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Ninh Binh is a very laid back city in the northern part of Vietnam, it offers a welcome respite from the hectic pace of Vietnam’s capital city. It may be an uneventful place, but it is surrounded by a stunning landscape of lush green paddy fields and striking limestone outcrops and is the hopping off point for sights and attractions including Tam Coc and Trang An, Bich Dong, Hoa Lu, Phat Diem Cathedral, Van Long and Cuc Phuong National Park. That said, the place packed quite a punch to explore the wealth of natural attractions without the choking crowds that you will find in places like Ha Long Bay.
With such little knowledge about the place we’ve decided to seek the company of a local guide – Queen Mini Hotel Travel and Tour, which we found through a travel agent in Ha Long Bay. They could tailor fit the tour depending on your need which makes the whole trip an experience.
We ended up hiring a private car and a driver for the day (USD$35) to see the main sights. We could not be happier with the driver’s attitude and friendliness. His English was limited but enough for the basics, and he never seemed to be tired to drive us around, he was very good, accommodating, and drove safely. Although a little expensive for 2 people, it was a good way to get around as the main sites are spread out around Ninh Binh.
Our first destination was Tam Coc Caves. If there’s one thing that you should not miss in Ninh Binh, this is it. The natural beauty of Tam Coc is just beyond words. The meandering river was lined by rice paddies and guarded by limestone cliffs similar to that in Ha Long Bay. Thus, Tam Coc has earned the name the “Halong Bay on Land”.
We embarked in little rowing boat rowed by locals, rowing with their feet! We went through the caves and past rice fields for about one and half hour. Boarding a sampan was an experience in itself, with the water rushing just beneath you, cruising through darkened caves with low-hanging limestone ceilings, somehow it gives a more unique and romantic feel to it.
From Tam Coc we went to see Bich Dong Pagoda. It was impressively hidden away into a cave. With a beautiful walk through and up around the mountain. There were hawkers on the path to the pagoda but not many people. The entrance was over a natural stone slab built bridge. Over the bridge, under the mini pagoda entrance, we saw an intricately carved, shaped rock on a balance, that when struck rings out.
The complex has three small temples that are partially built-in the cave. The lower pagoda is located at the base, from which 100 steps lead to the middle Pagoda. At one point you walk into the cave, see a large bell and stalagmites and a beautiful small temple with Buddha surrounded by burning incense. I was amazed at all to see local ladies wearing heels, climbing the stair with ease while I almost tripped with my flat shoes!
The last leg was with the sign that says “do not climb up”. This climb got progressively difficult (maybe that’s what the signage is all about 🙂 ) but we were rewarded with amazing views. Avoid going left to the largest peak as there is some serious climbing to get up (and difficult to get down). Turning right is a better and easier climb and have a good vantage point over the surrounding countryside.
After we paid our entrance fee, we walked through a little park which I think is perfect for picnic and meditation. Actually, the cave itself was nothing special; the reason people go here is to climb the hill above to a viewpoint where you can get amazing 360 panoramic views of Tam Coc on one side and rice fields and Ninh Binh on the other. The climb was quite challenging (500 steps), I am glad I didn’t go in the summer because there was no shade on the climb and it can really be exhausting. Thankfully, there was a small shaded pavilion at the summit where you can relax and enjoy the views. The sight was spectacular and the only company you will have is the large dragon statue perched upon the craggy limestone rocks overlooking this unforgettable location.
On the way down we saw some goats, they are everywhere, proof for why the animal is a delicacy in the village. Just wondering though how they manage to climb the stiff mountain.
Our final stop was at Hoa Lu, the first capital of Vietnam. It was a small collection of palaces and temples, hard to believe that it used to be the capital of a country. What was perhaps more interesting was venturing a bit further into the little town and seeing the local people who all seemed happy to see me he he he he.
The temples are said to be built on the old foundation of their original palaces from the 11 and 12th centuries then restored in the 17th century. Though the temples are not maintained entirely some precious antiques are still preserved such as the whole stone dragon thrones, wooden and lacquered statues of King Dinh, Kinh Le, Queen Duong Van Nga – who in turn got married to both kings.
The tour inside the village was interesting in terms of the architecture, but better if you have a guide who can explain the history to you, otherwise it would be just an old temple ruins and nothing too exciting unless one truly appreciates old Vietnamese history.
1. Make sure you get a good map, but bear in mind this may not help you and you may need to resort to asking passers-by or using GPS.
2. Best to hire a motorbike – Since many of the sights are within 12km of Ninh Binh city, and the land is flat, so they can be reasonably easily reached on a bicycle or motorbike.
3. At the temple sites, it’s best to be well-behaved and stay covered up (no shorts), even though no one is officially checking or enforcing a dress code.
Have you been to a place as calming as Ninh Binh? I would love to hear from you, write down your thoughts in the comment box below. If you enjoyed this post, why not follow my Facebook or Instagram page for more travel tips and inspiration.
Happy travels everyone!
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