Get ready for a boat tour around Trang An at Ninh Binh
It’s known as the Ha Long Bay of the land. About 150 kilometres from the famous Vietnamese bay where hundreds of islands form a natural wonder is another equally as impressive landscape.
This one, known as Trang An, is nowhere near the coast, though. The mountains are connected by rice paddies, not water. You can cycle to them, not sail. And – best of all – they are not full of foreign tourists. Such is the joy of a Trang An boat tour.
Trang An at Ninh Binh is easy to get to from Hanoi. It’s dominated by the large limestone karst peaks which create steep vertical cliffs covered in plants.
Unlike a traditional mountain range where the slopes connect to each other in a long undulating stretch, most of these peaks stand in isolation – making them even more dramatic in appearance.
The stretches of flat land surrounding them look like valleys but, in reality, they are not the space between mountains but what the area would look like without mountains. Fields fill many of them and the fertile grounds are perfect for agriculture and settlements.
There are sections that are submerged under water, though, and this is what has been claimed by the tourism industry as the best way to explore the Trang An area. While it is possible to cycle, drive – or even walk – around the mountains, most people choose a Trang An boat tour to travel through some of the most scenic parts of the region.
I board one of these small boats myself and it waits at the dock until all six seats are taken. It doesn’t take long because there is a steady stream of visitors coming here to take a ride.
Interestingly, most of them seem to be locals on holiday in large groups. For foreigners, Trang An is not nearly as well known as Ha Long Bay and most people who do visit come on day trips from Hanoi that leave early in the morning.
The boat driver sits at the back with two large oars. She paddles down the large river towards some of the impressive limestone karst peaks. I realise that I have no idea how long we are heading out for – it’s probably something I should have asked – but I sit back and enjoy the view.
It turns out the boat trip is much longer than I expected. For almost two hours we explore the area. The large river appears to come to an abrupt end after about thirty minutes but then I notice a small cave. We row into it and it turns out it is a tunnel that we emerge from on the other side of a mountain.
The waterway is much narrower here and the boat comes close to the shore of reeds. Mountains surround us in almost every direction and, if it wasn’t for the tunnel, it would feel like we were in a lake. At the other end there’s another tunnel and we go through it and emerge in another part of the landscape.
There is definitely something quite special about seeing Trang An from this perspective. I think you get a better understanding of how it all fits together by seeing the different vantage points – from the water, from the shore, and even from within the mountains themselves.
I am told there are about 30 valleys and 50 caves in the area and, although we certainly don’t get to them all, I do lose count, perspective and my sense of direction as we glide throughout the various waterscapes.
It’s a long hard trip for the driver, I imagine, and there are a few points where I pick up one of the spare oars and help out. I’m not sure how much of a token effort it is, though. It does make me feel a bit better about being rowed around for hours.
The Trang An boat tour
If you’re interested on going on one of these boat trips at Trang An, there are a few different ways to do it. As I mentioned, quite a few people organise day trips from Hanoi that include this as part of the itinerary. If you choose that route, everything will be looked after for you.
To do it more independently, you first need to get to the city of Ninh Binh. There is a direct train from Hanoi which leaves several times a day. From there, you can get a taxi to Trang An.
Once you’re at the site, the ticket office is clearly marked. You buy a ticket for 200,000 dong (US$8.80) and then the staff will direct you to a boat.
The trip around the waterways will take about two hours. The most important bit of advice I can give here is to take sunscreen and some water. It can get extremely hot and there is no shade, so you’ll need some protection with you.
It’s also worth noting here that there are some great affordable tours to Trang An from Hanoi that take all of the hassle out of organising things for yourself – especially if you’re short of time. Have a look at some of these options:
I stayed in the Ninh Binh area for a few days, which I highly recommend if you have time. There are lots of other things to see and it’s a beautiful area to relax.
I stayed at the Nyugen Shack (click here for current prices) which is a wonderful place with basic cabins on a small lake. You can even borrow a bike for free and cycle out to Trang An for the day.
All the things you need to know
For a comfortable budget hotel, you can try Nam Hoa Hotel right near Tam Coc.
A lovely homestay option with amazing views is the Limestone View Homestay.
And for a stunning luxury resort, you can't go past Emeralda Resort with a wonderful pool