When I was planning our trip to Vietnam, I was discussing with the travel agency on the places to go while in Ninh Bình Province. The morning itinerary was already filled up with the visit to the Bái Đính Temple but the important question was where to go in the afternoon before returning to Hanoi.
Try the Tràng An grottoes, I was advised. "Trang An is less popular than Tam Cốc-Bích Động (Tam Coc) as a tourist site but the scenery is just as beautiful," the agency told me. Alright, I told the agency, let's go to Tràng An.
So that was how on the second day of our family vacation in Vietnam, we landed ourselves in a small, open sampan, fully exposed to the unbearably hot afternoon sun with nothing more than my wife's umbrella to be shared by the four of us, as the sampan's owner paddled us up and down the lengthy waterway.
In hindsight, we should have bought the straw hats at the souvenir shops to hide us from the searing heat but we thought it was unnecessary until it was too late. All around us in other boats, the touritsts were either wearing these hats or holding umbrellas. I can say that my wife wasn't all too pleased with having to be out under the scorching sun. "I'm going to be burned very brown," she kept mumbling throughout the whole time in the boat.
As these were natural caves carved into the limestone hills by nature over millions of years, there was very little lighting and in most parts the passage ways were narrow and we had to look out for the rocks that loomed in front of us. On all occasions, we had to avoid the rocks on the left and right of us, and also stalacmites from the caves' low ceiling. Although we made it through the caves unscathed, I am sure that there must have been accidents before with unsuspecting tourists.
It looked almost ridiculous going boating in the hot afternoon with nothing but a filmsy umbrella to shelter us from the sun.
While out in the open waterway, we were mostly surrounded by beautiful limestone hills but there were also stretches of padi fields on the flat lands. The water, unfortunately, I cannot say that it was clear enough to see beyond two or three feet below the surface. Nor did I see any fishes around - maybe I wasn't looking hard enough - but we did catch sight of a pair of mountain goats.