Boat trips - Tam Coc, Trang An, Thung Nang - Ninh Binh
A leisurely row boat trip through the stunning Ninh Binh countryside - its rice paddies, karst mountains and cave formations - is a definite highlight of a visit. Tam Coc is the original boat trip destination and continues to be the favourite with tour groups. Travellers now have two extra options that are less busy and equally enjoyable.
Boats usually wait for a group of four to assemble and then set off with a local woman rowing. If you’re happy to pay more, you can have a private boat. Tipping boat ladies is recommended. The excursion usually runs for around 2 hours.
Cuc Phuong National Park
Cuc Phuong National Park is located 45km from Ninh Binh so it’s an easy day trip if time permits. Some travellers make the day trip from Hanoi. That’s far more arduous and groups arrive in the heat of the day and leave before things start to cool off. Not ideal.
Cuc Phuong is much better visited from Ninh Binh and will be of most value for nature lovers, travellers with a strong interest in its Endangered Primate Rescue Centre or, at the right times of year, bird watching. While the park features lots of lush, tropical forest, it’s not an essential inclusion for travellers in a hurry or those with only a casual interest.
The Endangered Primate Centre was established in 1993 to rescue primates from hunters and also rehabilitate endangered species. It’s a great place to see endangered gibbons, langurs and other primates close up. It’s located near the main entrance to the park.
Treks through the park range from very easy, to far longer and more demanding. The park’s ancient trees and caves used by prehistoric inhabitants of the area are accessible on the less demanding treks.
It’s a fair climb up hundreds of steps but the views from Hang Mua over Ninh Binh’s stunning countryside are well worth the effort. Best visited in the early morning or late afternoon. Hang Mua is easily accessed while cycling in the area.
Hoa Lu’s historic offerings are less memorable than the stunning countryside in which they sit. Remnants of the original capital are modest. Instead, travellers can visit two atmospheric 17th century temples. The more impressive is dedicated to Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang, who established the capital at Hoa Lu. After his murder, Le Dai Hanh established control and the shortlived Le dynasty began. The second temple honours Le Dai Hanh.
Hoa Lu was considered a safer location from Chinese invaders with the limestone mountains providing good surveillance as well as barriers against invaders.
The main sights around Ninh Binh town - Tam Coc, Trang An, Hoa Lu, Hang Mua and Bich Dong Pagoda are all easily reached by bike. Ideally you’ll leave the main roads and travel between places along picturesque country lanes. A guide can be very helpful in locating the best of these. Hotel maps tend to be confusing.
A day on your bike visiting all the main sites may see you cover 30 - 40kms on mostly flat terrain.
Most bikes for hire tend to be pretty ordinary but the cycling conditions aren’t terribly challenging either. If you want a better quality bike, check out the Thuy Anh Hotel in Ninh Binh town (55A Truong Han Sieu St, Ninh Binh). They’ve recently purchased some better quality bikes and rent them out for US$5 per day.
Bich Dong Pagoda
Bich Dong Pagoda is a short ride from Tam Coc and Thung Nang. It’s one of Vietnam’s most historic pagodas however constant renovation and rebuilding has drained it of much of its atmosphere. It’s worth stopping by because you’re in the area but the shiny newness of much of the complex is at odds with its rich past. Visitors are encouraged to dress modestly.