THE FAR NORTH || THE NORTHERN COAST || NINH BINH
At first glance, the provincial capital of NINH BINH appears to be yet another dusty, traffic-heavy northern town. However, glance to the west and you’ll be beckoned to stay by a thousand fingers of limestone – a land-lubbing Ha Long Bay, with a clutch of historic and architectural sights to add to its geological beauty.
Despite the wealth of sights surrounding it, Ninh Binh itself claims just one sight of its own: a kilometre to the north a picturesque little pagoda nestles at the base of Non Nuoc Mountain. This knobbly outcrop – no more than 60m high – is noted for an eminently missable collection of ancient poetic inscriptions and views east over a power station to the graphically named “Sleeping Lady Mountain”.
Making the most of Ninh Binh
While the town itself has little to detain you, the surrounding hills shelter Tam Coc, where sampans slither through the limestone tunnels of “Ha Long Bay on land”, and one of Vietnam’s ancient capitals, Hoa Lu, represented by two darkly atmospheric dynastic temples. On the way to Hoa Lu is Trang An, a less-touristed version of Tam Coc, while further on is is Bai Dinh Pagoda – though decidedly non-ancient, this ranks as the largest Buddhist complex in Vietnam, and quite possibly the whole world, and is worth a look for its sheer scale alone. All of these places can be tackled in one day by car or motorbike, or by bicycle via the back lanes.
To the east, the stone mass of Phat Diem Cathedral wallows in the rice fields, an extraordinary amalgam of Western and Oriental architecture that still shepherds an active Catholic community. Heading west instead, Cuc Phuong is one of Vietnam’s more accessible national parks and contains some magnificent, centuries-old trees.
More boat trips are in store at Kenh Ga, to visit a limestone cave, and at Van Long nature reserve, both on the Cuc Phuong road. These last sights are more distant: the cathedral requires a half-day outing, while Cuc Phuong and either Kenh Ga or Van Long can be combined in a long day-trip. Hanoi is only a couple of hours away, and the Hoa Lu/Tam Coc–Bich Dong circuit makes a popular and inexpensive day tour out of the capital. However, with more time, it’s far better to take advantage of Ninh Binh’s hotels and services to explore the area at a more leisurely pace.
Non Nuoc Mountain ninh binh??