An exceptionally beautiful landscape of limestone pinnacles, Ninh Binh has a good reason to be called “Ha Long Bay on Land”. This northern province allures visitors with unique experiences that no other place in Vietnam can offer.
Ninh Binh is imbued with otherworldly beauty. That’s my first thought when visiting the land in the southern part of the Red River Delta. Here, limestone cliffs rising majestically out of rice paddies. And subterranean caves open out onto countless dreamlike sceneries. Though located just 110 kilometres from Hanoi, it does look like a different world.
If you only have time to visit one attraction in Ninh Binh, make it Trang An. Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, this spectacular landscape of forest-mantled rock towers, submerged valleys and mystical grottoes has inspired people throughout history.
My breath was taken away as our sampan glided past vertical cliffs, flooded caves and narrow passages. Every turn is another magnificent scenery, featuring dramatic rock formations, pristine tropical forest and emerald green waterway.
Amidst this unspoilt nature stand the ancient temples of various deities and national heroes. Solemn yet serene, they reflect human interactions since the very early times. There is also a hiden military base – the Vu Lam Royal Steps – built during the Tran dynasty. Thanks to this impragnable limestone fortress, Tran Kings and their armies successfully fended off the Mongol Empire.
Similar to Trang An, a visit to Tam Coc will have visitors navigating in their hired boat down the river. They will pass rice paddies, limestone hills and a series of natural caves. In total, there are three marvelous grottoes of different sizes in Tam Coc; hence the name. While in the caves, I was surprised to see how clear the water is. It reflects the colour of the environment, giving the caves a mysterious beauty.
Just two kilometres from Tam Coc is Bich Dong – a charming sequence of cave temples. Established in the 15th century, the entire structure is carved in the side of a verdant mountain. It’s made of three levels: the Lower, the Middle and the Upper Temple.
After a short walk from the atmospheric entrance, I found myself at the Lower Temple. It evokes a nostalgic feeling, with mossy roofs and time-faded walls. From there, 100 stone steps led me to the Middle Temple, where there’s a shorter but steep ascent to the Upper Pagoda. Inside, looming statues of Buddha and other deities peer through the haze of burning incense.
Van Long Natural Reserve
If you’re into Vietnamese wildlife, Van Long Natural Reserve is a destination that’s worth visiting. Approximately 20 kilometres north of Ninh Binh city, this protective area is teeming with local floral and fauna.
In comparison to Trang An or Tam Coc, a boat tour in Van Long has a rustic vibe. You will glide past a maze of reed and through an unlit cave. At some points, the coontail is so thick that your boat-lady has to use a pole to punt through the water. The swamp is kept in its original state, with very limited human interaction.
Scattering around this brown-green landscape are incredible karst peaks – the sanctuary for the endangered Delacour’s langurs (population roughly 160) and various rare bird species. They’ve grown significantly in number because the reedy wetland keeps predators and poachers at bay.
Practical Information about Ninh Binh
- From Hanoi, it only takes 2-2.5 hours to reach Ninh Binh. Buses and trains run frequently between these two cities.
- The city of Ninh Binh is not particularly interesting. However, due to its proximity to cliffs, caves and other cultural sites, it serves well as a base for travellers.
- Currently, there are three routes to explore Trang An. While Route 1 focuses on the historic sites, Route 2 and 3 allows visitors to see the most beautiful parts of the complex. The boat tour takes about three hours.
- Tam Coc is at its best during May and June as the rice paddies turn gold. Please note that there’s only one harvest season in this area. Some travel websites and agencies claim otherwise to mislead people.
- In term of service, Trang An is better managed than Tam Coc.
- To increase your chance of seeing birds and langurs, visit Van Long Natural Reserve at dusk. Beware of the mosquitoes, though!