Loved for its natural beauty and rustic charm, Ninh Binh is the typical postcard of rural Vietnam. The province of Ninh Binh shelters numerous natural, historical and architectural attractions. Tam Coc, southwest off the provincial capital, is famous for its scenic boat trips through limestone tunnels and karst outcrops. To the west, Trang An offers a similar experience, and it’s more popular with the locals. North of Trang An we find one of Vietnam’s ancient capitals, Hoa Lu. Here visitors can see temples built in honor of the emperors Đinh Tiên Hoàng and Lê Đại Hành. The massive Bai Dinh Pagoda, Van Long Nature Reserve and Cuc Phuong National Park complete this spectacular conjunction of history and nature.
A miniature landlocked version of Halong, Tam Coc captivates travelers with its mystical beauty. Tam Coc means Three Caves in Vietnamese and during your ride through its waters you can go through them without having to get off the boat. The caves are named Hang Ca, Hang Giua and Hang Cui. Hang Ca is so long that when you are in the middle it is practically pitch black. The two hour boat trip from Dinh Cac pier brings some memorable sights from towering karst hills a flooded landscape where river and rice fields come together as one.
Get a bird’s-eye view of Ninh Bình at Hang Múa, where 500 steps have been dramatically carved into the steep face of a mountain. At the top, a lookout points offers a vista across the Tràng An Scenic Landscape Complex, where the river winds lazily among paddies, hemmed up by limestone outcrops.
Similar to its sister Tam Coc, Trang An offers a rowing experience through karst cliffs and flooded plains. This excursion though is a bit longer, about 3 hours, visiting a total of nine caves with stops at several temples to stretch your legs.
Established around a narrow valley between forested hills, Cuc Phuong National Park (Cuc Phuong forest) is a vast nature reserve. The park has a rich tropical rainforest ecosystem. Many highly endangered plant and animal species have been discovered and preserved here. Many visitors are attracted by its excellent Primate Rescue Center, though other attractions include a bothanical garden loop trail, a turtle conservation center and carnivore and pangolin rescue center, all of which host specimens rescued from illegal wildlife traders. This is also the first national park in Vietnam.
One of the most attractive landmarks of Ninh Binh, Bich Dong Pagoda or Green Pearl Grotto is just 2km southwest of Tam Coc. Originally built in the 15th century the pagoda features three temple sections, one at the base of Ngu Nhac Mountain, one in the middle and one at the top. The bottom pagoda have 5 rooms with huge wooden and stone pillars. The pagoda worships Buddha and 3 masters: Chi Kien, Chi The, Chi Tam, who had set up and built Bich Dong Pagoda. 120 steps up the middle pagoda houses an ancient bell placed in front of the so called Dark Cave with delicate carvings. The top pagoda honors Bodhisattva and offers great views of the surroundings.
An important place of pilgrimage and the largest complex of Buddhist temples in the country, Bái Đínhis a fascinating site for its mix of old and new. Ancient temples are housed in caves you can only reach via a pretty climb of 300 steps, while the new temple area covers an area of 500 hectares. This is a tranquil place to wile away an afternoon.
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. Some of our recommended stays in Ninh Binh offer excellent cooking classes, where you can learn more about the local culture though its flavours.