People call Ninh Binh the Halong bay on land. I think this is largely due to the krast landscape that is visible almost everywhere in Ninh Binh. One of the main attractions in Ninh Binh is the boat rides. These boat rides take you through the submerged valleys. The top three places where you experience these boat rides are Trang An, Tam Coc and Van Long Nature reserve.
Of these three, we have visited Trang An and Van Long Nature reserve. We skipped out on Tam Coc because of the large number of tourists that flock there. It is more expensive and it has relatively fewer caves to explore.
THE BEST TIME TO VISIT TRANG AN
The best time to visit Trang An is either early in the morning or late afternoon. These are the least crowded times because most of the tour groups have left to other tourist attractions or have left back to Hanoi. We reached Trang An around 3 o’clock in the evening but in hindsight I wish we could have reached a little earlier because our boat ride was rushed in the end.
I particularly liked that part of the day because we got to see Trang An both in bright day light as well as at dusk and in the dark.
THE TICKET TO RIDE
The Trang An ticket is relatively cheaper than the one in Tam Coc and the ride is longer with more caves. That said the cost of the ticket is 150,000 VND per person which isn’t by any definition cheap. Cheaper maybe but not cheap! Bear in mind that once you exit the boat you will also be expected to tip. Toilets in the campus are charged too. Let’s leave the economics behind and just concentrate on the experience from now on.
CATCHING A BOAT
A glimpse of the boats that are getting ready to ply.
Unlike in Tam Coc and Van Long nature reserve, the boats in Trang An take four people at a time. Five if you count the person who rows the boat. So in order to get one you need to wait till the boat fills up. Normally that may not be an issue but when you go early morning or late evening there are fewer tourists. This may make the wait time a little longer than expected. My advice would be to ask around and form a group of four. It is quite easy when you stay in a hostel or even in a hotel. The plus side is that you will make friends!
We met a lady and her son at the dock and we had a jolly good time through the entire ride. Taking turns while we shifted through our seats helped everyone get the best seats at the best time.
Entering and exiting the caves.
When we set out it was bright. The waters were clean and clear. All too often you could see the plants growing up from the base. I felt as if I was moving atop of a submerged valley. It looked like a whole different world underneath. Fascinating though it was I was glad to keep safe, warm and dry atop the boat. One of the main attractions of visiting Trang An in the wee hours of the morning or the late hours of the evening is the number of birds that you get to see. So keep your eyes peeled and don’t let the scenery lull you to sleep.
Temples by the water way
The first stop that you will arrive at is a temple. What struck me was that this particular temple is accessible only via boat. While most people talk about the caves and the waterways, I found it odd that most people neglect to tell you about these temples and buildings that you find through your entire three hour ride. The first temple that we visited was small and situated just next to the water.
The intricate details of the temple alter.
The temple had its own set of beautiful architecture. Intricate wood designs which were accentuated by the gold paint. While the gold does give the inner sanctum a royal feeling. Yet despite the gold, the temple is a humble abode where people worship. Incense burns and its fragrance greets you as soon as you walk in through the door. Since it is isolated the number of tourist you see are few and far apart. Just remember to carry a sarong so that you are respectful when and if you want to enter.
Trang An’s strange earthen pots.
Once we were done looking at the temple our ride continued. We headed through a cave which connected one side of the waterway to the next. While the cave in itself was extremely fascinating, we saw a strange sight just before we exited. A series of earthen pots stood at one end of the cave. The area was raised above the water. An orange cloth seemed to cover the mouth of the pot along with a mud lid. Our ability to understand Vietnamese was not even rudimentary and hence I have no idea what was stored in the pots. Needless to say, I am still curious!
Another temple which I loved.
The other spot that we exited the boat at was a little different. We stopped off at the dock and wandered through a series of pavements. It was quiet and it was deserted. We weren’t even sure if we were headed the right way. A number of steps took us upwards and then we suddenly had a downward descent. A run in with an angry dog, an inquisitive squirrel and another peaceful waterway is what we found. Needless to say it was fun exploring the terrain.
The temple we missed.
The tunnels and caves in Trang An appear to continue forever. Day was slowly fading away and night was beginning to set in. We passed another temple on our way but our guide told us that it was too dark to continue meandering around in temples. How did she know that? An announcement was continuously made on the speakers that are strategically placed across the waterways. I was a little disappointed but the next part of the adventure occupied my thoughts quickly.
Can you tell the difference between air and water?
As the light faded there were some interesting things that began to happen. I’m not sure whether it was because of the diminishing light, whether it was that particular tunnel or whether I overlooked it earlier. The water began to reflect everything in such a way that we began to feel as if we were actual floating through the tunnel like a spaceship from Star Wars! No kidding I managed to snap two decent photographs to show you exactly what I mean. Try and find the line where the water and air meet.
Another Trang An illusion
At one point we found ourselves meandering through the tunnels in pitch darkness. I think the lights were also switched off. This turned out to be pretty unnerving because there are places where the rock hangs so low that you have to literally fold your body in half. Our guide knew her way around. I think she had night vision or something. Being the last boat moving along there weren’t any people around. It was tranquil at best and unnerving at worst. Luckily we all had our life jackets on! (I can’t swim!)
The moon poked its head out of the sky as we finally docked back at the start. It was time to leave Trang An behind. Trang An was a memorable journey through the Halong Bay on land. It would soon be time to leave Ninh Binh behind but the memories we created were sure to linger.