Ninh Binh

Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex: A Natural Wonder to Behold

Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex (Vietnamese spelling: Quần thể Danh thắng Tràng An) has two UNESCO World Heritage Site listings since 2014. These are based on four unique cultural and natural assets in the area: 

  • Trang An Grottoes
  •  Tam CocBich Dong Tourist Area
  •  Hoa Lu Ancient Capital
  • Hoa Lu Special-use Forest.

This complex is under strict government control to ensure preservation and further research. This is especially true for the Special-use Forest which isn’t open to visitors. There is archeological data going back 30 000 years from shells, animal bones, hearths, stone tools, corded-ware pottery, and human remains.

What You Need to Know Before Visiting the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex

What You Need to Know Before Visiting the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex
[ by Filip Sochor from Unsplash ]

Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex is otherwise known as Halong Bay on Land. This complex is a similar spectacle of karst peaks and cliffs permeated with waterways, valleys covered in rain forests, and a buffer zone of mostly paddy fields.

It takes at least a day to explore the whole complex. It’s best to travel light, bring a good pair of walking shoes, a hat, and sunscreen. Make sure you have enough water and some snacks. A battery pack for your devices is recommended if you’re recording the trip.

You’ll also need cash because there are no ATMs around. If you come across hawkers and/or boat vendors, and you don’t want to buy from them, just politely say no.

When spending time at natural attractions, remember to be mindful of the environment and not to litter. You’ll likely visit religious structures so wear clothes covering knees and shoulders.

How to Get to Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex

How to Get to Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex
[ by Ben Peacock from Unsplash ]

If you’re in Hanoi, you can book a tour to Ninh Binh that includes the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex. You can also go straight to Giap Bat Station and buy a coach (travel bus) ticket to the complex.

The complex is only 8 km away from Ninh Binh city center. From Ninh Binh, you have a few options to go by yourself. Check our article on ‘25 Best Things To Do in Ninh Binh’ to know how to get to Ninh Binh and from there to the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex.

Getting Around the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex

Getting Around the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex
[ by Jason Rost from Unsplash ]

Upon entering the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex, there’s no entrance fee. However, all the destinations mentioned in this article have separate entrances and fees for each. The details will be explained further down.

The destinations can be quite far apart and the complex doesn’t provide vehicles for rent. You can rent motorbikes at your homestay or book a ride using Grab and follow your own itinerary.

View all the locations mentioned in this article

Trang An by Boat or Land – Which is Best?

Some of the destinations inside the complex are exclusive to the boat tours like the ones at the Trang An Grottoes and some temples and caves in Tam Coc – Bich Dong Tourist Area. 

To get the full experience, visitors should choose one boat ride and explore the rest on land. If you go by tour, you’ll spend a specific amount of time at each destination. Tours generally also include one boat ride and some destinations on land.

Ninh Binh’s Most Popular Boat Ride to Trang An Grottoes 

The Most Popular Boat Ride in Ninh Binh at Trang An Grottoes
[ by trungduc3377 from Unsplash ]

Trang An Grottoes (Khu du lịch sinh thái Tràng An) is where your trip within the complex begins. The entrance fee includes the boat ride as it’s the only way to get around this area. Life vests may cost extra.

Visitors have three boat routes to choose from, but the most highlighted is route number two. It’s a 3-hour route that visits the key caves, ancient spiritual sites, and the movie set of ‘Kong: Skull Island’.

Your lady boat rower will also be your tour guide on-demand with enough English to get by. You can also book a guide if you want to really get to know the stories behind the temples and caves. This area used to be part of the defensive backline of Hoa Lu Ancient Capital.

Along the ride, you’ll pass through caves and maybe visit a pavilion in the middle of the water. Other times you’ll pull over to the shore and visit the temples and caves. A fun thing to try is rowing the boat using the extra paddle.

The Set of ‘Kong: Skull Island’

The Set of ‘Kong: Skull Island’
[ by Phim trường Đảo đầu lâu – Tràng An, Ninh Bình from Facebook ]

The set of ‘Kong: Skull Island’ is the new visitors’ favorite. This movie set was turned into a tourist attraction after filming. Visitors will be welcomed by the tribe’s people to visit their tents, fireplaces, and the dioramas of the boat and plane in the movie.

The Temples of Trang An Grottoes

The Temples of Trang An Grottoes
[ by Stella Tran from Unsplash ]

The Trinh Temple (đền Trình) worships the four trusty officials that died for King Dinh Tien Hoang (Đinh Tiên Hoàng) of the Dinh Dynasty, the first dynasty which united the Dai Viet in 968 AD. Their real names were never really known in history.

The Four Pillars Temple (đền Tứ Trụ) is dedicated to Nguyễn Bặc, Đinh Điền, Trịnh Tú, and Lưu Cơ. They were the four most trusted officials during the reign of King Dinh Tien Hoang and shared the same homeland.

Khong Palace (Phủ Khống) worships seven nameless officials of the Dinh Dynasty. According to legend, when King Dinh Tien Hoang passed away, they each transported a coffin as a diversion. After the deed, they all killed themself to keep the secret to the king’s last resting place.

Cao Son Temple (đền Cao Sơn) is a place of worship for the god of the same name who guards the West Gate of Hoa Lu. In the legend he was the 17th son of Lạc Long Quân— the founding mythical patriarch of the Vietnamese people.

The Ninh Binh Tran Temple (đền Trần Ninh Bình) was also built by King Dinh Tien Hoang. It’s a place of worship for Quý Minh— the guardian of the South Gate of Hoa Lu Ancient Capital.

Water Pavilion (Thuỷ Đình) is actually in the middle of the water and dedicated to Trương Hán Siêu. He was a scholar from Ninh Binh and assistant to General Trần Hưng Đạo who defeated the invading Mongols.

Fairy Spring Temple (đền Suối Tiên) can be accessed from both Trang An Grottoes and Tam Coc – Bich Dong. It’s also for the guardian of the South Gate of Hoa Lu.

The Caves of Trang An Grottoes

The Caves of Trang An Grottoes
[ by Constant Loubier from Unsplash ]

The Earth Spirit Cave (hang Địa Linh) or Treasure Cave (hang Châu Báu) is the first destination along the 1st route. The Winery Cave (hang Nấu Rượu) is filled with clay wine barrels. The water here to make wine for the kings. The Three Drops Cave (hang Ba Giọt) has the most beautiful karst formation in Trang An.

The Divination Cave (hang Bói) has freshwater shells all over. It’s actually an archeological site with traces of human life from 10 000 years ago. Stories say it used to be the place where officials of the Tran Dynasty performed divination rites.

Other Things to Do in Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex

As mentioned above, these destinations are also inside the complex with their own entrance and fees.

Explore Away at Tam Coc

Explore Away at Tam Coc - Bich Dong
[ by Tuấn Mai from Flickr ]

Tam Coc is around 8 km away from Trang An Grottoes. To be precise, the full name of the area is Tam Coc – Bich Dong Tourist Area (Khu du lịch Tam Cốc – Bích Động). You can choose between going by boat or on land and the fees are separate. 

A two-hour boat ride takes you along the Ngo Dong River (sông Ngô Đồng) through rice paddies, to three caves named Tam Coc, and then to other scenic caves and temples including Bich Dong Pagoda

The land route may require a vehicle as sites are quite far apart. There are more nature activities such as climbing Mua Cave Mountain and exploring Galaxy Cave. The mysterious waterways of Thach Bich – Thung Nang Valley are more low-key, and Thung Nham Bird Sanctuary is a bird watchers paradise.

The land route generally includes Bich Dong Pagoda and you might also stop by the Ancient Vietnamese Village Complex. 

More About the Tam Coc – Bich Dong Tourist Area

Spiritual Tranquility at Bich Dong Pagoda

Bich Dong Pagoda
[ by gmaart from Unsplash ]

Bich Dong (Bích Động) is the name of the mountain and the pagoda with three structures positioned along the slope. Bich Dong Pagoda dates to 1428, but it wasn’t until 1705 that it became what it is today.

You can take a boat ride through Xuyen Thuy Cave (Xuyên Thuỷ Động) through Mt. Bich Dong to the entrance to the pagoda. After visiting the Lower Pagoda (Chùa Hạ), you can hike your way up to the top.

After 120 steps, you will reach the Middle Pagoda (Chùa Trung) where the back-half of the structure is fused to the mountain. This structure consists of 3 halls and is connected to the Dark Cave (hang Tối) with a bronze bell forged in 1707. 

Another 40 steps, and you’ll arrive at the Upper Pagoda (Chùa Thượng) with the view of this calm and tranquil mountain.

Mua Cave Mountain Skyview of Tam Coc – Bich Dong

Hang Mua Mountain and the View of Tam Coc - Bich Dong
[ by jirehfoo from Unsplash ]

Mua Mountain (núi Múa) is only 3 km away from the entrance of Tam Coc – Bich Dong. It’s a tall vantage point allowing you to take in all the beauty of the area. If you book a room to stay nearby, you won’t have to pay the entrance fee.

Hang Mua (Hang Múa) is commonly mistaken as the name of the area, hence the English name Mua Cave. Múa is the name of the mountain, and hang means cave in Vietnamese.

From the bottom up, you can enjoy a royal experience of the Tran Dynasty including a gorgeous lotus lake, the grand path of 486 steps, and mesmerizing scenery all the way to the top. 

Hoa Lu Ancient Capital

Hoa Lu Ancient Capital
[ by Jean-Paul Navarro from Flickr ]

Hoa Lu Ancient Capital (Cố đô Hoa Lư) is less than 5 km away from Trang An Grottoes. It’s an area with important archeological data from 30 000 years ago. Constructions in the capital, however, date back to 968 AD.

The remaining key structures include the temples of King Đinh Tiên Hoàng and King Lê Đại Hành. Pagodas include the popular Bai Dinh Pagoda and places of worship for Vietnamese mythological figures. 

Visitors can also spend some time easy-hiking to Am Tien Cave (động Am Tiên) just across the road. The cave has a temple inside and is located in a watery valley filled with lotus blooms during the summer.

More About the Hoa Lu Ancient Capital

The National Showcase of Bai Dinh Pagoda

Bai Dinh Pagoda
[ by mtlwebdesign from Unsplash ]

Bai Dinh Pagoda (Chùa Bái Đính) is the largest Buddhist site in the country. It’s 10 km away from Hoa Lu and covers 539 hectares with predominant Vietnamese architecture. Construction for the New Area began in 2003 and is 800 m away from the Ancient Area with a few structures dating back to the Dinh Dynasty.

Coming to this National Heritage Site, visitors can see the biggest gold plated bronze statue of Avalokiteshvara (Thiên Thủ Quan Âm), the highest number of 500 Arhat (A La Hán) statues forming the longest Arhat corridor of 3 km, and the tallest stupa in Asia. 

It also boasts the biggest Budai (Di Lặc) bronze statue in South-east Asia, the biggest bronze bell, the biggest well, and the largest number of Bodhi trees in Vietnam.

There’s no entrance fee, and visitors can opt to pay for a 3.5 km electric car ride from the entrance to the center of the complex. The complex includes a Buddhist Academy along with other structures spanning 1 700 hectares.

More About the Bai Dinh Pagoda

Photogenic Thung Nham Bird Valley 

Photogenic Thung Nham Bird Valley
[ by Nguyenvanson01122 from CC BY-SA 4.0 ]

Thung Nham Bird Valley (Vườn chim Thung Nham) is around 15 km away from Trang An Grottoes. It’s a new under-the-radar eco-tourist area in Ninh Binh with many fun things to do. Visitors can get some unique photos at the Bird Park which preserves a variety of bird species including many endangered ones.

Other highlights include the moving Banyan Tree (cây đa di chuyển), thousand-year-old Streblus Tree (cây duối ngàn năm), Buddha Cave (hang Bụt), Vai Gioi Cave (động Vái Giời), and Mermaid Cave (động Tiên Cá). You can also pick-and-pay seasonal fruits in the area.

The Splendor of Galaxy Cave

Galaxy Embraced by a General
[ image from cungphuot.info ]

Galaxy Cave (động Thiên Hà) is hidden in General Mountain (núi Tướng) and got its names from a natural skywell. To reach the entrance of the cave, visitors have to take a short boat ride, then follow the bottom of the mountain for 500 m. The dock can be accessed from Thung Nham.

The cave spans 700 meters and houses growing stalactites and stalagmites depicting mythical figures in ancient tales. In the 200-meter dry area there were traces of ancient human life. To explore the 500-meter wet area, you’ll take another boat ride.

Best Time to Visit An Trang Scenic Landscape Complex

Best Time to Visit An Trang Scenic Landscape Complex
[ by Yulia Gadalina from Unsplash ]

1. Around the latter half of April to the first half of May when the weather is nice and the paddy fields are golden for the best scenery.

2. From the 8th to the 18th of March in the Lunar Calendar, there’s the traditional festival of Hoa Lu Ancient Citadel. It’s called Trường Yên Festival or Cờ Lau Festival.

3. The Bai Dinh Pagoda gets extra-crowded during its festival which lasts from the beginning of the Lunar New Year to the end of March in the Lunar Calendar.

Ticket Prices in Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex

Trang An Grottoes:

  • Entrance ticket: 20 000 VND per person;
  • Boat ride: Adults: 250 000 VND per person;
  • Children from 1 m to 1.3 m: 120 000 VND per person;
  • Children below 1 m: free;
  • Tour guide: 300 000 VND per ride.

Tam Coc – Bich Dong:

  • Land route: Adults: 120 000 VND and  Children: 60 000 VND.
  • Boat ride: 150 000 VND per person.

Mua Cave:

  • Entrance ticket: 100 000 VND per person.

Thung Nham Bird Valley:

  • Entrance ticket: 100 000 VND per person.
  • Bird Garden ticket: 30 0000 VND per person.
  • Buddha Cave ticket: 30 000 VND per person.

Galaxy Cave:

  • Boat ride: Adults: 120 000 VND and Children: 40 000 VND.

Thach Bich – Thung Nang: 

  • Land route: Adults: 20 000 VND and Children: 5 000 VND.
  • Boat ride: 100 000 VND per boat of 4 people.

Hoa Lu Ancient Capital:

  • Entrance ticket: 20 000 VND per person.

Am Tien Cave:

  • Entrance ticket: 20 000 VND per person.

Bai Dinh Pagoda:

  • Electric car ride: 30 000 VND per person per ride.
  • Stupa entrance ticket: 50 000 VND per person.

Where to Stay in Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex

Homestays around the complex can save some money and are convenient if you want to explore for more than a day. Chezbeo Homestay and Nguyễn Shack are popular choices.

Eating in Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex

Father Cooking and Chookie’s Beer Garden are two visitor favorites. Remember to try goat (dê), savory rice crisps (cơm cháy), ant eggs with sticky rice (xôi trứng kiến), rice vermicelli soup (miến lươn), and rice-paddy eel salad (gỏi cá nhệch).

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