Ninh Binh (pronounced Neeng Beeng) is the capital city of Ninh Binh Province in North Vietnam, famous for the nearby Karst scenery and the village of Tam Coc. There is nothing to do in Ninh Binh itself aside from drinking beer with the locals; the town is more useful as a base for the surrounding countryside.
Tam Coc, (9 km south of Ninh Binh). One of Vietnam’s most spectacular sights. A boat must be hired that will take you through the waterways between vast limestone cliffs that rise out of the rice paddies. The area is somewhat similar to Halong Bay, but more accessible and much less touristy. Beware, the floating drink sellers can be very persistent. They are located after the third cave. Most will ask if you would like to buy a drink for the rower. This is usually sold back immediately for half price. Rowers can usually row with their feet as well as their hands, which makes quite an interest sight. Possibly the best time to go is in the morning or late afternoon, when its quieter and cooler with more shade. Last boats start out about 5:30PM in the summer and 4:30PM in the winter. Its an easy bicycle ride here from Ninh Binh, with no hills. When leaving your motorbike in the carpark, beware of scamming thieves (such as removing a mirror while the motorbike is parked then selling it back to you for 100,000 dong) and look for official parking areas to avoid such scams. Those can be found on the big parking lot to your left when you arrive, just before the village, there is a booth at the gate. We paid 5000 Dong while at first being asked 10k, possibly the official rate is even lower. Some boats have boxes loaded upon departure. They are filled with handicrafts (you can check it), and are meant for you to buy. During the return trip the rowers – your own or those of nearby boats – might suddenly turn from friendly rowers to pushy sellers. Don’t ruin your experience by allowing this. Demand a rower/boat without handicraft/souvenir boxes and/vor clearly show desinterest. The area around Tam Coc is equally beautiful, and is best viewed from the back of a motorbike or by bicycle. There is also a temple Bich Dong (free entrance) built into one of the hills which provides incredible views. To get there just follow the road pass the Tam Coc ‘pier’ for about 3km to the west. While seing the temple don’t forget to go through the cave to reach the upper level and the next little temple. You may also like to ignore the sign and climb up the rocks (there is a clear path) to the top of the rock, the view is worth the scramble. 80,000 dong per boat, maximum 2 foreigners per boat plus entrance fee of 100,000 per person.
Trang An Grottoes, (7 km from Ninh Binh). An easy bicycle ride away, Trang An Grottoes is similar to Tam Coc but with many more caves to pass through. Most caves have been widened in order for the boats to pass through and as result their natural beauty has been compromised. The first two caves are the most natural and beautiful but are also tight in places, so watch your head. Lots of concrete structures are being built all over the place and rice paddies are disappearing fast but hopefully this area will not lose its splendor. It might be worth bringing a torch in case the power fails and the lights go out, some of the tunnels are quite long and your rower may have forgotten their backup torch, as was the case for the boat in front of us and had to wait for our boat to provide light for them to navigate the last cave. 150,000 per person.
Cuc Phuong National Park, (45km from Ninh Binh). Cuc Phuong National Park is approximately 1 to 1.5 hours from Ninh Binh. It is a well preserved rainforest with an Endangered Primates Rescue Centre near the entrance. You can visit the primates centre only with a guide, which costs an extra 50,000 dong per person. There are about 150 primates here being prepared for release back in the wild. Most are from other parts of Vietnam and any releases will be where they originally come from. There is also a botanical garden and a turtle center. There are no other major sights. From the entrance you can drive, motorbike or cycle a further 20 km along a densely rainforested road, from which several tracks lead you through the jungle to prehistoric trees and caves. Cycling is probably the most rewarding way to travel this 20 km of often steeply inclined paved road and mountain bikes can be hired at the park entrance. One of the amazing things about this drive is the 1000’s upon 1000’s of colourful butterflies filling the roadway. Peak time for butterflies apparently is during April and May but in later months there may still many to be seen. The road ends at the Park Centre (Bong) with a restaurant and a place to buy snacks, and where several forest walks start. Many of them require a guide (16$ per day, speaking good English and waiting at the reception), as the trailheads to the guided walks are hidden and in the past, tourists lost orientation in the dense forest, so rescue operations were required. One walk that can be done independ is 6-7 km long and leads through the primary rain forest with lianes etc. to a thousand-year-old tree. Some enjoy to touch the old cho xanh (parashrea stellata) and sau (Dracontomelum Duperranum or Dancorra Edulis) trees, 50-70 m high The best chance to see any animals here is at night. Guided night tours for overnight stayers are available costing $20. The park is also suitable to watch birds, butterflies and orchid flowers. They are more concentrated than in a typical butterfly farm enclosure. A limited amount of overnight accommodation is available in either a detached bungalow ($27) or a stilt house ($5-7). 40,000 dong entrance fee.
Hoa Lu Ancient Capital. This 10th century royal city is just a short bike ride away from Ninh Binh. Not too much remains except for some beautiful archways and the temples of Dinh Tien Hoang, Nhat Tru Temple and Le Dai Hanh.
Ma Yen. Climbing up 500 steps, this mountain gives you a great view of Tam Coc and the surrounding valley. A nice climb and great views
Bich Dong Pagoda, (Follow the road pass the Tam Coc ‘pier’ for about 3km to the west.). An interesting 15th century pagoda with three levels in a steep Mountains side, offering nice views. Ha, Trung, and Thuong Pagodas, in ascending order. Some of the temples are build right into caves and you can explore. After the highest temple you may also like to ignore the sign and climb up the rocks (there is a clear path) to the top of the rock, the view is worth the scramble. free.
Phat Diem Cathedral. A 19th Century structure that mixes Eastern and Western Architectural styles. It has a large grounds with gardens and 4 smaller churches surrounding the main one.
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