Sheer cliffs surround the boat in every direction. Limestone karsts sprouting with dense vegetation tower above. I see nothing but nature and hear nothing but silence. Bobbing on the water, the captain slowly steers the boat to what looks like an impassable tangle of rocks and vines. Not until we are a few metres away do I see our escape: a cave, less than two metres high, emitting only darkness. We are going in.
Welcome to Trang An, Vietnam’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, a place where the water is crystal clear and pink flowers bloom along the shallows. Temples rest on a precipice of rock and water. Here, for 30,000 years, people have lived amongst these limestone giants. To the unfamiliar, this area is a maze of confusing waterways and impassable hills, a place where one could easily disappear from the world. However to the emperors of the 10th and 11th centuries, this was the ideal setting for a capital city where the inhabitants could be controlled and enemies rebuffed.
This combination of stunning natural beauty and ancient history has led Trang An to be recognised as Vietnam’s eighth World Heritage Site. Unlike the previous seven, Trang An is notable for being the only UNESCO site in Vietnam to be classified for both its cultural beauty and natural integrity.
At the ticket office, we are met by the sight of thousands of wooden boats bobbing along the shoreline. Stepping gingerly into the closest dinghy, we are greeted by a young woman whose ability to paddle three adults – all in the midst of Christmas feasting – for three straight hours left me in awe of her strength. What followed was a string of beautiful caves of varying heights and lengths, interspersed with scenes of a peaceful beauty that can be hard to come by in Vietnam.
Dubbed ‘Halong Bay on land’, Trang An’s landscape is reminiscent of its coastal World Heritage neighbour. Dominated by similar karst geography, Halong Bay and Trang An both provide a stunning backdrop to a tranquil boat cruise. Unlike Halong, however, the boats at Trang An are small, seating no more than five adults, and weekday crowds are minimal. We emerged from a particularly low cave opening and into a small cove ringed by flowering reeds and waterlilies. The steep limestone cliffs block all outside sounds. Underwater reeds stand tall in the clear water beneath our boat, their green spongy limbs waving gently in the current as we paddle past. Brown-and-gold fish dart between grass, their scales glinting in the sunlight, before plunging into the shadows of the towering hills above. Water movement is imperceptible, with the steep hillsides, plunging valleys and clear sky mirrored in its glassy surface. It is as though a parallel world of deep crevices and underwater mountains exists just below our feet.
A parallel world does, in fact, describe how it seemed as we floated through the caves of Trang An. The journey through the first hollow felt like stepping through the back of the wardrobe and entering Narnia. We were suddenly transported into a beautiful, magical world. So at odds with the industrial limestone factories that dominate the Ninh Binh landscape, this small pocket of serenity is surprising.
With more and more visitors flocking to Vietnam’s World Heritage Sites, I worry that Trang An will suffer the consequences of unchecked mass tourism. We can only hope that tourism officials will learn from the experiences of other popular tourist destinations and ensure that this place remains as close to paradise as it was on that sunny afternoon in late December.
As our boat paddled slowly back towards the ticket office and the noises from surrounding roads and villages returned it was as though we were emerging from the wardrobe. Tranquility and history can be experienced at the Trang An complex and I hope that its designation as Vietnam’s newest World Heritage Site will help the area retain its magic.
This article originally appeared on the AsiaLife website on February 5th 2014, click here to see the original.