After a refreshing shower and lunch at our lovely hotel, we were ready to explore the beautiful region of Ninh Binh. Ninh Binh is often skipped by people travelling through Vietnam due to lack of time, but in my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful regions in the country. It’s mostly known for its limestone mountains and stunning nature landscapes.
There are two sites that are commonly visited where tourists are taken through the beautiful scenery by boat. Tam Coc is the most known complex, but Trang An offers quite a similar experience. We had planned to do both and since Trang An was supposedly less touristy, we headed there first on a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon. If anyone would have told us what was going to happen to us that afternoon, we wouldn’t have believed them.
Armed with the extensive explanation we’d gotten from our hosts, the bikes and conical hats, we headed for the Trang An complex. The first part of the road by bike was a bit dull but once we neared the limestone mountain area, it was absolute bliss to ride through. Some of the sights along the way are as beautiful as the ones you see by boat.
Upon arrival at the site of Trang An, we immediately noticed that the “supposedly a lot less touristy” was a complete lie. The place was absolutely swamped with people. One thing was true though; there were almost no foreign tourists. I guess Trang An was a perfect sunny afternoon out for the Vietnamese in the area. With my white skin and reddish hair, I immediately made a lot of heads turn in my direction. Oh my….
We managed to get our entrance tickets pretty quickly (200.000 dong) and then it was queuing to get to the boats. There seemed to be no end to the line and we were suddenly starting to wonder whether we would make it to the boats before sundown. If we didn’t faint because of the heat and the large crowd we were in before that. We actually did leave the line for a while trying to gauge the situation and ended up bumping into two Dutch girls who assured us that it looked a lot worse than it actually was.
With renewed courage, we started queuing again. And indeed, the queue didn’t move very fast continuously because they let people inside a building in groups rather then let the queue continue with open doors. So suddenly we found ourselves in a huge building that was hot hot hot and where people just kept pushing to get inside even though the security guards were already trying to close the big doors. These people obviously didn’t know how to queue so I actually felt more like cattle being driven instead of people queuing. It was madness. Ab-so-lute madness.
And I guess the panic must have been visible on our faces – my friend is also quite small so being trapped in a hoard of hot, sweaty people while being small ain’t fun at all – because suddenly a security guard came to us and allowed us out of the queue. To our biggest surprise, we weren’t led back out the way we came in, but instead we were brought through the doors outside the building to the front of the queue. What? We had already seen children being allowed to skip the queue, but no one else. Either way, we weren’t complaining. We got out of that horribly hot building.
But then the second challenged presented itself. Actually getting onto a boat. There were still a whole lot of people queuing on the stairs to the boats, pushing and waving money to get the ladies rowing the boats to pick them up sooner. We looked at each other and decided that if we would get in that queue, we’d definitely end up in the water instead of in a boat. Not so much fun.
So we decided to hang back a bit and gauge the situation. And suddenly white tourist privilege reared its head again as a security guard came to stand next to us and yelled something in Vietnamese through a megaphone. After a few murmurs, the crowd split and allowed room for us to pass and get on a boat just like that. What?
We quickly made room for other people to join us in our boats as most boats were filled with six or seven people and we were only three. But aside from one other man, no one seemed allowed on our boat. Again; What? Op top of that, the man who had joined us didn’t seem to be a tourist at all. He was constantly pointing where we had to look and offered to take pictures of us in the scenery. We’re not completely sure, but it felt like we had our own personal guide/ bodyguard for free. Mad-ness!
All craziness aside, we were happy to be on the boats and in this beautiful nature complex. But it didn’t stop there. For the Vietnamese riding the boats surrounding us, we suddenly became the attraction. I lost count of how many people pointed, waved or took a picture. It was an absolute absurd experience.
Luckily among all the commotion, we were still able to enjoy the beauty of nature surrounding us. It was absolutely breathtaking. The only downside is that everywhere you look, you see the horrible orange life vests.
Two hours long, we rowed through ‘Halong Bay on land’, as Ninh Binh is often called as well. We were allowed to help the lady of our boat row, but we didn’t have to. It was fun to row for a while but we really quickly got tired and it never really seemed to make a difference. The lady on the other hand just kept going and going. Two hours long. Respect.
Along the way, we also stopped to visit a pagoda. I didn’t expect a lot of it, but it was really beautiful. Definitely worth to get out of the boat for.
So as you can see, it was quite the experience. I think this will easily become one of my favorite travel stories. The entrance price to Trang An is quite high for Vietnam, but it’s definitely worth the money. Especially if you end up getting the VIP treatement.