At first glance, the provincial capital of NINH BINH appears to be yet another dusty, traffic-heavy northern town. However, glance to the west and you’ll be beckoned to stay by a thousand fingers of limestone – a land-lubbing Ha Long Bay, with a clutch of historic and architectural sights to add to its geological beauty.
Despite the wealth of sights surrounding it, Ninh Binh itself claims just one sight of its own: a kilometre to the north a picturesque little pagoda nestles at the base of Non Nuoc Mountain. This knobbly outcrop – no more than 60m high – is noted for an eminently missable collection of ancient poetic inscriptions and views east over a power station to the graphically named “Sleeping Lady Mountain”.Read More
It’s hard not to be won over by the mystical, watery beauty of the Tam Coc “three caves” region, which is effectively a miniature landlocked version of Ha Long Bay. The film Indochine helped to put it on the tourist map, and both good and bad have come of its burgeoning popularity – access roads have been improved, though some of the canal banks themselves have been lined with concrete. In addition, Tam Coc has become relentlessly commercial, with many travellers having a wonderful day spoiled by hard-sell antics at the end of their trip. Despite the over-zealous – occasionally aggressive – peddling of embroideries and soft drinks by the rowers, the two-hour sampan-ride is a definite highlight, meandering through dumpling-shaped karst hills in a flooded landscape where river and rice paddy merge serenely into one; keep an eye open for mountain goats high on the cliffs, and bright, darting kingfishers. Journey’s end is Tam Coc, three long, dark tunnel-caves (Hang Ca, Hang Giua and Hang Cuoi) eroded through the limestone hills with barely sufficient clearance for the sampan after heavy rains. On the way back, you can ask to stop at Thai Vi Temple, a short walk from the river. Dating from the thirteenth century and dedicated to the founder of the Tran Dynasty, it’s a peaceful, atmospheric spot.
If you have time after the boat trip, follow the road leading southwest from the boat dock for about 2km to visit the cave-pagoda of Bich Dong, or “Jade Grotto”. Stone-cut steps, entangled by the thick roots of banyan trees, lead up a cliff face peppered with shrines to the cave entrance, believed to have been discovered by two monks in the early fifteenth century. On the rock face above, two giant characters declare “Bich Dong”. The story goes that they were engraved in the eighteenth century by the father of Nguyen Du (author of the classic Tale of Kieu), who was entrusted with construction of the complex. The cave walls are now scrawled with graffiti but the three Buddhas sit unperturbed on their lotus thrones beside a head-shaped rock which purportedly bestows longevity if touched. Walk through the cave to emerge higher up the cliff, from where steps continue to the third and final temple and viewpoint over the waterlogged scene.
Twelve kilometres northwest of Ninh Binh, Hoa Lu makes another rewarding excursion. In the 10th century, this site was the capital of an early, independent Vietnamese kingdom called Dai Co Viet. The fortified royal palaces of the Dinh and Le kings are now reduced to archeological remains, but their dynastic temples (seventeenth-century copies of eleventh-century originals) still rest quietly in a narrow valley surrounded by wooded, limestone hills. Though the temple buildings and attractive walled courtyards are unspectacular, the inner sanctuaries are compelling – mysterious, dark caverns where statues of the kings, wrapped in veils of pungent incense, are worshipped by the light of candles.
Making the most of Ninh Binh
Making the most of Ninh Binh
While the town itself has little to detain you, the surrounding hills shelter Tam Coc, where sampans slither through the limestone tunnels of “Ha Long Bay on land”, and one of Vietnam’s ancient capitals, Hoa Lu, represented by two darkly atmospheric dynastic temples. On the way to Hoa Lu is Trang Anh, a less-touristed version of Tam Coc, while further on is is Bai Dinh Pagoda – though decidedly non-ancient, this ranks as the largest Buddhist complex in Vietnam, and quite possibly the whole world, and is worth a look for its sheer scale alone. All of these places can be tackled in one day by car or motorbike, or by bicycle via the back lanes.
To the east, the stone mass of Phat Diem Cathedral wallows in the rice fields, an extraordinary amalgam of Western and Oriental architecture that still shepherds an active Catholic community. Heading west instead, Cuc Phuong is one of Vietnam’s more accessible national parks and contains some magnificent, centuries-old trees.
More boat trips are in store at Kenh Ga, to visit a limestone cave, and at Van Long nature reserve, both on the Cuc Phuong road. These last sights are more distant: the cathedral requires a half-day outing, while Cuc Phuong and either Kenh Ga or Van Long can be combined in a long day-trip. Hanoi is only a couple of hours away, and the Hoa Lu/Tam Coc–Bich Dong circuit makes a popular and inexpensive day tour out of the capital. However, with more time, it’s far better to take advantage of Ninh Binh’s hotels and services to explore the area at a more leisurely pace.