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Ninh Binh, a natural gem to discover in Vietnam

Ninh Binh province was one of my favourites in Vietnam. Naturally, it’s still a must-see for tourists, as it’s nicknamed Ha Long Bay on land, but it feels better than Ha Long Bay, which, despite being a natural wonder, was ultimately my least favourite place.

Ninh Binh boasts some of Southeast Asia’s most beautiful, majestic and impressive natural scenery. With its towering karst peaks rising from the rice paddies, it is a destination that was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 (for the Trang An landscape complex).

Ninh Binh’s panorama is a symphony of rivers, mountains and caves, set off by lush rice paddies and poetic lotus fields. At the heart of this idyllic picture are tranquil villages, and ancient temples and pagodas, ready to be discovered. A cradle of history and culture, Vietnam’s former capital in the 10th century also boasts many preserved historical and religious relics to explore and enrich your stay.

After visiting Ha Long Bay, we set off on a two-day tour from Hanoi to Ninh Binh before embarking on our rail journey to discover Hué.

What to see in Ninh Bihn

Explore the ancient capital at Hoa Lu

Hoa Lu was the capital of Vietnam from 968 to 1010. So we’re talking about a very far-back past, but one whose vestiges are still visible. Well, almost. Most of it is in ruins, and only two temples have survived the centuries.

We set off by bicycle to follow in the footsteps of the founders of Vietnam’s first independent feudal nation since the country had been under Chinese domination for a thousand years, and this is reflected in the remains.

To discover the 1st capital of Dai Co Viet, reunified Vietnam, entrance to the complex costs VND 40,000 (CHF 1.50).

Getting your sea legs in Tam Coc

To have sea legs is an expression that takes on its full meaning in Tam Coc, where people use their feet to row. Yes, seriously. And it works, well, it floats, because we were moving at a terrific pace.

Tam Coc, which means “three caves” (Hang Ca, Hang Hai and Hang Ba), is made up of three natural caverns on the Ngô Dong river. Visitors board small boats from the village of Van Lam and sail along the river, crossing rice fields and limestone karsts as they explore these caves. It’s not as striking as Trang An, but it’s still a quiet ride through the peaceful (and dirty from the many downpours) waters.

The trip lasts around 2 and a half hours and costs VND120,000, or around CHF4. However, it is important to note that the rowers, most of whom are women, rely heavily on tips for their livelihood, unlike in Trang An. It is therefore highly recommended that you reward them generously.

Reaching the summit of Hang Mua

How about losing a lung in the god-fearing humidity? This is the next activity you can do at Nihn Bihn. Well, it wasn’t so dramatic, but getting to the top of Hang Mua is a sporting activity: 500 fairly steep steps to climb before you can enjoy a magnificent view of Tam Coc.

Before reaching the famous steps, you’ll pass through a rather kitsch park built by the hotel below the mountain. Not that interesting, but a good representation of Vietnamese spirituality.

The site is accessible for VND 100,000 (CHF 3.5).

Understanding the difference between a temple and a pagoda in Bai Dinh

However, I don’t remember the difference, and I had to ask my fellow travellers, who have retained this essential distinction in Buddhist culture.

The distinction lies in the person you worship and for whom you come to the place of worship. A temple is used to venerate a real person, such as a king, a queen, a national hero or a few saints who are supposed to help local people in difficulty. The pagoda is a purely Buddhist place. Buddhists go there to pray and venerate Buddha.

The Bai Dinh complex is the largest in Southeast Asia and attracts thousands of pilgrims annually. By chance or by misfortune, we stumbled upon a public holiday in Vietnam: a huge crowd, and only Vietnamese citizens. So, in the end, the attraction was us. It wasn’t so much “being” the attraction that bothered me as the way they treated us, taking photos of us without our consent and touching us. No respect, which made me think about this aspect and maybe I’ll write a post about it in my reflections.

A little bewildered by all this, we missed out on our visit, which was nonetheless rich in spiritual and cultural immersion in Vietnamese history. The Great Pagoda of Bai Dinh is home to a gilded bronze statue of Buddha several metres high, but you can also wander through 3 km of corridors housing 500 statues of Arhat (the last stage of wisdom in the Buddhist tradition) and climb a tower with a huge bell. You’ll notice that the statues have darker areas in some places, probably due to visitors/pilgrims stroking them. Maybe it’s good luck.

Take a river trip in Trang An

This was the last activity we undertook at Ninh Binh and I can’t say enough about the retinal wonders we witnessed. The scenery is breathtaking and deserves the name of Ha Long Bay on land.

On the other hand, natural beauty means hordes of visitors, both foreign and local. Seeing the impressive number of boats, we wondered what kind of adventure we were about to embark on…

Eventually, it was a basic boat that could take 4 people, but they left one after the other, forming a nautical caterpillar: mass tourism on a bamboo boat, as I called it.

It’s a rather silent caterpillar that glides through narrow canals and cave tunnels. Nestled in unspoilt natural surroundings, it offers spectacular views. With its breathtaking panoramas and tranquil atmosphere, Trang An is a pearl of Ninh Binh. At this point, we take the measure of nature’s grandeur. At the foot of these imposing cliffs, we feel very tiny indeed.

Several tours are available, each lasting around 3 hours and costing around CHF 7.

Getting around Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh is one of those places where you must have your means of transport. If you don’t, you’ll miss a lot.

We had transport thanks to the tour we were on, but we also cycled (which we loved doing so in Mai Chau), allowing us to soak up the landscapes of the Vietnamese countryside in greater detail. This is still the best way to explore the surrounding area, as the region is virtually flat and the roads are in passable condition. However, be prepared to pedal as some of the main sites shown below can be a little out of the way.

The map below, drawn up by a local who has travelled the Ninh Binh region for years, shows the variety of activities available.

Picture taken here

Another popular option in Vietnam is to hire a motorbike. This can be arranged through hotels or other travel agencies, which are plentiful in the region.

In summary, Ninh Binh is much more than just a tourist destination: it’s an adventure where each day brings a new story to tell.

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