Trang An Complex

The Trang An Complex in Vietnam has been a registered Unesco World Heritage Site since 2014.  It is large (over 6,226 hectacres 15,380 acres).  Large limestone karst formations rise up from the land with rivers and rice fields in the flat areas between formations.  The age of the formations date back 245 million years (not quite as old as the Stone Forest in Shilin or the formations in Halong Bay).  Growing up with a classical Western Civilization perspective education, my history books told me the early civilizations were in the following places:

  • The Nile River-Valley
  • Mesopotamia
  • Meso-America
  • Indus River Valley Civilization
  • Yellow River Valley

I heard nothing about the early civilizations in the Trang An area.  In the museum there are artifacts that date back to 11,868 BC.  There has been continuous evidence of neolithic and moderns human activity since this time.  I found this amazing.  It added to our experience.

Artifacts dating back to the Neolithic Period found at a single excavation site in Trang An

A boat ride

People starting out on their boat ride.
A boat-side view of the grottoes and formations

There are many boating options that allow you snake through the lazy water ways of the area.  Through Sharleen’s fastidious research she found that The Trang An Boat tour (nice write up here in a Vietnam paper) was the best.  They hassle people less for tips, there are a wide variety of historic and points of interest to see, and the views took our breath away.  There were three trip options (3 hour, 2.5 hour, and 2 hour), we chose the 3 hour trip seeing 5 temples and 9 caves.  It was long, and my back hurt afterwards, but it was worth it!

The setup was impressive.  The parking lot could clearly fit several hundred tour buses, and there were over 1,400 row boats ready to take people up the river.  Our boat (#944) sped us along to all the sites with ease.  Our rower pointed out sites and interesting views we might have missed.  We were especially impressed with her maneuvers in the caves to keep us from hitting our heads.  (Sidenote: we could not help but notice that most of the rowers were women.  For every 30 we saw, there was only 1 male. )


We passed through nine caves.  Some were short and some stretched more than 350 meters.  At times there was plenty of head room and we could help row.  Other times we had to crouch our heads down and hug the boat.  Our captain masterfully rowed and navigated the stalactites, ensuring we didn’t get our heads or backs scratched.

The longer caves trapped the hot air.  Sweat dripped from our brows in these sauna like caves.  Other caves funneled the breeze keeping us cool.

Entering a cave
Exiting a cave

I couldn’t help but think how much caves were a metaphor for life.  At times it was dark and unconformable.  Sometimes they lasted longer than we wanted and were filled with strange sounds or eerie feelings.  My mind would rush: “I hope there isn’t an earthquake or a collapse when I’m in here.”  I would see the light at the end, and get a rush that we’re almost through.  And then, upon emerging, we would be treated to a spectacular wash of color, images, sounds, smells.  They were a real treat and a relief.


On three occasions, the boat pulled up to some steps and we were able to get off to explore.  The first was the Trinh Temple which worshipped two generals of the Dinh dynasty.  A statue of two giant carp welcomed us at this statue.

The Tran Temple built in 968 worships the general of  King Hung Vuong.  This king overcame 12 warlords to setup the first dynasty (Dinh Dynasty) of Vietnam.  Last, King Tran rebuilt the shrine and renamed it the Tran Temple.

Finally our captain dropped us at the Khong Temple which was a Buddhist shrine erected in the 10th century.  Originally it was created to celebrate a general who thwarted a Tong invasion.

Early Civilization Timeline


While boating we saw dozens of birds like little grebes and sooty-headed bulbuls, as well as carp and other river fish.  The birds certainly were sonorous.  However, that was about it.  The forest was surprisingly empty and devoid of diversity.  Echoing our experience in the area is a New York Times article decrying the disappearance of wildlife in the area (Click Here).

A Little Grebe next to a lotus blossom


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