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Ninh Binh: Undiscovered Vietnam

| Words by Zoe Crane |

Get up close and personal with the limestone karst scenery that many tourists are missing.

Towers of limestone jut out above the waterways, dramatic scenery best known in Halong Bay, but here the experience is more unique, somehow more personal. Boarding a sampan, a small wooden row boat, is a more intimate way to experience your surrounds. With the water rushing by just beneath you, cruise through darkened caves with low-hanging limestone ceilings. Emerge from the darkness into secret water valleys surrounded by lush rice fields.

Waterways of Trang AnWaterways of Trang An

A fantastic addition to any Vietnam tour, Ninh Binh is about 2 hours’ drive from Hanoi. There are two main areas to take a boat trip, Tam Coc is more often visited by international tourists, but we recommend visiting Trang An Ecological Area instead. While still a popular tourist destination, there are many more Vietnamese tourists here than international visitors. Arrive in the early morning or after 3pm to avoid the crowds and take advantage of the serenity. Local women row the boats and most can row with both their arms and their legs, taking advantage of the extra power of their legs for the hour-and-a-half boat journey.

While in Ninh Binh there is an easy cycling circuit through the semi-urban villages past scenes of rice fields and limestone hills, cemeteries, houses and a French-colonial cathedral just off the main street. Continue cycling and you’ll get to Dinh Le and other temples about 4kms further on (about 20 minutes’ drive from Ninh Binh). This scenic temple is dedicated to founder of the once-impressive citadel it sits within called Ding Tien Hoang. The small 17th century gardens are beautifully shaded, a delightful respite from the heat of the day, and feel very authentic. All around are the limestone karsts, and a similar temple is just down the road.

On the way back to Hanoi, stop off at Phat Diem, a huge 19th century cathedral surrounded by smaller buildings in a similar style, highlighting incredible Sino-Vietnamese architecture. The best light falls at about 3pm and there are very few tourists. You are not able to enter the buildings but the exteriors alone are worth the stop.

Insider Journeys runs a 2 day/1 night Ninh Binh Discovery tour out of Hanoi which includes all the highlights mentioned above with a local guide and driver.