When researching things to do in Ninh Binh, there are two different rivers and locations for tours of the incredible scenery. Tam Coc is more touristy, a shorter ride for those who are short on time, and there are rice fields on either side of the river, so depending on the time of year things could be really beautiful. Trang An is still popular, but from my research it seemed to be a much more relaxing experience. It is a longer ride- between 2.5 and 3 hours depending on which route you choose and how long you take during temple/bathroom breaks. We were very happy with our choice to only do the Trang An boat tour.
It was going to be a pretty hot day, so we started out first thing in the morning to reach the ticket office. Our driver/homestay owner/tour guide drove us to the ticket office and helped us buy tickets. Tickets for adults were 200,000 VND, with kids being half price, and our baby was free. We had our own boat, and opted for the 2.5 hour ride over the 3 hour ride because we still went through several caves and saw plenty of temples, but it wasn’t too long for the boys. Both routes are the same price.
Since we got to the ticket office before 9, there were not any lines for tickets or to get on a boat even though it was a Saturday. From what I read, Trang An is more popular with Vietnamese families, and we found that to be true. We saw a few foreigners, and many Vietnamese! At the the dock there was a whole line of ladies in their boats ready to take on passengers. Adult size life jackets were provided, and we brought a child-sized life vest for Owen so everybody was safe.
The Trang An river area is so gorgeous it almost looks fake. The karst mountains with exposed limestone on the side, combined with the abundant greenery is so beautiful! As we started out on the river, we floated away from the road and toward a cave. The water was the prettiest shade of blue, and so clear we could see the aquatic plants growing underneath. A few of the caves we went through required us to duck down very far to avoid hitting our heads, but our cute boat lady made sure to alert us if it looked like we were going to hit our head. Some of the caves were completely natural- made by water erosion, while others we could tell had been artificially enlarged to allow boats to go through.
I was a little concerned about how our boys would do on a 2.5 hour boat journey. The landscape was varied enough with the caves and two temple breaks/stops where we got out of the boat to explore, that everyone enjoyed it and only for the last 5 minutes or so showed any signs of being restless/unhappy. There were spare oars in our boat, so Landon tried to row a few times. Aside from the other tourists in boats, the area was quiet and so peaceful. Most of the time all we could hear was the sound of our boat operator’s oars dipping into the water. It was one of the most magical things I’ve ever done, and definitely one of those bucket list experiences I didn’t know I had.
Soon, we ventured through a long, man-made cave with lights to guide our way. There were several times where we had to duck very low to avoid hitting our heads on the rocks overhead. Landon had a great time identifying and sometimes even reaching out to touch stalactites overhead. Our rower was super skilled at navigating the sometimes twisty curves of the cave. I was very impressed! She managed to maneuver the boat to just the right spots so Austin did not have to duck as low. He’s a big guy, and so that was hard work for her! On the other side of the cave, we came upon the area where King Kong: Skull Island was filmed. I guess Trang An has become much more popular since the release of that movie! We opted to stop at the movie set on the way back, so we continued down the right fork of the river, passing by a pagoda set right in the middle of the water.
After about an hour of rowing, it was time for our first pit stop. Our boat lady dropped us off at an island in the middle of the river, where we could walk around, stretch our legs, take stationary pictures, and check out the temples dedicated to early kings of the area. The kings who settled on this area for the capital liked it because it was so inaccessible to outside invading forces. I can see why they liked it here! The temple was built on an adjacent island and accessed by crossing a large stone bridge. When we arrived, a giant group of people was taking pictures in front of the temple, so we hung out on the bridge and took pictures of the scenery on either side!
After visiting what seems like a million temples of various religions in Asia, it is fun to see the similarities and differences in architectural style and decor. The giant herons on the back of turtles seems to be a Vietnam thing, and Owen, who is obsessed with turtles right now, really got a kick out of that. Dragons, the symbol for power and strength, where depicted throughout. There were roof ornaments like many other Asian temples, but these were two dimensional, and very different from east Asian varieties. Vietnamese temples in general are more ornate inside with lots of gold and red. Offerings on the altar range from the typical fruits to piles of snacks and water bottles. Those old kings are well-fed.
While we wandered around the island in the middle of the river, our rower maneuvered the boat to the pick-up point, close to the temple entrance. Each boat has a number, and so to find her among the many other boats waiting, we just looked for her number and the purple chin strap on her hat. We also found a big turtle for Landon to climb on, a tradition from our first stint in China that has stuck with us for over two years! We recently discovered that of all animals, Owen loves turtles best, so he wanted to take a picture on the turtle as well!
Our best “mountain with reflection” shot. We saw quite a few other row boats during our tour, so it was hard to find still water to take the picture. Although it was quite hot during our tour, the sun was hidden by clouds which made it bearable. I marveled at the stamina of our rower. She kept up a fast pace the entire time, with oars that did not really cover much distance with each pull. There were a few times she reverted to rowing with her feet, but she rowed with her arms most of the way. I’m sure our boat was a little heavier than her typical Vietnamese clients…
About a half hour after the first temple, she dropped us off at our next stop, a small temple and the Kong: Skull Island movie set. I guess Ninh Binh had an uptick in tourism from all over the world after the movie, and so they decided to just include the movie set in the Trang An boat tours. Our boat lady dropped us off a short distance from the temple, and then we followed the signs up and over the hill to the movie set. If I had known we were not coming back to the temple section, I would have spent more time looking around.
Landon wanted to forge ahead while Owen lingered with the turtles, so I followed him up and down some stairs and onto a wooden walkway over the water. I have not seen the movie, but there was a big ship and smaller vehicle set pieces in the water that we climbed on, and a neat bridge that connected the set pieces to an island set up like a native village. Things got a little weird when two natives came up to hold and take pictures with Owen. I thought they would ask for money afterwards, but they didn’t, they just wanted to hold him. I guess when big groups come through these guys re-enact scenes from the movie! When we walked through the village, they were all just standing outside their huts with spears. At first, I wondered if this was really where they lived, but after looking inside the huts and finding nothing there, we concluded that it was part of the Kong: Skull Island part of the tour, not an actual village!
Because of limited loading space at the pick-up point, all of the boats wait a little ways away, and then come over when it’s time for pick-up. We waited for a few minutes before our lady rowed over and took us back through one last cave and back to the start. It was such an amazing experience to be out on a rowboat looking up at these massive limestone mountains covered in green. If it were just Austin and I, I think we would have opted for the longer tour (it’s the same price!) but 2.5 hours ended up being just about perfect for our little guys. They just started getting restless and unhappy when we were in sight of the finish.
As far as planning to go with kids- there are a few snack places, souvenir/toy shops and restaurants across the street from the ticket office, and a bathroom near the ticket office. There are also bathrooms at both pit stops, but no food to be seen. We packed plenty of water and snacks and both boys did great. We also packed a toddler-sized life vest for our 21-month-old. Only adult life jackets were available on the boats. For anyone taking the time, energy and funds to travel to Ninh Binh, a Trang An row boat tour has to be a top priority! We loved our time on the water taking in the amazing scenery!