Edward Dalton heads south to an area that many have called ‘Halong Bay on Land’ — the Bai Dinh pagoda complex in Ninh Binh. Photos by Theo Lowenstein
The Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex is located around 90km south of Hanoi, and is home to both the almighty Bai Dinh pagoda and the beautiful scenery of Trang An. A slightly intimidating three-hour motorbike ride was the only obstacle to an unforgettable day trip.
Blessing of the Maitreya
To preserve the peaceful and fresh atmosphere, nothing with a petrol engine is allowed too close to Bai Dinh Pagoda, so from the nearby car park we were shuttled in electric buggies to the main entrance. The return ticket, which also covers the entrance fee, is VND60,000 per person.
Bai Dinh Pagoda is bursting at the seams with impressive records and statistics. The site covers an area of 700 hectares. Thousands of small statues adorn the walls of the two largest temples, with 500 arhat (enlightened being) statues on the paths to the top. Several 100-ton statues and the three largest decorative lacquered boards in Vietnam are hidden inside the main halls.
The grounds of the pagoda complex are strikingly lush, and as we ascend to the highest level, the view rivals the pagoda itself in grandeur and beauty. At the highest point of Bai Dinh is the Maitreya, or future Buddha, with a bronze belly so generously proportioned, it made me feel like Asia’s Next Top Model, albeit briefly.
Going on a Friday meant we avoided the weekend tour bus onslaught, and the consequential peace and quiet made the contemplative moment at the summit feel extra meaningful. The serenity caused us to lose track of time, so our plan to try out the local speciality of goat meat was scuppered in favour of a quick meal at a modest restaurant near the pagoda car park.
Mind Your Head
A 10km ride east took us to the beginning of the Trang An boat tours. The trip there from Bai Dinh could be done in 15 minutes, but we found ourselves having to stop frequently to take photos of the astonishing scenery flanking us on each side of the road.
A ticket for a place on a rowboat powered by a mightily fit local will set you back VND150,000, or you can get a whole boat to yourself for VND600,000. The trip takes around two hours, so if it’s a bright day you will need to bring sunscreen, shades and possibly even an umbrella to provide a bit of shade. I forgot the sunscreen and spent the next three days looking like a boiled lobster.
Fortunately, the scenery is so utterly breathtaking that any backache, numb backside or sunburn is a small price to pay for the experience. The landscape is dominated by towering limestone formations which stick up from the earth like the fists of the Titans. The boat trip follows the winding river around the base of these awe-inspiring structures, and through caves under the rock formations.
As we approached the base of one mountain and the entrance to a cave became clearly visible, the guide told us to sit down low to avoid banging our heads on the stalactites. Cooling drops of water dripped onto us as the guide expertly steered the boat through the claustrophobic cave, until it once again emerged into another postcard-like setting.
The Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex has so much to offer, it’s definitely a full-day trip. Prodigious pagodas and stunning scenery all in one place, there aren’t many places I’d commit to six hours of driving for, but this is somewhere I will always be keen to return to. Next time, I'll remember the sunscreen.
Take AH1 south out of Hanoi and follow it for around 85km. Upon reaching the second bridge over the Song Day River, turn right and follow the TL477B to Cau Den Bridge.
Bai Dinh Temple is south west of the bridge, via QL38B, while the entrance to the Trang An River complex is south east via Trang An Street.
The journey by motorbike will take around three hours. Buses and trains can get you into Ninh Binh City where taxis can be found for onward travel.