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.