First of all: We have a LOT more pictures of the fantastic landscape we saw that day than I could possibly fit into this post, so go check out the corresponding photo set "Trang An & Hang Mua"!
In the Ninh Binh Region the main attractions are boat rides on rivers than run through the rice fields, along the limestone mountains, and sometimes even below through the many, many grottos in the limestone. We didn't have time to go and do all of them, even though they are supposed to be very different. We had read that the Trang An Area was usually a bit less crowded than the Tam Coc Boat ride, and that it led through more and smaller grottos. The main difference is, that in Trang An, the river is wedged in between limestone mountains, while for Tam Coc, the river runs through wider valleys and rice fields.
By the way, the whole Trang An - Tam Coc - Bich Dong Region is actually a UNESCO World Nature Heritage Site and a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site - the only place in Vietnam that got both of these titles.
So we once again rented a motorbike, got on it and drove to Trang An. At the tour complex we paid our fare of 200.000 Dong each and were directed to a boat together with two young vietnamese women. Our rower was a middle-aged woman with a very friendly smile, but no knowledge of english. The two vietnamese girls in our boat translated for us whenever necessary. There are two routes through you can take though the grottos, a shorter and a longer one. We had asked to be taken on the longer one, but I am not entirely convinced that it was what we got in the end.
We started of in a rush of other boats and I wasn't sure if we'd really enjoy being rowed around in a huge group of other tourists clad in bright orange life vests. But soon we got to the first fork in the river and then the group divided into two, and then slowly the boats started to drift farther away from each other, so that in the end, most of the time we only saw like one boat in front of us. And people took off their life vests soon, because it was once again very hot.
The route took us through some really really narrow, low grottos, so that we had to duck down and move our head out the way multiple times. It was fascinating to see, and even more fascinating to me, was how our rower steered through all of it, without ever bumping into anything.
We took several stops to get out of the boat and look at the pagodas along the way. Some were just one small building, some had several buildings and little pavilions up the mountainside, so we even got some hiking done. While we were out and about, the rowers had lunch breaks with food they had brought on the trip, and we even saw some of them sleeping on the boats. What a crazy job.
The boat ride took about two hours. In the end we were asked if we wanted to get out at each of the pagodas, and we ended up skipping one, or maybe two, so if you look at everything very closely, you should probably plan a lot more time. When we got back to the start, we gave the rowing woman a tip and then went on our way.
On the way home we saw a few stands that had whole roasted, or smoked, or whatever, goats on tables, that they were selling. It was creepy, because the goats still had their heads, the teeth bare and they kind of looked like they were screaming with pain or fear. Also it didn't look very hygienic either and having your roasted goat out in 35°C is probably not the best idea. I don't know.
We went shopping for some water and cookies and wanted to spend the evening, and watch the sun going down, at "Hang Mua", a complex named after an actual Cave (vietnamese "Hang") that is below the main tourist attraction - a chapel on a mountain, complete with a stone dragon weaving across the rocks, reachable by stairs with many, many steps.
The steps were absolutely uneven. And while they were alright at the lower sections, they got worse the higher we got. Most of them were knee-high for me in the end, it was a pain. Plus it was still very hot, and humid. Like every day. But after struggling for about half an hour, and drinking a whole liter of water each, we made it to the top. And everybody else that was up there, looked quite as beat and drenched in sweat as we did. How comforting.
And boy, was it worth it. The view was absolutely breathtaking. It was worth both the few dong for parking and entry fee, and especially the hard walk up. So if you ever get to the Ninh Binh Region, that is a thing you should definitely not skip. We really loved it up there.
When the sun started going down it became clear that sundown wouldn't be all that spectacular and we decided to climb down before the light was gone. But if you're lucky on a good day, it's probably amazing.