Part of the ecotourism complex of Trang An in the northern province of Ninh Binh. File photo
Located some 95 kilometers to the west of Hanoi, Trang An is also called the “inland Ha Long Bay” or “the open geological museum,” because of its system of big limestone mountains, caves and traces of an ancient sea believed to have existed some 200-250 million years ago.
The 12,000-hectare area, which lies between Hoa Lu and Gia Vien districts, is also known for its rare biodiversity, boasting over 870 species, more than 200 of which are listed in Vietnam’s Red List, like the co soc tortoise (Ocaclia sinensis).
As part of one of the three citadels of the Hoa Lu Imperial City during the Dinh Dynasty (968-980), it carries great historical value, not to mention its archeological importance as a site with traces of prehistoric man dating back to between 5,000-30,000 years.
However, the most famous attraction at Trang An is a network of 48 caves in the limestone mountains that are always submerged. Their total length is about 20 kilometers.
Thanks to 31 ponds and lakes situated in between, the caves are connected to each other, creating a somewhat giant labyrinth.
Tourists can now take a tour through 12 caves totaling some five kilometers by boat. The trip starts at the Ang Muong boat station, where over 300 small boats are anchored. Boat rowers are local people who are also trained as tour guides armed with knowledge about the site and caves they can share with visitors.
The first destination on this tour is the Trinh Temple, built in 1865 and restored in 2003, which has as its deities two officials who maintained the treasury of the Dinh Dynasty.
At the temple, visitors can get off boat for sightseeing and even burn some incense for the deities. Some people do it as a ritual beginning the trip to the caves that informs the deities of the presence of visitors.
After the temple is the Dia Linh (Sacred Earth) Cave. Many of the branches of this cave, which is 1.5 kilometers long, are yet to be discovered. The cave’s width is not consistent – at some places it is just some three meters wide.
HOW TO GET THERE?
From Hanoi, go along the National Road 1A. It takes some two hours to reach Ninh Binh Town, and another seven kilometers gets you to Trang An.
Park your vehicles and buy a ticket at the boat station. Each boat charges VND500,000 and carries between four to six people. Since the 12-cave trip takes some four hours, visitors can carry some snacks with them, but remember never to litter the beautiful spots you visit.
Other caves not on the tour described above can also be seen by visitors after making arrangements with locals.
The Toi (Dark) Cave, which is next to Dia Linh, is 315 meters long and so dark that visitors have to turn on their flashlights to observe stalactites of various shapes inside. Another recognizable character of the cave is that its temperature is always 2-3 degrees Celsius higher than outside because of a hot stream.
In contrast to the Toi Cave, the Sang (Light) Cave receives natural light from both ends as it is just about 100 meters long.
Before reaching the second temple on the route, the Tran Temple, visitors go through the Nau Ruou (Distilling Wine) Cave.
The cave hosts a 15-meter deep well, which, as the legend goes, was used by ancient people to make wine. This might be more than the stuff of legend, though, because archeologists have actually unearthed many vases and jars along with wine-producing devices there.
Tourists can have a full view of the cave from the temple, which is located right outside and on a 350-step stone stairway. The temple was built in the 10th century to worship Tran Quy Minh, a general of the pre-historic dynasty ruled by the Hung King.
The next stops on the tour – the Sinh, Si, Ba Giot (three drops), Seo, and Son Duong (Chamois) caves – have stalactites that are mostly white or marble blue, and have a glowing quality. These caves are between 100 and 250 meters long.
Leaving the Son Duong Cave, visitors reach Phu Khong, a temple dedicated to another official of the Dinh Dynasty. It is located on a narrow strip of land next to the 60-meter Khong Cave.
| Rowing toward heaven |
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Here, visitors should not miss taking photographs of a gold apple (Diospyros decandra) tree believed to be 1,000 years old. It grows on a rock and its roots covering an area of some 10 square meters. One mysterious character of the tree is that its fruits are always in two different shapes: round with seeds, and kind of flat without seeds.
Tran and Quy Hau caves, 200 and 100 meters long respectively, are the last destinations of the tour that will have you wondering what they will discover next in Trang An.