Ninh Binh and the Trang An Grottoes provide one of the most beautiful places, not just in Vietnam, but anywhere on earth. A bold claim I know, but the magnificent natural beauty here is simply breath-taking. The site is about 100 km to the South of Hanoi, a drive of about 90 minutes. The boat trip round the site takes three hours, making the whole excursion an easy day tour from the nation’s capital. Take it! I promise you it will be one of the best travel experiences of your life. It is hard to imagine, but Ninh Binh and the Trang An Grottoes make even Halong Bay, fade by comparison.

Arriving at the site, your driver will park on the opposite side of the road and await your return. There are a group of small shops selling remarkably unremarkable tat. Here, bored stallholders sit and wonder why nobody is buying. You walk over the road, purchase your VND200,000 (about $9.00) ticket and get into one of the small rowing boats. The boats are mostly rowed by amazing women, who take all the effort out of the journey for you. These expertly skilled individuals navigate their craft through the tiny winding tunnels of the Trang An Grottoes with ease, rowing with their feet, if their arms get tired. It is a skill worthy of the best of praise.

boat women at the Trang An Grottoes
The boat women wait as their charges enjoy a coffee

The Trang An Grottoes will Blow You Away

The circuitous route takes in 6 grottoes, three temples and the stunning scenery of the karst rock formations covered in lush overgrowth. It is simply magnificent. First stop is the Trinh Temple a small affair that gives little clue of the delights to follow. From here you quickly enter the first two of the Trang An Grottoes. They come in quick succession. The first is impressive, the second is utterly fabulous. The low ceiling meant that we had to lie down in our boat as our oarswoman meandered through, with consummate ease, narrowly avoiding the sharp rocks that passed inches about our heads.

Trang An Grottoes
Inside the Trang An Grottoes

The third tunnel, Nau Ruou Cave, arrives after a brief passage through a wonderful valley, surrounded by the towering karsts. This is Jurassic Park terrain and utterly unique in my experience. As you exit you enter a totally enclosed lagoon, which appeared to have its own eco-system. It was raining in here but nowhere else on the entire trip. It is here that you will find the Tran Temple, a good place to enjoy a good Caphe Den Da as your oarswoman happily waits for you. The women chatter away with each other throughout the experience. They seem remarkably happy in their jobs; work that would cripple most Westerners.

Stunning Scenery That Improves at Every Turn

Moving on, the Ba Giot Cave and the Son Duong Cave are next up. The width and height of the caves vary, some are large and easy navigated, others very narrow and incredibly low-ceilinged. All are stunningly beautiful, tastefully lit without spoiling them and quite simply remarkable. After the Phu Khong Temple which is next up, the last of the Trang An Grottoes, Quy Hau, exits into a gorgeous green valley surrounded again by the mountainous karsts. There then follows a long row back to the boat house.

Towards the end, our oarswoman gave us a paddle each so we could help her. Ten minutes was enough to get the arms aching and the sweat pouring, yet these 45kg women do this for three hours at a time, twice a day on some days for 7 days per week.

Wonderful scenery at the Trang An Grottoes
Beautiful, ethereal scenery surrounds the whole area

The Trang An Grottoes are one of the biggest hidden treasures in the world. I hope they never get too popular. At first, we were bemoaning our luck as the skies were leaden and visibility not perfect. However, upon the return part of the journey, the weather had picked up. It was then that we noticed the huge number of rowing boats. There are hundreds of them. One can easily imagine that on really busy days, the view will be somewhat different. With such large numbers of visitors, the tranquility that we enjoyed will certainly not be the same.

Top Tip: Arrange your visit in the morning. Leave Hanoi before 8.00 am and enjoy this wonderful place in the cooler morning hours. The Trang An Grottoes are less busy and the afternoon heat is pretty tough going, out in the open spaces on the water.