The Trang An Grottoes in Ninh Binh, Vietnam
The most popular attraction to visit in Ninh Binh are the Trang An Grottoes. The grottoes consists of a handful of caves and rocks towering out from a large network of canals and lakes.
To get to Trang An from Mua Cave is a short 40 minute bike ride away so we borrowed bicycles from the ecolodge we were staying at and headed out early in the morning. I highly recommend taking this form of transportation to Trang An as the ride towards the grottoes passes through a small village with beautiful rice fields and we also saw livestock roaming the roads including ducks, goats, horses, and water buffalo.
The entrance fee to Trang An is 150,000 VND per person so it can be quite steep for a backpacker’s budget. However, after experiencing it, we think it’s worth it. The ticket includes a 2.5 hour boat ride which is rowed by an experienced boatwoman who really knows her way around the area.
Once the boat fills up to four passengers, it departs. Fortunately for us, it was low season when we arrived, so we had the boat all to ourselves.
We were taken downstream for about 15 minutes to see our first sight, a picturesque temple on the lake.
This temple appears to have come out of a fairytale just sitting on the base of a mountain. The quiet sounds of the oars hitting the water was a great compliment to the boat ride compared to others we’ve been on, where you’re only hearing the loud sound of a 2-stroke boat motor. It was peaceful and awe-inspiring.
After our visit to the temple, we hopped back on to the boat to our first grotto. It was larger than we imagined and went through some really narrow passages into the mountain. Our boatwoman told us to sit on the boat’s floor as the caverns were so low that we would not fit if we sat on the seats. We were amazed she was able paddle around all the rock formations without hitting the boat.
The grottos were dimly lit at places to provide some ample lighting.
We emerged from the first grotto without a scratch and headed to our next destination, where two pagodas sit atop a hill. The hike up was not too bad and towards the top, sit 2 gazebos of distinct Chinese architecture. Something you’d find from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
Back on the boat, we navigated through another grotto just as long and emerged out wondering how she did it back there!
We visited the next temple which was the most picturesque we’ve seen yet.
Another grotto on the way back.
We were amazed by the rower’s effort, being able to paddle for 2 hours. We decided to help out as there were extra oars on board. I’m sure she didn’t need our help as she does this all day but it made us feel a little less guilty.
We knew our time in Ninh Binh was coming to an end and we had to head back to pack up our things. We left Trang An and took the same route back to the ecolodge.
We walked towards the ecolodge and were immediately welcomed by Mr. Thuy. He asked how our day was and if we had fun visiting Trang An. We did and told him with our faces lit up still excited about the adventure we just returned from. Mr. Thuy informed us that the ecolodge was throwing an end of year party that night and that he would like us to join the staff at the ecolodge in celebrating. (The end of year party is something most companies throw for their employees which celebrates a year of hard work before the Tet new year). We were humbled by his invitation and agreed.
We walked into the dining room and saw two tables set up for dinner. Traditionally, the men and women sit at different tables so they split up Tiff and I. Sitting at the men’s table was a little intimidating as I still consider myself a foreigner but I was surprised by the hospitality that I received.
They asked where I was from and how I liked Ninh Binh and every 10 minutes the entire table would drink a shot of some really strong home made rice wine. It was good times but really hard to keep up with all the drinking. The term used by the Vietnamese before every drink is mot, hai, ba, yo! Which literally translates to 1, 2, 3, cheers! Someone is also able to shout out the amount we were suppose to drink so there were a lot of “100%” being shouted or 50%! The owner of the ecolodge went over to the women’s table afterwards and took a welcome shot with Tiff, as well as many of the others at the table. They really made us feel welcome and that we were special guests of theirs. It was a great experience to be sitting together and enjoying each other’s company.
The specialty of Ninh Binh is goat meat. The spread for dinner was essentially all goat as they only eat it during special occasions. We had goat stir fried with lemongrass, grilled goat, and coagulated goat’s blood with crispy goat pieces inside. Definitely something we’ve never had before but it ended up quite tasty and memorable.
After about 2 hours of eating, drinking, and chit chatting about life, etc, we said our goodbyes as we had to catch our ride back to Hanoi. Our last minute trip to Ninh Binh came to an end and we were sad to go. It was a pleasant surprise that we saw, experienced, and ate things we’d never expected to in Vietnam plus met some really friendly people on the way.