a great substitute for that, and I’m not sure that any organized tour groups would ever visit it, but it was a fun morning diversion for us residents of the Thanh Hoa province. I think it might actually be easier to access by scooter, or 4WD vehicle, and be prepared to tip for the tour, as there are no set prices. Since we gave our scooter drivers on the way up 100,000 dong each, I paid our guide 500,000 dong for his services and the scooter ride down, to share with his friend who helped us get down. His eyes got very big and he was so thankful. Long story short: it was an epic adventure, but with so many moving parts, I’m not sure I could recommend it to others. For one thing, I know most taxi drivers would not drive as far as our fearless Mr. Taxi did.
If you are crazy enough to check it out, bring water, food, insect repellent, a good head lamp or flashlight, and hiking sandals or other shoes that can get wet. Wear clothes that can get muddy. And be prepared for an epic, low-tech adventure!