Entrance to Hoa Lu. All photos by Christian Berg
Some of Ninh Binh’s best scenery can only be accessed by boat. A paddleboat tour in Trang An or Tam Coc is an essential Ninh Binh experience. Your own boatman or woman will paddle you along the gentle current, in the shadow of enormous, jungle-covered karsts. The boats stop at temples and glide underneath grottoes along the way.
TIP: Make sure to pack a snack and bring some water on your boat tour — each one lasts two to three hours.
Located at the foot of a large mountain, Bich Dong Pagoda’s ornate gate is one of the most iconic sights in Ninh Binh. A stone bridge spans a large lotus pond, which explodes with bright pink blossoms in the summer. Just beyond the gate is a tranquil courtyard and a traditional Buddhist temple. Follow the stairs up and around the mountain for stunning views, then look for two other temples embedded in the mountain, dating back to the 18th century.
TIP: As with many Buddhist sites, Bich Dong Pagoda has a dress code that requires visitors to cover up their shoulders and knees. You’ll want comfortable hiking shoes for the trek up.
While in Ninh Binh make sure to try the province's signature dishes: com chay and de tai chanh. Com chay is a fried rice crust which is eaten as a delicious snack or dipped into a warm stew. De tai chanh is made from goat meat -- Ninh Binh's most popular protein -- lightly cured in lemon juice and tossed with chilies, lime leaves, and sesame seeds. For a real local breakfast, order a plate of banh cuon; fresh rice paper rolls filled with diced pork and mushrooms and served with mint and a mild fish sauce.
If walls could talk you’d want to know what Hoa Lu’s brick- and vine-covered structures would say. Located just 20 minutes by car from the Trang An area, this is the site of Vietnam’s very first capital city. Hoa Lu reached its peak in the 10th and 11th centuries, when the surrounding karst landscape offered natural protection from invaders. Today you can stroll through two atmospheric structures that survive from the old citadel. The compound’s leaning archways, layered banyan trees, and rolling brick courtyards will transport you back in time.
Mua viewpoint is located at the top of a steep mountain, but the views are worth the 200,000 VND ticket, and the 500 steps up. From the top, you’ll be rewarded with a 360-degree view of Tam Coc valley. The viewpoint is sometimes covered in mist but wait for it to clear, and you’ll marvel at the patchwork quilt of green rice fields below and snaking rivers weaving in, out, and around the ancient karsts.
While the city of Ninh Binh is great for beer corners and local restaurants, just a short cycle away the homestays in Trang An and Tam Coc will treat you to sweeping rice paddies and lush scenery. Ninh Binh's friendly locals will be happy to give you inside tips on the destination. For a memorable retreat away from the action, try Emeralda Resort, Chez Beo, or Nguyen Shack.
Bai Dinh Pagoda is an enormous complex and the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia. This singular attraction is a noted pilgrimage stop for Vietnamese Buddhists, and full to overflowing during Buddhist holidays. You’ll need lots of time to see the whole site. Expect to be awed by thousands of Buddha statues, elaborately carved bells and a 13-story watchtower, offering sweeping views of the countryside.
A motorbike tour is always a great idea in Vietnam. In Ninh Binh, you'll get to know the backroads of Ninh Binh and snag an inside look at how the people in this area live. From the seat of a motorcycle, Ninh Binh's towering limestone karsts and vast paddy fields whizz by in a flash of vibrant green and dark grey, as does the local wildlife -- climbing goats, placid water buffalo, and flocks of ducks. If you don't drive, you can book Tommy's Service for a customised back of the bike experience.
Only an hour away from Ninh Binh City, Cuc Phuong is one of the oldest national parks in Vietnam. A ticket to enter the park is just 20,000 VND. Inside you'll have several stops to choose from, including rehabilitation centres for reptiles and primates, and trails inside the national park to visit a clutch of ancient trees, some more than 1,000 years old. Set aside half a day for a rejuvenating hike through the forest, then reward yourself with a local lunch inside the park.
Set in the shadow of a massive limestone mountain the Van Long Wetlands is a magical marshy reserve. The reserve is extremely popular with bird watchers and home to a wide variety of feathered friends. Book a boat tour to discover remote scenery, and gain a special glimpse into this serene setting.