A short hop south of Hanoi, Ninh Binh Province is blessed with breathtaking natural beauty, intriguing cultural sights and the wonderful Cuc Phuong National Park. That said, Ninh Binh has become a massive destination for domestic travellers, and many of its attractions are heavily commercialised. Expect plenty of hawkers and a degree of hassle at the main sights.
The region does have great natural allure, but insensitive development is a huge concern, with giant cement factories being constructed next to beautiful nature spots.
Tours of the sights around Ninh Binh Province can be set up in hotels including Thanh Thuy’s and Thuy Anh. Freelance guide Truong ( 091 566 6211; [email protected]) offers escorted trips on motorbikes around Ninh Binh using country backroads. and also sets up treks in Pu Luong Nature Reserve, a fairly undisturbed area spread across two mountain ridges, where you can stay in Thai and H’mong homestays.
( 030-387 1811; www.hotelthanhthuy.com; 53 Ð Le Hong Phong; r with fan/air-con from 150,000/250,000d; ) Set well back from the road, this guesthouse’s courtyard and restaurant are a great place to meet other travellers. Offers good-value, clean rooms, some with balcony; and tours.
( 030-389 9152; http://kinhdohotel.vn; 18 Ð Phanh Dinh Phung; s/d 140,000/250,000d) The service here is excellent, as management goes the extra mile (even offering free pick-ups from the bus/train station) and the spacious, clean rooms with high ceilings represent fine value.
Thanh Binh Hotel $
( 030-387 2439; www.thanhbinhhotelnb.com.vn; 31 Ð Luong Van Tuy; s US$10-25, d US$15-30) Popular place with a wide selection of rooms, from cheap ‘n’ cheerful to spacious and well equipped, all have air-conditioning. There’s a small restaurant and inexpensive bicycle and motorbike rental.
( 030-387 1602; www.thuyanhhotel.com; 55A Ð Truong Han Sieu; r old wing US$15–25, r new wing US$25-35) This very well-run hotel sets very high standards with inexpensive, good-value rooms in the old wing and spotless, very well-equipped, tastefully furnished and comfortable rooms in the new wing. You’ll also find a top-floor bar and restaurant serving Western-style food (including hearty complimentary breakfasts).
Ninh Binh Legend Hotel $$$
( 030-389 9880; www.ninhbinhlegendhotel.com; Tien Dong Zone; r/ste from US$77/126) Landmark four-star hotel with stunning countryside views from its upper floors, all rooms boast hardwood floors, contemporary trim and luxury bedding while the suites are palatial. There’s a small gym, spa, tennis courts and staff are well trained and welcoming. Located in the emerging ‘new’ city centre, 2km northwest of the old heart of town.
(www.emeraldaresort.com; Van Long Nature Reserve; r US$119-140, ste US$184) Built in a neo-traditional style this large resort hotel has commodious villas with elegant decor, a great pool area and a (pricey) spa. However, staff speak limited English and the location, though in lovely grounds, is 10km north of town and quite close to some cement factories.
Eating & Drinking
The town doesn’t have much in the way of restaurants so plan to eat early as there’s very little available after 9pm. The local speciality is de (goat meat), usually served with fresh herbs and rice paper to wrap it in – around 3km out of town, the road to the Trang An Grottoes is lined with dozens of goat meat restaurants.
Snails are another excellent local dish. The lanes north of Ð Luong Van Tuy, close to the stadium, have several snail restaurants serving delicious oc luoc xa (snails cooked with lemongrass and chilli); you’ll also find a few casual bars in this area too.
Huong Mai Restaurant VIETNAMESE $$
Orientation(12 Ð Tran Hung Dao; dishes 40,000-160,000d; 7am-8.45pm) Little or no English is spoken, but the food is good, if a little pricey. Try the pork with green mustard, rice cakes and beef broth or steamed chicken with lime leaves.
The entire layout of the city of Ninh Binh is steadily being changed. The city centre, currently plagued by heavy traffic (Hwy 1 thunders right through it) is being shifted 2km to the west, to around the present location of the Legend Hotel. Here a slew of new municipal buildings, a civic square, and a 27-storey hotel and mall are rising from the wasteland. City planners aim to redirect Hwy 1 by around 2015, so it will flow via the new city centre.
Getting There & Away
Ninh Binh’s bus station (Ð Le Dai Hanh) is located near Lim Bridge. Public buses leave almost every 15 minutes until 7pm for the Giap Bat and Luong Yen bus stations in Hanoi (72,000d, 2½ hours) and there are regular buses to Haiphong (94,000d, three hours, every 1½ hours) and twice-daily connections to Halong City (115,000d, 3½ hours).
Ninh Binh is also a stop for open-tour buses between Hanoi (US$6, two hours) and Hue (US$14, 10 hours); hotel pick-up and drop-offs are offered.
The train station (Ga Ninh Binh; 1 Ð Hoang Hoa Tham) is a scheduled stop on the main north–south line, with destinations including Hanoi (67,000d, two to 2½ hours, four daily), Vinh (103,000d, six hours, four daily) and Hue (285,000d, 12½ to 13½ hours, four daily).
Most hotels rent out bicycles (US$1 to US$2 per day) and motorbikes (US$4 to US$8 per day). Motorbike drivers charge around US$10 a day.
This is what most travellers associate with Ninh Binh: limestone outcrops sweeping up from serene rice paddies, best appreciated on a languorous row-boat ride down the river, to the soundtrack of water lapping against the oars. Unfortunately there are a lot of subsidiary issues that detract from the experience, including a glut of hawkers, so prepare yourself if you do decide to go. A polite but firm ‘no’ and adopting a complete lack of interest is the best way to combat the hassle.
WORTH A TRIP
During the colonial era Phat Diem’s bishop ruled the area with his private army, Middle Ages–style, until French troops took over in 1951. The cathedral (1891) featured prominently in Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, and it was from the bell tower that the author watched battles between the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the French.
At busy times you have to steer a path through aggressive sellers and beggars to earn your entrance, but inside it’s peaceful in a sepulchre-like way. The cathedral’s largely wooden interior boasts a vaulted ceiling supported by massive columns (almost 1m in diameter and 10m tall). Above the granite altar Vietnamese-looking cherubs with golden wings swarm, while Chinese-style clouds drift across the blue ceiling. Beneath them are icons of the martyrs slaughtered by Emperor Tu Duc during the anti-Catholic purges of the 1850s.
Opposite the cathedral’s main doors is the free-standing bell tower, with stone columns carved to look like bamboo. At its base lie two enormous stone slabs. Their purpose was to provide a perch for mandarins to sit and observe the rituals of the Catholic mass.
Between the tower and the cathedral is the tomb of the Vietnamese founder, Father Six, and a Lourdes-style grotto, with a somewhat spooky bust of Father Six beside it.
Hordes of Vietnamese tourists come to this place, few of them Catholic but many curious about churches and Christianity. Mass is celebrated daily at 5am and 5pm, when the massive bell is rung and the faithful stream into the cathedral, dressed in their finest.
Not far from this cathedral is a covered bridge dating from the late 19th century. Dong Huong Pagoda is the largest pagoda in the area, catering to the Buddhist community. Many of its congregation are from the minority Muong people. To find it, turn right at the canal as you’re approaching town from the north and follow the small road alongside the water for 3km.
A Gothic counterpoint to Phat Diem is the cathedral at Ton Dao, along Route 10 about 5km from Phat Diem. It looks beatifically out over rice fields and, at the rear of the churchyard, a statue of the Virgin Mary keeps unexpected company with porcelain images of Quan Am.
Phat Diem, sometimes known by its former name Kim Son, is 26km southeast of Ninh Binh. There are direct buses here from Ninh Binh (15,000d, one hour); xe om (motorcycle) drivers charge about 140,000d (including waiting time) for a return trip.
Sights & Activities
(Jade Grotto) This charming cluster of cave temples is a couple of kilometres north of Tam Coc. The Lower Pagoda is located at the foot of the outcrop, from which it’s a climb of about 100 steps to the Middle Pagoda, then a shorter but still steep ascent to the Upper Pagoda. Inside each cave temple, looming statues and the smoke of burning incense create an otherworldly atmosphere. Outside, there are some incredible views of the countryside.
Near the entrance to Tam Coc, Van Lan village is famous for its embroidery. Local artisans make napkins, tablecloths, pillowcases and T-shirts, some of which you will undoubtedly encounter on the boat ride. Bargain hard if you’re interested.
(per boat 1/2 people 110,000/140,000d; 7am-3.30pm) Tam Coc (meaning ‘three caves’) covers a stretch of the Ngo Dong River and boasts a landscape of surreal beauty, but it’s also immensely popular – the river’s often filled with a procession of boats, with all the accompanying babble and noise.
Consider visiting in the early morning or late afternoon when things are quieter, and bring some sunscreen.
Each row boat carries two visitors. The route (around two hours) takes you through the three caves for which Tam Coc is named.
Rowers are adept at using their feet to propel the oars, which makes for a tourist-pleasing Kodak moment.
Unfortunately the whole area is now overshadowed by some giant cement factories. You can’t see them from the river, but air quality and pollution are concerns.
Getting There & Away
Tam Coc is 9km southwest of Ninh Binh. Ninh Binh hotels run tours, or you can make your own way by bicycle or motorbike. Hotel staff can advise you on some beautiful back roads.
Many Hanoi tour operators offer day trips here for around US$25.
Tucked away at the end of a road running between rice paddies, this cave (Cave of Dance; admission 30,000d; 7am-4pm) is not terribly impressive, but the main attraction is the panoramic view from the peak above. A stone staircase beside the cave entrance zigzags up the side of the karst (beware the goat droppings). It’s 450 steps to the top, where there’s a simple altar to Quan Am (the Goddess of Mercy). Look west and you’ll see Ngo Dong River winding through Tam Coc.
The climb is paved but steep in sections, so bring some water and allow an hour for the trip. Mua Cave is 5km from Ninh Binh and a popular stop on tours heading to Tam Coc.
Most of the ancient citadel is in ruins, but Yen Ngua Mountain provides a scenic backdrop for two surviving temples (admission 10,000d). Dinh Tien Hoang is dedicated to the Dinh dynasty and has the stone pedestal of a royal throne. Inside are bronze bells and a statue of Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang with his three sons.
The second temple is dedicated to monarch Le Dai Hanh. It has the usual assortment of drums, gongs, incense burners, candle holders and weapons, as well as a statue of the king in the middle, his queen on the right and their son on the left. A modest museum here features part of the excavations of a 10th-century city wall.
For a great perspective of the ruins, take the 20-minute hike up to the tomb of Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang. The access path is via the hill opposite the ticket office.
Hoa Lu is 12km northwest of Ninh Binh; turn left 6km north of town on Hwy 1. There is no public transport available, but tours can easily be set up in Ninh Binh.
Chua Bai Dinh ( 7am-5.45pm) is a bombastic Buddhist complex, built on a vast scale, that rises up a hillside near Ninh Binh. Building work started in 2003, and was mostly completed by 2010. It’s quickly become a huge attraction.
From the (small) entrance gateway, turn right and you’ll pass through cloister-like walkways past 500 stone arhats (enlightened Buddhists) that line the route up to the main triple-roofed Phap Chu pagoda. This contains a 10m, 100-tonne bronze Buddha (surrounded by a gaudy collection of spinning lights and a pyramid or two for good measure), flanked by two more gilded Buddha figures.
Steps behind lead up to a viewpoint, a 13-storey pagoda (still under construction at the time of research) and a giant Buddha. If you return via the central part of the compound you’ll pass more temples, including one that harbours a 36-tonne bell – cast in 2006, it’s the largest in Vietnam.
Chua Bai Dinh attracts thousands of Vietnamese visitors some days, including many day trippers, so think twice if you’re after a spiritual experience – the numbers here don’t facilitate feelings of peace. That said, the complex does have its merits. Commendably, most of the structures have been constructed from natural materials. Some of the bronzework, wood-detailing, lacquerwork and stone-carving is very impressive; much of it was crafted by artisans from local villages.
Chua Bai Dinh is 11km northwest of Ninh Binh; you’ll pass dozens of goat meat restaurants en route.
The village of Kenh Ga (Chicken Canal) gets its name, apparently, from the number of wild chickens that used to live here. Today it’s the riverine way of life and stunning limestone formations that are its main draw.
The local people seem to spend most of their lives on or in the water; watching over their floating fish-breeding pens, harvesting river grass for fish feed or selling vegetables boat-to-boat. Even the children commute to school by river. This used to be largely a floating village, but as fortunes have improved, more and more houses have been built.
From the pier you can hire a motorboat (100,000d) for a 1½-hour ride along the river around the village.
Kenh Ga is 21km from Ninh Binh off the road to Cuc Phuong National Park. Follow Hwy 1 north for 11km, then it’s a 10km drive west to the boat pier.
Set amid yet more glorious limestone pinnacles, this tranquil reserve (admission 15,000d, boat 90,000d; 7am-4.45pm) comprises a reedy wetland ideal for bird-watching. Rare black-faced spoonbill, cotton pygmy goose and white-browed crake have been seen here.
The reserve is also one of the last refuges of the endangered Delacour’s langur – the Frankfurt Zoology Association in Vietnam boosted numbers by releasing three captively reared animals here in August 2012.
Row-boat rides here (maximum two people per boat) are wonderfully relaxing.
Van Long is 2km east of Tran Me, a small town 23km from Ninh Binh along the road to Cuc Phuong.
A huge riverside development, Trang An ( 7.30am-4pm) offers a similar experience to Tam Coc, though it’s also very commercial. The sheer number of boats, proximity to the highway, vast parking lots and weekend traffic jams make it a bit of a tourist circus. Once you’re actually on a row boat, bobbing along the Sao Khe River through a succession of limestone caves, obviously things improve considerably, but this is still an overdeveloped sight. Many of the caves have also been enlarged to accommodate boats, including the removal of the odd pesky stalactite.
Boat trips (100,000d for up to four people) take two hours to tour the caves and tunnels. Bring a hat and sunscreen as the boats lack shade.
Trang An is 7km northwest of Ninh Binh. You’ll pass it on the way to the Chua Bai Dinh.
A private ecopark fashioned in a gorgeous valley near Tam Coc, Thung Nham ( 7.30am-4.30pm) consists of a pretty lagoon surrounded by the craggy limestone peaks that characterise the province of Ninh Binh. Fishing for snakehead fish, catfish and tilapia, row-boat trips and cave visits are activities offered.
It’s certainly a scenic spot, but the park has been developed to Vietnamese tastes – why leave nature as it is when you can improve it? Nevertheless it’s still a very pretty spot, and development (there are bungalows and a large restaurant) has been quite sensitive to the surroundings. The park is the end of a road, well away from highways, so it’s tranquil (if you avoid weekends!) and the bird-watching is good: look out for storks, crane, teal and herons.
Thung Nham is 6km west of Tam Coc.
This important national park ( 030-384 8006; www.cucphuongtourism.com; adult/child 40,000/20,000d) is home to diverse animal and plant life, making it one of Vietnam’s most important protected areas. Some 307 bird species, 133 kinds of mammal, 122 reptiles and more than 2000 different plants have been recorded here.
The national park covers an area spanning two limestone mountain ranges, across three provinces. Its highest peak is Dinh May Bac (Silver Cloud Peak) at 656m. No less than Ho Chi Minh took time off from the American War in 1962 to declare this Vietnam’s first national park, saying: ‘Forest is gold.’
Despite the exhortations, poaching and habitat destruction plague the Cuc Phuong National Park. Improved roads have led to more illegal logging, and many native species – the Asiatic black bear, Siamese crocodile, wild dog and tiger – have vanished from the area as a result of human activity. Other wildlife is notoriously elusive, so manage your expectations accordingly.
To learn more about the park’s conservation efforts, visit the excellent Endangered Primate Rescue Center and Turtle Conservation Center on the fringes of the park.
The park is also home to the minority Muong people, whom the government relocated from the park’s central valley to its western edge in the late 1980s.
The best time of year to visit the park is in the dry months from November to February. From April to June it becomes increasingly hot, wet and muddy, and from July to October the rains arrive, bringing lots of leeches. Visitors in April and May might see some of the millions of butterflies that breed here. Weekends can be busy with Vietnamese families.
The visitor centre near the entrance has informative English-speaking staff, and guides and tours can be organised here.
SAVING MONKEYS & TURTLES
Cuc Phuong’s conservation centres provide a glimpse of their work and the fascinating animals they’re trying to help. Officially you’re supposed to hire a guide (no charge) from the visitor centre to escort you to these two places, both about 2km from the park’s accommodation.
The impressive Endangered Primate Rescue Center ( 030-384 8002; www.primatecenter.org; 9.30-11.30am & 1.30-4.30pm) is managed under the supervision of Frankfurt Zoological Society. Its large enclosures are home to around 150 monkeys: 12 kinds of langur, three species of gibbon and two loris. All the centre’s animals were either bred here or rescued from illegal traders (in Asia, monkeys can fetch large sums for their perceived ‘medicinal worth’).
The centre has bred more than 100 offspring in all, from nine different species, including the world’s first captive-born Cat Ba langur and grey-shanked douc langur. But it’s incredibly difficult to rehabilitate primates once they’ve lived in cages; it’s only been possible to release 30 or so gibbons and langurs into semi-wild areas (one site is adjacent to the centre) since the centre opened.
There’s also a non-primate section housing nocturnal animals including civet and pangolins, which can only be visited with prior permission.
The Turtle Conservation Center ( 030-384 8090; www.asianturtlenetwork.org; 9-11am & 2-4.45pm) houses more than 1000 terrestrial, semi-aquatic and aquatic turtles representing 20 of Vietnam’s 25 native species. Many have been confiscated from smugglers. It’s China (and Vietnam) generating the demand – eating turtle is thought to aid longevity. Professional hunters and opportunistic collectors have decimated wild populations of turtles throughout Vietnam and Southeast Asia, with as many as 10 million turtles traded per year through the 1990s.
You’ll find excellent information displays, and there are incubation and hatchling viewing areas. The centre successfully breeds and releases turtles from 11 different species including six native turtles. Around 60 turtles are released back into the wild each year.
Sights & Activities
Cuc Phuong offers excellent hiking. Short walks include a trail up to the Cave of Prehistoric Man via a 220-step stairway. Human graves and tools were found here that date back 7500 years, making it one of the oldest sites of human habitation in Vietnam.
Popular hikes include a 6km-return walk to the massive, 1000-year-old ‘old tree’ (Tetrameles nudiflora) and a longer four-hour walk to Silver Cloud Peak. There’s also a strenuous 15km (approximately five-hour) hike to Kanh, a Muong village. You can stay overnight here with local families and raft on the Buoi River (60,000d).
Park staff can provide you with basic maps, but a guide is recommended for day trips and mandatory for longer treks. Two-hour escorted night hikes to spot nocturnal animals, or the Silver Cloud Peak hike both cost US$22 (for up to five people). The Deep Jungle trek (US$50) gets into remote terrain where you might spot civets or flying squirrels.
Sleeping & Eating
The visitor centre (s/d with shared bathroom US$8/15, guesthouse US$25-30, bungalows US$35) beside the park entrance has a selection of options including dark, functional rooms, comfortable en-suite guesthouse rooms and one bungalow. Attractive cottages overlooking Mac Lake (r $US25), 2km inside the park, have been renovated and are tempting, though the location is quite isolated and the restaurant here often undersupplied. Camping (per person US$2, with a tent US$4) is also available at the visitor centre or by Mac Lake.
Close to the heart of the reserve, the main park centre (stilt house per person US$8, q $US25, bungalows US$32) at Bong, 18km from the entrance, is the best place to be for an early morning walk or bird-watching. Here you’ll find simple rooms with no hot water in a pseudo-stilt house, a building with large four-bed rooms, and a few bungalows.
You’ll find restaurants (meals 25,000d to 50,000d) at the park centre, Mac Lake and visitor centre. The cooking is flavoursome and filling. It’s important to book your order in advance for each meal (except breakfast).
The new resort hotel, Cuc Phuong Resort ( 030-384 8886; www.cucphuongresort.com; Dong Tam village; bungalow/villa from US$92/165) has proximity to a natural spring, enabling a flow of mineral-rich water to be pumped into the lovely wooden bath-tubs in each room. It also has (spring water–fed) indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, and an impressive spa, and breakfast is included. It’s just 2km from the park entrance.
The park can get very busy at weekends and during school holidays, when you should make a reservation.
GETTING TO LAOS
Getting to the border Those seeking a backwoods adventure can try the Na Meo/Nam Xoi border crossing. If at all possible take a direct bus and avoid getting onward transport on the Vietnamese side of the border where foreigners are seriously ripped off. There’s a daily 8am bus from Thanh Hoa’s western bus station (Ben Xe Mien Tay) to Sam Neua (310,000d), but expect overcharging.
At the border The border is open from 7am to 5pm. Lao visas are available here. Readers have reported no hassle from border officials, but they may try to offer you bad rates for all currencies – you’ll get a better deal in Na Meo hotels. It’s best not to get stuck on the Laos side of the border as transport is extremely irregular and there’s no accommodation. Na Meo has several basic, serviceable guesthouses.
Moving on There’s unbelievable overcharging on this route (unless you’re on a direct bus). Vietnamese bus drivers demand up to US$50 for the trip to Thanh Hoa (it should cost about $8).
Getting to the border The often mist-shrouded Nam Can/Nong Haet border crossing is 250km northwest of Vinh. Direct buses from Vinh’s marketplace leave daily for Phonsavan in Laos (320,000d, 12 hours). It’s possible to travel independently from Vinh to Muong Xen by bus and then take a motorbike (around 170,000d) uphill to the border, but we strongly recommend you take the direct option due to overcharging and hassle.
At the border The border post is open from 7am to 5pm. Vietnamese visas aren’t available, but Lao visas are available for most nationalities for between US$30 and US$40.
Moving on Travellers not on the direct bus connection face numerous challenges. Firstly you’ll have to haggle over a motorbike ride from the border to the nearest town, Muong Xen. The route is breathtaking but only 25km downhill and should cost around 100,000d; drivers may ask for up to 300,000d. From Muong Xen there are irregular buses to Vinh (125,000d, six hours). Note that some buses from Phonsavan claim to continue to Hanoi or Danang, but unceremoniously discharge all their passengers in Vinh.
Transport on the Laos side to Nong Haet is erratic, but once you get there you can pick up a bus to Phonsavan.
Getting to the border The Cau Treo/Nam Phao border crossing has a dodgy reputation with travellers on local non-direct buses, who report chronic overcharging and hassle (such as bus drivers ejecting foreigners in the middle of nowhere unless they cough up extra bucks). Stick to direct services. Most transport to Phonsavan in Laos uses the Nong Haet–Nam Can border further north. Buses leave Vinh at 6am (on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays) for Vieng Khan in Laos (280,000d). There are also regular local buses from Vinh to Tay Son (70,000d, two hours) and then irregular services from Tay Son on to the border at Cau Treo. Otherwise xe om (motorbike taxi) ask for around 170,000d for the ride.
At the border The border is open from 7am to 6pm. Lao visas are available.
Moving on If you’re not on a direct bus, expect rip-offs. Upon entering Vietnam bus drivers quote up to US$40 for the ride to Vinh. A metered taxi costs about $50, a motorbike about 320,000d. Some buses from Lak Sao claim to run to Danang or Hanoi, but in fact terminate in Vinh. On the Laos side, a jumbo or songthaew (truck) between the border and Lak Sao runs to about 50,000 kip (bargain hard).
Getting There & Away
Cuc Phuong National Park is 45km from Ninh Binh. The turn-off from Hwy 1 is north of Ninh Binh and follows the road that runs to Kenh Ga and Van Long Nature Reserve.
Regular buses link Ninh Binh with Cuc Phuong (22,000d, 1½ hours, every 1½ hours). Lots of Hanoi tour companies also offer trips to Cuc Phuong, usually combined with sights in the Ninh Binh area.