Open-topped rowboats captained by locals in conical hats regularly ferry passengers down the sleepy Sao Khe River to the Trang An Grottes—a series of a dozen otherworldly caverns, tunnels and caves. Boats park outside the best formations and allow visitors to clamber inside for a closer look, or float all the way through affording passing glimpses of hanging stalactites overhead.
The caves themselves are not as spectacular as some of the other Vietnamese cave systems—some say they’ve been recently altered to accommodate a surge in boat traffic due to its increasing popularity—but the surrounding scenery makes a trip to Trang An Grottoes more than worthwhile. The river meanders through electric green rice paddies, past above ground karst formations reminiscent of the water-surrounded pillars of Ha Long Bay and alongside impressive and remote temples. What’s more, the Trang An Grottoes are conveniently accessible from Hanoi making for an idyllic escape from the busy city.
The Trang An Grottes, part of Trang An Natural Reserve, are about 9 kilometers west of Ninh Binh and about 90 kilometers south of Hanoi. A popular attraction for Vietnamese tourists, the Trang An Grottoes can be crowded at midday. If you’ll be securing a boat on your own, you’ll want to go in the morning or late afternoon—the last boat leaves around 4 p.m. Day trips from Hanoi often have arrangements with boat captains to ensure the tour goes smoothly and usually include a stop at the impressive and nearby Bai Dinh Temple.
Boat trips to the grottoes take between two and three hours. An entrance fee of 100,000VND (around $4.50) will cover a boat for up to four people and is often included in package tour prices. Note that because rowboats are open-top, it’s best to come prepared with a hat and sunscreen.