Having witnessed the throngs of tourists enjoying their boat rides in Tam Coc, we were itching to get onto a boat ourselves. So, in the mid-afternoon when the sun wasn’t too fierce, we headed out for a boat ride at the Tràng An Scenic Landscape Complex.
Getting to Tràng An from where we stayed in Tam Coc was surprisingly easy. Using our handy Grab app, a grab car was just a few minutes away and brought us on a comfortable and hassle-free ride to the Tràng An boat wharf 10-km away.
At the ticket office, we were presented with three route options, all for the same price of 200,000 VND per person:
Route 1 (9 caves, 3 temples, 3.5 hours) – Harbour – Trinh Temple – Toi Cave– Sang Cave – Nau Ruou Cave – Tran Temple – Ba Giot Cave – Seo Cave – Son Duong Cave – Khong Palace – Bao Hieu Temple– Khong Cave – Tran Cave – Quy Hau Cave – Harbour
Route 2 (3 caves, 3 temples, 2.5 hours) – Harbour – Lam Cave – Thanh Cao Son Temple – Vang Cave – Thanh Truot Cave – Suoi Tien Temple – Đai Cave – Vu Lam Palace – Harbour
Route 3 (3 caves, 3 temples, 3 hours) – Harbour – Trinh Temple – May Cave – Suoi Tien Temple – Dia Linh Cave – Đai Cave – Vu Lam Palace– Harbour
So many routes, so many caves, so many temples! Our heads got a little dizzy.
We scrutinized the board for a long while, before we decided to go with Route 2 – the shortest route – only because we didn’t think out butts could take sitting in the boat for too long.
Each boat could take up to 4 persons, and we had to wait until the boat is filled before it would depart. But we didn’t have to wait long – a French couple arrived soon after us and chose the same route – before we all packed onto the boat and set off.
The Tràng An Scenic Landscape Complex has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Aptly called “Halong Bay on land”, the area is a wonderland of charming limestone mountains, mysterious caves and ancient mossy temples spread along the emerald green river.
The whole landscape was formed by geological activities such as tectonic movements over a span of hundreds of millions years. The area was invaded and reworked by the sea over the years, but is now landlocked and surrounded by a vast area of mountains, caves and paddy fields.
The natural vegetation is evergreen forest, and the aquatic ecosystem is diverse with many rare animal and plant species being protected in this ecologically sensitive area.
All around us, we were delighted to spot numerous Little Grebes (Tachybaptus ruficollis) – adult ones and baby ones – having fun ducking in and out of the water. We counted altogether 20 Little Grebes, but there must have been many more hiding under the water.
These Little Grebes are extremely rare in Singapore, and only one or two of them can consistently be found in a tiny pond in Lorong Halus. But they seem to be thriving very well in this vast aquatic habitat in Tràng An, where they have so much space to roam around and play hide and seek with their fellow mates.
Along the boat ride, we spied a couple of workers hard at work manually fishing out waterweeds to unclog the river. The area is obviously being well-protected and well-maintained to keep it in pristine condition.
At some point, our boat slowly drifted towards a mountain cliff – a seemingly dead end. However, as we approached, we noticed a small dark hole carved out from under the mountain…
…and then realised we were actually going to enter that little hole!
Our first cave, Lam Cave, was not too long (only 60 metres long from end to end) and we were out at the other side in no time at all.
We soon arrived at our first stop, Thanh Cao Son Temple, where we disembarked and had the chance to stretch our legs and explore this ancient site.
Within the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex, there are hundreds of historic pagodas, temples, and shrines dating from different historical periods. Walking through these sites is like being transported to another era in ancient history.
At our own leisurely pace, we explored the site of this ancient temple of Cao Son the great king, who once ruled the mountains in the west of Ninh Binh.
We then boarded our boat again and set off to our next destination…
…hot on the heels of a dozen other boats.
Slowly, the convoy rowed towards another dark cave…
…this time promising a longer and more exciting expedition. Vang Cave, 250-m in length, is so long that lights had to be installed for safe navigation.
The caves of Tràng An are typical of “living” caves that are subject to continued erosion and are flooded throughout the year. During the rainy season, the water level could go up to the ceiling of the caves, making it impossible to boat through them. The rain water constantly dissolves the calcium carbonate, creating the stalactites and stalagmites that we see.
Besides its aesthetic and geological interest, each cave has its own historical and cultural values. Archeological excavations of the caves of Tràng An have shown evidence of human occupation spanning more than 30,00 years of human history from the Late Pleistocene to the Holocene times.
Evidence of human occupation comes from both artifacts and structural features, such as wooden boat-coffins, Han-era tombs, construction materials using a variety of bricks, and interestingly shaped decorative tiles.
The 10th century was for Vietnam a time of nation-formation and struggle for independence from Chinese dominance. The labyrinth of mountains, caves, and waterways of the Tràng An Complex provided protection against the invading Chinese imperial troops. Eventually, mountains peaks were connected together to form walls and the rivers were channeled to become the moats of the Vietnamese military citadel.
As we sat quietly in our boat gliding ever so slowly along the channel, we had all the time in the world to contemplate the magnificent landscape and admire the ever-changing scenery ahead of us.
Listening to the rhythmic sloshes of the wooden paddles was an oddly calming and therapeutic experience.
Our relaxing meditation was soon interrupted, as our boat slowly came to a stop at Suoi Tien Temple.
Suoi Tien Temple, located on the upper stream of Ngo Dong River, was supposedly the worshiping place of Quy Minh God. This site is apparently only accessible by boat. Suoi Tien literally means fairy stream, and according to local legend, fairies used to bathe here because of the very clear and clean water.
While we were touring the temple grounds, our friendly boatman was enjoying a cuppa while engaging in lively banter with the other boatmen. Once we were done with our brief temple tour, we hurried along to join them.
More majestic scenery and dramatic caves later…
…we finally arrived at our final stop – Vu Lam Palace. Dating back to the Tran Dynasty in the 13th century, the Vu Lam Palace was originally a military base, and contributed to the success of many important battles, thanks to the important defensive natural features surrounding the area.
Now, the area is simply a tranquil environment to wander around and get lost in.
It is also a marvellous place to stalk wild birds, such as this family of Red-whiskered Bulbuls (Pycnonotus jocosus) who were luring us deeper and deeper into the palace grounds with their loud and evocative calls.
Also numerous in the area are the Sooty-headed Bulbuls (Pycnonotus aurigaster) who, like their red-whiskered cousins, have a very prominent and attractive singing voice.
At the end of the boat trip, we parted ways with our friendly boatman and bid him farewell with a generous tip.
Feeling energized after the long boat ride, we decided to work those neglected muscles and hoof it to the nearest village 2-km away…
…for a feast of Italian food at Monalisa Restaurant.
With local beer being cheaper than water, it is not surprising that we’d choose to wash down our food with beer at every meal.