Ninh Binh is easy to reach by a motorbike or a public bus from Hanoi within just about 3 hours. However, most of the tourists would book a tour that is, naturally, the most comfortable option. Nevertheless, if you have enough time there is a cheaper and much more interesting way of exploring the (quite extensive) Ninh Binh region.
Unlike Ha Long Bay, Ninh Binh offers a brilliant opportunity for a self-guided tour. It is highly recommended to have your own transport to get the best of the region. Tours only cover the major points of interest but there are so many other beguiling sites and spots to see – it would be a shame to miss out on them. Besides, the most authentic places where to experience rustic villages and traditional lifestyle are outside of the tourist hotspots. Hence, rent a scooter/motorbike if possible but there will be a lot of driving in order to see all the sites. The only attraction that can`t be done independently is the boat ride..
The gateway to most of the attractions is a tiny fisherman village of Tam Coc. What draws the crowds is a mass-excursion by a small rowing boat along the Red River. Sadly, the whole charm of the place can get fairly disturbed by the intrusive hawkers. Try not to let yourself be discouraged and firmly say “no” to anything they will offer. Rowers usually row with their bare hands and feet, which can be quite an interesting sights.
The journey starts at Van Lam village and visitors will be floating down the river through several natural caves, surrounded by phenomenal limestone formations and rice fields. The villages are famous for their handmade embroideries. Although it is a lovely handcraft, do not feel obliged to buy one.
Apart from the Tam Coc boat tour, there are two significant historic landmarks to examine – Bich Dong Pagoda and Tai Vi Temple (access via a boat at the Tam Coc Pier). The old pagoda is built at three levels in a steep mountain cliff. Some of the temples were built into caves and you can climb as high as you like to discover hidden pagodas.
For the fit ones, Hang Mua peak & temple can be climbed via 450 steep steps (entrance is 5 km from the Tam Coc Pier). From its summit, you can watch the rowing boats entering the Mua cave; the 360° view from atop is jaw-dropping!
The Trang An grottoes are one of the ‘must-sees’ when in Ninh Binh. The World Heritage Site features caves that are very similar to those in Tam Coc – except, they have been widened so that the tourist boats can pass through. The best time to book a 3-hour-long boat tour is early morning or late afternoon (the last boat departs at 4 pm) just to avoid the crowds of tourists arriving daily on buses from Hanoi.
The most important historic site in Trang An is the UNESCO-listed Bai Dinh Pagoda – Vietnam`s largest pagoda with the longest corridor in Asia and the biggest bronze Buddha in Southeast Asia.
Nature lovers should pay a visit to the Thung Nang Valley – another gorgeous grotto paradise. perhaps lesser visited but more authentic and tranquil, Thung Nang is ideal for caving and bird watching.
Van Long is a nature reserve defined by large wetland, and it is renowned for fishing, birdlife and wildlife tours. With utterly still waters and peaceful surrounds, it is an ideal place to relax, take pictures and listen to the echoing sounds of the birds.
The reserve is known as ‘the bay with no waves’ as the vast expanse of the river here is so motionless that it makes a mirror for the towering limestone peaks and clouds above them. There are numerous caves and boat tours can be arranged, also.
Find the hidden limestone cave of Dich Long with a pagoda built inside; there is a bell tower, stone temple, and a Buddha garden, and beautiful stalactites & stalagmites.
CUC PHUONG NATIONAL PARK
For a little bit of adventure, rent a bicycle (unless you ride a motorbike) and head towards little known, but magnificent Cuc Phuong National Park. Merely 1.5-hour drive from Ninh Binh, majestic limestone mountains rise up from the green rice terraces that are dotted with traditional stilt houses, waterwheels and bamboo rafts used by the Muong farmers.
Covered in dense, virgin rain-forest, this landscape forms the habitat for some Asia`s rarest and endangered animal and plant species, and there are numerous prehistoric caves hidden in a thick forest. There are many walking and cycling trails, and nature walks are ideal for birdlife spots, butterflies and orchids. Particularly, the swarms of vibrant butterflies filling the tracks are marvellous (peak season is April-May).
Night tours and overnight stays are available in the national park – there is a good range of accommodation and eco-tours. Also, the Endangered Primates Rescue Centre is situated bright at the park entrance and it can be visited with a local guide.
Pop into the Phat Diem Cathedral when in Cuc Phuong – the French named it the “Vatican of North Vietnam”, the religious complex is a blend of Eastern and Western architecture with quite unique design; it is set in the middle of the canals and rice fields.
ESSENTIAL EXPERIENCES IN NINH BINH (BRIEF SUMMARY)
1.TRANG AN – Trang An Grottoes, Hoa Lu Temple, Bai Dinh Pagoda and Thung Nham Valley & Bird Garden
2.TAM COC – Tam Coc rowing boat ride, Bich Dong Pagoda, Tai Vi Temple, Hang Mua Peak and Hang Mua Temple
3.CUC PHUONG – Cuc Phuong National Park and Phat Diem Cathedral
4.VAN LONG – Van Long Nature Reserve and Dich Long cave & pagoda
TOP 5 HISTORIC LANDMARKS TO VISIT IN NINH BINH
WHEN TO TRAVEL
Best time to visit the region is March-May (dry and warm weather) or October-November for cooler and clear days. However, for the most spectacular views of rice fields in their full abundance visit Northern Vietnam in September, just before the harvest starts.
You should count on 1 day for each of the 4 areas in Ninh Binh. Hence allow 4 days for this trip.
HOW TO GET THERE
Fly to Hanoi where you can either arrange a package tour to Tam Coc (2-3 day all inclusive trip) or travel independently to Ninh Binh by bus (3-hour drive).
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