5 glorious reasons to visit Ninh Binh

Tam Coc, Ninh Binh, VietnamImagine yourself being rowed along a tranquil river, surrounded by fairytale limestone karst mountains while rice whispers in the breeze at the water’s edge, the river appears to end at a rock face then you notice a low cave, a tunnel, the river slips silently through to the sun-drenched landscape beyond.

This magical experience, at Tam Coc, is the main reason you might find yourself in Ninh Binh, an otherwise nondescript Vietnamese town a couple of hours south of Hanoi. Due to its near proximity to Hanoi many people do Tam Coc as a day trip from Hanoi but there is so much more to see in the area, I’d like to encourage you to base yourself in Ninh Binh for a few days and explore.

Having visited Vietnam before, we had ticked off the big hitters a few years ago – Halong Bay, Sapa – and our budget didn’t quite stretch to a repeat visit for these places so we had time to explore some of more of what Vietnam has to offer, and we were thrilled with what we found.

1. Tam Coc

> click on a photograph to open the gallery

Tam Coc is the jewel in the crown of the Ninh Binh area, the Ngo Dong river flows sedately through an intimate landscape of karst hills and rice paddies and can be enjoyed by rowboat.

Locals busy working the waterways

Locals busy working the waterways

Just under 10 km from Ninh Binh, Tam Coc is easily accessible by bicycle or motorbike, along flat roads, although the busy A1 highway can be a little intimidating until you end up in a peloton with some young local school girls gossiping away to each other as trucks thunder past. We hired bicycles from our budget hotel in Ninh Binh and Tam Coc was easy to find, after turning off the A1 we were suddenly in a pretty pastoral landscape of flooded rice paddies.

Tam Coc, Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Once at the small tourist village we paid the entrance fee, paid for our boat and were allocated a rower. We had arrived fairly early in the day, about 10am and the place was almost deserted. Our lovely rower took us to her little wooden boat, one of many tied to the wharf and we were soon heading upriver. We hardly saw any other boats on the 2 km stretch until we were almost back to the village, a stream of boats carrying Chinese tourists, guffawing at our rower – they hadn’t noticed that their rower was also rowing with their feet!

Yes, the rowers here row with their feet, it is remarkable to watch if not a little distracting if you are trying to have a conversation with your rower! Our rower was adorable, she didn’t speak much english but asked if I spoke French as she was learning it. We managed to have a fine conversation with our limited français.

I commented how wonderful it was to have the river so uncrowded and peaceful, she agreed it was great for us but not for her. She explained that in the quiet season, as it was in January, she may only get one row a month. Nearly everyone in the local villages have a boat and they work on a rotational basis I guess. In high season there is far more demand and she would get two rows a month. I feel we were lucky getting her, I’ve heard some of the rowers can also be pushy souvenir vendors.

Tam Coc translates as ‘Three Caves’ and the winding river flows through three low cave tunnels which add an extra magical dimension to the boat ride. To get the best from your trip to Tam Coc, go in the early morning or late afternoon so you don’t have to share the magic with hundreds of noisome tourists. Don’t forget a hat and sun cream!

From the tourist village you can continue by bike along to Bich Dong temple past more glittering rice paddies.

2. Hoa Lu Ancient Capital

Wonderful old architecture

Wonderful old architecture

In the 10th Century Hoa Lu was the Capital of a newly independent Vietnam, very little of this ancient city remains today yet it is still worth a visit. Situated amongst towering limestone karsts you can get an idea of the defensively suitable location and there are lovely temples to check out. We did it as part of a tour we’d booked through our accommodation in Ninh Binh that would ultimately take us to Cuc Phuong National Park. It was a personal tour, just us two, a guide and a driver.

 

3. Cuc Phuong National Park

Cuc Phuong is Vietnam’s largest national park and its lush forest is full of wildlife. Cuc Phuong can be explored on a day trip but there is accommodation inside the park making the experience more immersive. We got to the park as part of a tour but it could definitely be done by motorbike, the park headquarters and visitor centre are located within the park and there are a few options for accommodation further in. We stayed in a cute but basic little bungalow and this included {unremarkable} food, as a vegetarian I was catered for.

Our little home in the Jungle

Our little home in the Jungle

As we came with a tour, we had a guide and he took us along one of the park’s trails, this wasn’t ideal as he had no wildlife knowledge, and he had to keep stopping to catch his breath! While his knowledge of Hua Lo was extensive we learnt nothing about the natural diversity the park is famed for. Nevertheless it was wonderful to be in the jungle, to breathe in the clean, forest air.

Just as we set off on our walk we were joined by two friendly dogs, not for the first time on our hikes on this trip! This was a mum and pup, and they followed us the whole way, just happy to be in our company. This of course prompted the conversation with our guide, as he was lovingly fussing one of the dogs, about the consumption of dog meat in Vietnam. He said he ate it, it was a warming meat, very good for you, but he also liked these dogs as he knew them. He didn’t comprehend our confusion/disgust!

 

Within the Cuc Phuong National Park you can also visit the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre where a Centre worker will show you around and answer any questions. The primates housed in the centre have been rescued from smugglers supplying the illegal pet trade and you can see endangered gibbons and langur monkeys. Free but leave a donation for this worthy cause.

Across the road is the Cuc Phuong Turtle Conservation Centre, these creatures have also been rescued from smugglers, although for the Chinese dinner plate rather than the pet trade. It’s interesting to see the turtles up close, some are happily wandering along the footpaths within the  grounds. Free but leave a donation or buy something from the gift shop, poor gorgeous little turtles.

On the way out of the park we stopped off to hike the short trail up to the Cave of Prehistoric Man. The cave was excavated in the 60’s and human remains were discovered buried in a careful way, hinting at primitive religion, they dated back 7500 years ago. Prehistoric tools and animal bones were also found. Today the cave is empty and goes back quite far, the floor was littered with the odd seashell revealing either prehistoric mans diet or changes in the sea level over the millennia. Bring a torch.

4. Van Long Nature Reserve

If you visited the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre in Cuc Phuong you may have seen the rare and endangered Delacour’s Langur amongst its wards. Van Long Nature Reserve is the place to go if you want to see them in the wild, 25 km north of Ninh Binh on the road to or from Cuc Phuong.

This beautiful lake is also home to many birds, the langurs can be seen on the rocky hills surrounding it. Another serene boat ride and more incredible scenery, and very few tourists – we were the only ones on the lake in the late afternoon, it was absolutely blissful.

Wildlife being wild means it’s never guaranteed and unfortunately we didn’t see any langurs. The boat ride was beautiful though and reached a magnificent climax as thousands of egrets came in to roost at the end of the day. The magnificent of the scene was overwhelming as these white birds glinted in the low sun as they rose up from the marshes in a vast flock.

A huge flock of egrets coming in to roost at Van Long Nature Reserve

5. New Bai Dinh Temple

New Bai Dinh Temple, Vietnam

This vast temple complex was included on our little tour, it is one of the largest Buddhist complexes in South East Asia and quite something to see. Built in 2003 up the hill from a much older pagoda many flights of Buddha-lined stairs lead up to huge temples, halls and a bell tower. I found it interesting to compare it to the many older Buddhist temples we’ve visited on the trip.

 

Getting to Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh can be reached easily by train or bus from Hanoi. We opted for the train, continuing our rail journey south, it is a regular stop on the Reunification Express. Our hotel room overlooked the station which more than satisfied the rail geek in me.

A perfect train-loving view from our hotel room

I personally think the Ninh Binh area is well worth a day or two on a trip around Vietnam but if time is short do try to squeeze in Tam Coc, it is a wonderful experience.

I hope I’ve inspired you!

Keep travelling:

Revisiting Hanoi Returning to one of my favourite Asian cities and remembering why it thrills me.

Riding The Rails From China to Vietnam another border crossed in the middle of the night by train!

Phong Nha Caves: The Best Thing We Did In Vietnam this quiet corner in mid Vietnam is incredible! Huge caves and perfect cycling!

Historic Hoi An For Tet (Vietnamese New Year) Hoi An is even prettier at new year!

Is That A Crocodile? Cat Tien National Park. Jungle adventures in Vietnam with crocs and gibbons aplenty!

Tra Vinh: Khmer Culture In The Mekong DeltaA corner of Vietnam that feels more like Cambodia!

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By Rachel Davis

2 Responses

  1. Dave Rowley says:

    I didn’t know about Ninh Binh before, thanks for the tip! I love the doggy kisses pic, plus the bit about rowing with their feet – never saw that before. Amazing to hear that 2 rows per month is a good month, how do people live on so little? And I love your little bungalow in the jungle! Looking forward to your next posting!

    • We didn’t know about it on our last trip, to busy rushing through!
      We came across a few feet rowers in Vietnam after that, and some punting. They punted mostly on the Van Long lake.
      I think they work agriculturally and supplement it with the rowing, this was what I could gather anyway.
      The next post will be even more awesome……

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