Far too few travellers make it to Ninh Binh, a mesmerizing area known locally as ‘Halong Bay on Land’ thanks to its magical riverine landscape, with sheer limestone mountains rising up from the paddies. The best way to get a sense of this UNESCO-protected site is by taking a paddleboat tour along its shimmering rivers, and climbing to the top of its fabled peaks.
Get a bird's-eye view of Ninh Binh at Hang Mua, where 500 steps have been dramatically carved into the steep face of a mountain. At the top, a lookout points offers a vista across the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex, where the river winds lazily among paddies, hemmed up by limestone outcrops. If you still have energy left, embark on another climb to the awe-inspiring lookout at Bich Dong Pagoda.
At the Tam Coc boat dock, board one of the waiting green sampans. Each one is guided by a boat person who rows with their feet, not their hands. You'll be expertly guided through the landscape and into caves barely tall enough to allow these vessels to pass. If one boat trip isn't enough, head to Trang An where two more mesmerizing river journeys await.
Today the capital of Vietnam is Hanoi, but in the past that honour was held by Hoa Lu. This small ancient city served as Vietnam’s politcal centre in the 10th and 11th centuries. Today, it’s a good place to get a history fix at two impressive restored pagodas.
An exotic boating experience is a must-do at the Van Long Nature Reserve. Keep your eyes open for exotic friends around you—the Delacour's langur, one of the world’s most endangered primates. For guaranteed primate sightings, visit the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre in Cuc Phuong National Park nearby. Here, along with the Delacour's Langur, you'll see golden-headed langurs, Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys, and black crested gibbons.
An important place of pilgrimage and the largest complex of Buddhist temples in the country, Bai Dinh is a fascinating site for its mix of old and new. Ancient temples are housed in caves you can only reach via a pretty climb of 300 steps, while the new temple area covers an area of 500 hectares. This is a tranquil place to wile away an afternoon.
With 24 hours, climb up to the lookout at Hang Mua to survey the landscape before a river tour at Tam Coc. Add a trip to Trang An in the afternoon. Be sure to lunch on some grilled goat—the area’s specialty.
With another day, add on a trip to Van Long in search of primates and a visit to the ancient capital of Hoa Lu. Alternatively, for a more active day out, head for Cuc Phuong National Park and take on some of the trails before visiting the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre.
The temperatures in Ninh Binh are kindest in March to May and September to November. For the finest views, go during harvest season in October.
Regular buses depart for Ninh Binh from Hanoi every day. From Ninh Binh, the best way to reach all the attractions is via rented motorcycles or taxi.