Cruising Trang An UNESCO World Heritage Site in Vietnam

(Last Updated On: December 21, 2021)

Northern Vietnam is a country of ragged karst mountains and twisting caverns. The most famous of these are found in Halong Bay, but they exist inland as well. And in some places they exist in a space that isn’t clearly land or water.

Welcome to Trang An.

Trang An Vietnam -

Located about an hour out of Hanoi, Trang An is famous for karst peaks that rise up out of flooded valleys. It is often referred to as Halong Bay on land.

While not well-known outside the country, the UNESCO world heritage landscape of Trang An is a popular place for a weekend outing for the Vietnamese living in Hanoi. It’s so popular that many couples have wedding photos taken here.

photo of photographer taking wedding pictures in Trang An Vietnam -

A boat tour of Trang An

There are a two major tourist entry points the the Trang An-Tam Coc-Bich Dong Scenic Landscape area of the larger Trang An UNESCO site.

The best-known and busiest (at least when I visited) is Tam Coc (Three Caves) where boat tours follow the Ngo Dong River through rice fields below steep karst peaks.

The other area (the one we visited) is called the Trang An Grotto Eco-Tourism Complex (often simply called the Trang An Grottoes or just Trang An). It’s a watery world of quiet pools, a few rice paddies, limestone mountains draped in greenery, twisting caverns, and the occasional pagoda.

photo of small rowboats in a beautiful flooded valley between mountains in Trang An Vietnam -

It’s possible to arrange private boat tours of the area, but most people, including us, hire a boat and driver (a woman who will row us through the site) at one of these big tourist facilities.

boat dock at Trang An Vietnam -

At the dock, our guide left us in the trusty hands of a tiny Vietnamese woman who arranged us in the flat-bottomed sampan before pushing us off the dock and hopping into the back of the boat.

photo of a row boat rower in Trang An Vietnam -

(All of the boats were rowed by women.)

Soon we are in the midst of a flotilla of small rowboats in the middle of a broad river.

photo of small rowboats in a beautiful flooded valley between mountains in Trang An Vietnam -

We have the misfortune of being here on a Saturday, which is one of the busiest days to visit. It isn’t exactly peaceful, but it isn’t horribly loud and crowded either. The boats themselves are nearly silent, so the only sounds beyond the gentle lapping of the oars in the water are the voices of the other passengers – some of who insist on continually shouting. However, in general, the people-watching makes up for any annoyance over the crowds.

And, once we get going, the crowds thin out.

photo of small rowboats in a beautiful flooded valley between mountains in Trang An Vietnam -

photo of small rowboats in a beautiful flooded valley between mountains in Trang An Vietnam -

(Each rower has her own pace and not every boat is on the same route.)

We glide by oddly shaped rocks, cliffs draped with native vegetation, and quiet pools where water lilies grow.

photo of rocks and jungle vegetation in Trang An Vietnam -

As we approach the hills that rise above us like a wall, I suddenly realize that there is a gap in the rock face.

Photo of rowboats outside a cave in the mountains of Trang An Vietnam -

At the direction of our driver, we slide down to the floor of the boat and duck as we slip into the cavern.

Photo of a rowboat entering a cave in Trang An Vietnam -

Photo of a rowboat in a cave in Trang An Vietnam -

The interior is cool and dark, the light from the outside world supplemented by a few glowing electric bulbs that guide the women as they deftly guide their boats through.

Photo of a rowboat in a cave in Trang An Vietnam -

The way the rock – the mountain itself – hangs just above our heads is both fascinating and a bit frightening.

Photo of a rowboat in a cave in Trang An Vietnam -

And then we slide back into a pool of sunshine, the cavern slowly disappearing behind us.

Photo of a rowboat in a cave in Trang An Vietnam -

photo of a rowboat leaving a cave in Trang An Vietnam -

This is only the first of the nine caves we will encounter.

Some caverns will be bigger than others, a few will house shrines, and some will have walls of jagged rock while others are smooth (some of the caverns have been enlarged to allow the boats through). Each is unique, but the experience is essentially the same: The realization that a cavern lies ahead, the glide from the bright heat of day into the cool darkness of the cave, the bulk of the stone ceiling just overhead, the lovely landscape framed by the cavern’s stony mouth, and finally the feeling of release as we glide back into a world of light and color.

photo of a rowboat entering a cave in Trang An Vietnam -

Trang An Vietnam -

Trang An Vietnam -

Trang An Vietnam -

There are also pagodas to explore.

Photo of a flooded mountain valley with tourist rowboat and temple Trang An Vietnam -

A couple of pagodas are located right along the water and the boats stop at one or both. It gives tourists a chance to visit them, but it also gives the drivers a break from the hard work of rowing the sampan.

Trang An Vietnam -

Trang An Vietnam -

There are other pagodas farther up the hillsides for those with the time and energy to visit them . . . but that’s not us. Not today.

Instead we content ourselves with views from closer to the water.

Trang An Vietnam -

Plan a visit to Trang An

Trang An and Tam Coc boat tours are the most popular way to visit the UNESCO Trang An Landscape Complex World Heritage Site, but it’s not the only way. The site includes a larger area and active travelers and ecotourists will find plenty of opportunities to explore on foot or bicycle. This area was also the location of Vietnam’s 10th and 11th century capital, and a few ruins and restored religious buildings are open to visitors.

Get to Trang An

Trang An is located about 60 miles south of Hanoi near the city of Ninh Binh. It can be reached by automobile in something over 1½ hours. Expect to spend 2-3 hours to get there by train or bus.

Many tour companies offer day trips from Hanoi, making it an easy tour option. More independent travelers may wish to stay in the Ninh Binh area for a few days and spend more time exploring this beautiful – and less touristy – region of Vietnam.

Take a tour

Local tour companies offer tour tickets or book directly at the dock. In either case, bring a hat, sunscreen, and water as boat tours last two hours or more with the only relief from the sun coming while traveling through the caverns.

These tours are very popular with local residents. To avoid crowds as much as possible, visit early in the day and avoid public holidays.

Other things to do

Tam Coc offers a similar experience on the other side of the mountains from the Trang An route. The biggest difference between the two river tours is that the Tam Coc tour travels through rice fields planted below the surrounding karst peaks. It also has a few more cultural sites and a few less caves.

The Hoa Lu Ancient Capital site is also part of the UNESCO area. While the ancient citadel is a ruin, several temples and other buildings have been restored.

traditional Vietnamese gate to a city in Hoa Lu

Stay in the area

Because this area is popular with Vietnamese tourists, there is plenty of inexpensive lodging in the area as well as nicer resorts. Check TripAdvisor or (affiliate links) to see what’s available.

2015 Vietnam itinerary

photo of a rowboat leaving a cave with text "Trang An Vietnam"

Water buffalo in northern Vietnam

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