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The Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex is located in the districts Hoa Lu, Gia Vien, and Nho Quan of Ninh Binh Province in northern Viet Nam. The heritage property is spread over a large area of 10,000 hectares, and is made up of three individual components within a single buffer zone.  The three components are: (i) the Trang An Ecological Area, (ii) the Tam Coc-Bich Dong River Landscape, and the Hoa Lu Ancient Citadel.  The three areas share a common geological and ecological environment characterized by dramatic limestone karsts, permeated with a network of caves, and bound together by flooded inland waterways of high biological diversity. Together these three contiguous areas comprise the core zone of the heritage property.

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To the east of the property is the Chanh River, to the north is the Hoang Long River and to the southwest is the Ben Dang River. The north, east and southeast sides comprise vast flat floodplains formed by Day and Van Rivers.

The crust in the Trang An region has a geologic history of 245 million years and includes six strata from of the Triassic and Quaternary Ages. It includes strata of different thickness, which has facilitated karstification and the formation of the area’s unique landscape.

The Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex is situated inland on the coastal plain of within the highly eroded limestone block of Hoa Lu, part of the Truong Yen – Bich Dong mountain range.  This range comprised of by limestone karst peaks of high fragmentation forming low mountains separated by valley floors composed of sedimentary rock, where shales predominate. These valley floors are characterized by a long process of denudation, erosion, and surface runoff which has accumulated as a mixture of aluvi – deluvi – proluvi.

The height of the limestone block of Hoa Lu is 105 -70 meters above sea level, decreasing in height from the northwest to the southeast, as it slopes to the sea.  The Hoa Lu limestone block consists of hundreds of connected karsitic limestone mountains in close proximity.  Dramatic karst peak topography dominates the top of the limestone block, while the inside of the block is permeated with thousands of caves, many of which are interlinked, along waterways.  The most characteristic – and spectacular – part of this geological area is included in the core zone of the Trang An Scenic Landscape heritage site.  Also included in the core zone are the most important caves showing the evolution of cave formation over a long geological period of time, and continuing into the present.  The buffer zone includes all the water bodies and water courses which contribute to the on-going geological evolution of the area.

The high fragmentation of the limestone mountains in the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex has resulted in numerous karst blocks, karst towers, bell-shaped karst formations, all with precipitous slopes.  Lying in-between the karst towers are karst valleys and expanded eroded karstic lowlands, floored with limestone mud sediments, which are flooded annually during the rainy season.

The geology of the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex dates from the glacial and interglacial episodes of the Quaternary when rates of erosion were accelerated due to the great fluctuations in climatic conditions.  During this time of repeated sea-level rise and subsequent inland flooding, the region was subjected to periodic inundation. The wave cuts found at the base of most of the limestone karsts within the property are the result of environmental and climate fluctuations during, and especially, at the end of the Quaternary.  Within the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex there are numerous caves from this period which are situated on marine terraces of different heights corresponding to sea levels changes correlated to the chronology of the interglacial periods, giving evidence that this was a time of generalized global warming.

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The cave system in the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex results from geologic activities including tectonic activity, the formation of sink holes, and the precipitation of calcium carbonates (CaCO3) over a span of ​​hundreds of millions of years from 32 million to 6000 years ago. These caves are under continued evolving transformation due to the impact of changes in global sea levels and the movements of the Earth’s crust.

There are two types of caves in the area.  Inactive (fossil) caves and active (living) caves.  Tam Coc and Trang An caves are typical of “living” caves that are flooded throughout the year. These caves are subject to continued erosion.  During the six months of the rainy season, the water level in these living caves can be up to the ceiling of the caves.  In addition, during the rainy season, rain water drops down from the cracks in the limestone block, dissolving the calcium carbonate and creating small stalactites and stalagmites.

Apart from magnificent beauty and geological interest, each cave has its own historical and cultural values. Many caves, such as show evidence of occupation by humans during the prehistory. Archaeological excavations Trong and Boi caves show evidence of human occupation as early as 20,000-10,000 BCE.  Excavations at Bich Dong, Nguoi Xua, Bai Dinh, and other cave sites show that the sequence of human occupation is uninterrupted from that time throughout the rest of the prehistoric era. These archaeological studies confirmed the stratigraphy and dating of the human occupations of the caves to and throughout the period of transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene at the end of the last glaciation, during the time of the area’s most dramatic geological transformation into its present condition. 

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Humans continued to occupy the area of the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex in the proto- and early- historic periods.  Evidence of human use/occupation during this time comes from both artifacts and structural features, such as wooden boat-coffins, Han-era tombs, construction materials, including a diversity of bricks and double diamond shaped decorative tiles.

The 10th century CE was a time of nation-formation and struggle for independence from Chinese dominance.  The labyrinth of mountains, caves, and waterways of the Trang An Complex provided effective protection for local defenders against invading Chinese imperial troops.  Eventually, mountains peaks were connected together to form the walls and the rivers were channeled to become the moats of the Viet military citadel of Hoa Lu. 

Hoa Lu first served as a political capital for 42 years during the Dinh Dynasty (CE 968-979), again during the Le Dynasty (CE 980-1010), and again during the early years of succeeding Ly dynasty. Subsequently Hoa Lu was the capital of an independent nation-state – Dai Co Viet – which later joined the confederation of nation-states to form the unified nation of Viet Nam ruled in succession by the Ly, Tran, Le, and Nguyen Dynasties.

When, in  the 13th  and 14th  centuries CE, the Jin Dynasty Imperial Army from China once again invaded Viet Nam, the Vu Lam Palace was constructed at Trang An to defend the nation’s frontier. 

Within the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex there are hundreds of historic pagodas, temples, and shrines dating from different historical periods.  The most outstanding are the two temples of King Dinh and King Le with their traditional wooden architecture. The Nhat Tru Pagoda is famous for the Buddhist scriptures carved on the temple’s stone pillars in the 10th century.  Also renown is the Thai Vi Temple of the Tran Dynasty with its unique stone architecture. There are also many important historical objects located within the property, the most important of which date from the 17th century CE, including: imperial dragon stone beds, and scared dog statues.  These historical features are to be found within the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex mainly along the serene Sao Khe River, as it winds its way through the picturesque limestone karst mountain valleys.

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For Vietnamese people throughout the ages, the landscape of Trang An, with its dramatic mountains, mysterious caves, and sacred spaces, has provided a vision of beauty and a metaphor for the Vietnamese culture.  It is a place of inspiration where natural history and cultural history are inseparable. A place where culture encounters the wonder, mystery, and magnificence of the natural world and is transformed by it.

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