Approximately two and a half hours south of Hanoi lies the city of Ninh Binh, a fairly grim industrial looking town that would never deserve a mention if it was not for the fact it is located next to a very special piece of countryside. Most travellers use it as a base to explore the spectacular scenery in the region – the jagged limestone cliff and rock formations that rise out of the paddy fields reminiscent of Ha Long Bay or the cliffs of Krabi, Thailand.
These fantastic hills, or karsts as they should be called, are an impressive, memorable sight as they rise out of the mists of North Vietnam. Although the key attractions in the area are Tam Coc or Hoa Lu we were content to spend a day on bikes simply getting lost amongst the hills, the rural roads winding between a far cry from the hectic main road that cuts through Ninh Binh and Tam Coc. The closest attraction to Ninh Binh is Tam Coc, a network of three beautiful caves carved by the local river as it winds through the karsts. Surrounded by paddy fields and dwarfed by the karsts towering above, a row down this river is a serene, peaceful experience that allows you to take in the natural beauty of the area at a gentle pace.
There are almost 2,000 low income families in the area who take turns to row boats up the river, spending the rest of their time working in the paddy fields. Obviously, this means their chance to row may only come up once every week or two, and since the cost of a river trip is just a couple of dollars most try to top up their row-boat income by selling handicrafts, embroidery and T-shirts on the boats.
If you would prefer to relax and take in the scenery rather than spend your boat ride haggling consider offering a generous tip or making a token purchase – the boat ride is already fantastic value and people living in the area depend on the additional income from tourists. Hoa Lu was the ancient capital of Vietnam, circa 800 BC, and the ruined remains of pagodas and imperial courtyards can be found dotted around the area, although many are focused a short journey north-west of Ninh Binh.
It is a great place to explore on a bicycle or perhaps a motorbike if you are feeling brave, but tours can also be arranged both from hotels in Ninh Binh and from Hanoi itself – though we would suggest you will get more out of your visit to Ninh Binh if you take it at your own pace. There are many other attractions in the area – you could take a ride on a buffalo cart through the karsts to a beautiful pagoda, or perhaps make a trip up to Cuc Phuong National Park. Whatever you do, make sure you don’t get turned off by the sight of Ninh Binh on arrival as there is a lot more to the area than the city itself. Ninh Binh can be reached by bus, taxi (around $50) or train from Hanoi, but we would suggest a train as the fastest and most comfortable way to get there.
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