Thai Vi Temple
Only a small temple but worth a look for it's authentic architecture and active use. The grounds are looking a little worse for wear and there arent many tourists who visit. Local people still actively worship there.
Bich Dong Pagoda
Arriving at the Pagoda archway on the ground floor, there is a courtyard of old, faded buildings and at first it is hard to see what the big attraction is until you begin to climb the stairs to the levels above. Here, there are various religious icons and shrines while trying to capture the real feeling of hidden beauty is diffcult in photos. It has to be seen in the flesh to be fully appreciated.
Perchedclose to the top of the cliff is Bich Dong (Jade Grotto), which can be reached by stone steps, leading to a cliff face scattered with small shrines and on to the cave entrance.
Beyond the Jade Grotto, you can climb up to the summit of the Karst cliffs although the climbing is not for the faint hearted especially if it has been raining and the sharp rocks are made slippy with mud, visitors are rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding countryside from the top of the cliffs.
- Budget Travel
Tam Coc is probably one of the most visited Limestone Karst Cliff scenic areas in Ninh Binh province and a stop for a lot of the day trips from Hanoi, thus it will usually be busy at certain times of the day when the coaches arrive. Nevertheless, the journey along rivers surrounded by towering cliffs and paddy fields, being rowed by locals is worth the few dollars price.
The cliffs are made up of jagged rocks, towering peaks and caves worn away at the base. Some of these you pass through and get to appreciate the sheer enormity of these natural phenomenon. You can see mountain goats in seemingly impossible to reach places and ducks happily swimming in penned areas of the rivers. It is clear to see that the land and the animals make the locals very self sufficient especially with the added income the tourists must bring.
Of course, due to the tourism there is food and drink available by floating shops but the hawking isn't that persistent.
Mua Cave Pagoda
Mua Cave Pagoda has a small man made lake with gardens which is rather pleasant, a cave at the foot of the steps and Pagoda at the summit.
The steps seem endless and some are not in very good condition but the views when you reach the top are worth the effort. The Pagoda itself is nothing spectacular but the sight of the endless paddy fields, villages and Ninh Binh town amidst the Limestone cliffs sprouting from all around are a sight to behold.
Hoa Lu - The ancient capital
This was the capital of the country in the 10th century supposedly because of it's central location. I would argue that it is the beauty of it's location that swayed those who were deciding. Right in the middle of the Limestone Cliffs and rice fields, the town has unmistakable beauty and a slight area of mystery.
Dinh Tien Hoang sits opposite what seems to be a kind of village green where people meet and school children play. The temple grounds house shrines and statues from the era when this area reigned. The temples seem dark and gloomy inside but local people are still actively worshipping the religious deities there.
The grounds of the temples are aged but quite well maintained. Very photogenic.
Cuc Phuong National Park
Cuc Phuong National Park is accessible on a day trip from Ninh Binh or if you must from Hanoi. The best time to visit Cuc Phuong National Park is during the dry season, from December to April. The park is surrounded by limestone cliffs, the highest being May Bac. There is a beautiful lake and you can stay in the rustic,yet comfortable park centre instilt houses. Treks are available but are usually quite short.
As well as the fauna and animals mentioned, there are caves to explore and Endangered Primates Rescue Centre to visit.
- National/State Park
Tam Coc is the main tourist outlet in a region full of karst beauty. There is no coincidence in this state of affairs. It has a body of water flowing between majestically towering hills that suddenly opens up a cave underneath these mountains of sorts in order to deliver you to the next “gallery” of rice fields. Accordingly, this spot has been identified as the main dollar earner even though other spots have been known to generate income as well. Tam Coc’s main facility is well guarded and administratively streamlined. One has to pay for the park entrance and separately for the row boat. Only two foreigners are allowed per boat, maybe to avoid abuse or to save the rower from fat arse overload. Once in the boat there is the usual getting to know each other with the captain(ette) which does not take very long because around the corner a filming crew is waiting for your majesty the tourist to be taken pictures of as if nowadays everybody does not have cameras of their own. Anyway some price discussion takes place and “no” seems to be not accepted as an answer. After many exhilarating moments alongside this true wonder of nature, one ends up into a specifically designed trap close to the midway point. A bunch of aggressive sales ladies attack the rowing boat and thanks to your collaborative captain(ette)who would not budge a centimetre, they have you locked in till something is bought in exchange for freedom. At this point it is not very clear who the victim is though. Somehow the thought that your captain(ette) might be stripped off her tip if somebody sees her receiving it at the end of the trip settles in. How naive! When given an equivalent of 10% of the ticket price she demonstratively says “no” in her super basic French, because she is old guard and English in her prime was not fancied by the authorities. To help out the discussion she pulls out a banknote that she likes which amazingly happens to cost as much as 25% of the ticket. This little old lady is determined to be on par with America in no time. Well, in this tip casino of sorts one might lose everything due to greed.
- National/State Park
- Adventure Travel
- Budget Travel
Den Dinh Tien Hoang --Temple of King Dinh
Dinh Temple was built in the shape of a Chinese character.
Through the first entrance called Ngo Mon, there is a stone royal bed with Nghe(imaginary animals of the old times) standing on both sides.
Inside the temple is Khai Thanh in worship of Emperor Dinh's parents.
The temple consists of three parts...
1. Bai Duong for the community
2.Thien Huong in honour of mandarins
and 3.Chinh Cung where Dinh Tien Hoang's statue is located.
On his left is the statue of his eldest son Dinh Lien, and on his right are those of Dinh Hanh Lang and Dinh Toan. On each side of the altar, there is one stone dragon similar to the ones placed near the royal bed.
Den Le Dai Hanh --Temple of King Le
Le Temple also consists of three parts: Bai Duong, used for the community, Thien Huong, in memory of the royal mandarins of Le King, and finally, the altar in memory of the King. The statue of Le Hoan is at the centre, on the left is the statue of Queen Duong Van Nga and on his right is that of Le Ngoa Trieu, his fifth son and the third King of the First Le dynasty.
Cam Toc Caves
Located in Ninh Binh province, the Tam Coc caves are known as the inland Ha Long bay. It is 3 hours drive out of Hanoi. At the river docks, you board an open-air sampan which you hire with a rower. The boat ride takes you through a winding waterway which passes through 3 caves (Tam Coc). You must actually duck a bit as the boat does through the caves to avoid scraping the roof. Look out also that you do not hit any of those stalactites or stalagmites!
On the last of these caves, a group of traders on sampans will try to sell you drinks and tit-bits. Some actually ask you to buy a drink or two for the rower only that the rower will not actually drink it, she'll most likely trade it back later on.
The rower will also likely try to sell you embroideries and paintings. Bargain abit, buy some if you fancy. But if they pester you too much, you can actually note down the boat number and lodge a complaint at the tourist police office at the dock. My experience was the rowers are quite nice and they don't create any trouble.
The village at the dock has many stalls selling T-shirts and other kind of hand-made linen. Prices are quite cheap. There are also restaurants and cafes. The specialty here is baked mutton wrapped in rice paper!
Temple hopping in Hoa Lu
Not a great fan of temple tours but possibly interesting for some who would like to know about the local culture. The temples are built and houses the famous emperors of Vietnam for local worshipping. It isn't particularly touristy and the scenary around the temples is pretty.
- Road Trip
Boating at Tam Coc
Yes, a tourist trap it may be, but the boat ride is rather enjoyable. Even with many other tourists boating along the river, the ride is tranquil enough along some parts. My favourite part is to boat through the dark grottoes with the limestone cliffs inches above your head and as you emerge from the dark into the light, craggy cliffs welcome you.
- Road Trip
- Sailing and Boating
Hoa Lu - Vietnam's ancient capital
Hoa Lu Citadel is the only thing left of Vietnam's former capital Hoa Lu. Founded in 968, Hoa Lu remained capital until the early 11th century when Emperor Ly Thai To moved it to today's Hanoi. Despite the lack of "original" buildings, the trip to Hoa Lu is definitely worth it. Arriving in the beautiful mountainous landscape, you walk 300m to the temples of the Dinh and Le Dynasty. They are situated in very beautifully designed parks, not unlike Van Mieu in Hanoi. Frangipani blossoms are literally everywhere, and the air is full of the smell of sweet incense fumes and damp air.
If you have a good guide, you'll be able to learn a lot about the history of Hoa Lu. Our guide was alright, but his English was a catastrophe so that we couldn't understand too much. The only thing that was understandable was his story about Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang. He was murdered by a mandarin who had dreamt of a star falling into his mouth - which he interpreted as a sign that he would be the only real emperor. The statue of Dinh Tien Hoang is found in the temple.
In order to avoid leaving Hoa Lu without a clue about what happened there, grab a good guidebook and ask your guide everything you want to know.
All of the travel agencies and hotels can arrange guided tours to Hoa Lu, usually combined with Tam Coc. The price for a 1-day-tour should be around 20$ per person.
- Historical Travel
- Arts and Culture
Tam Coc - Halong Bay in the Rice Paddies
A cute nickname, isn't it? Tam Coc, also known as "Dry Halong Bay", "Halong Bay without Water" or "Halong Bay in the Rice Paddies" is one of the natural wonders of Vietnam. Located approximately 10km away from Ninh Binh, it is tourism destination par excellence for both Vietnamese and international tourists.
Tam Coc means "Three Caves" - but in order to clarify why they are so popular, I should mention that a river flows through these caves. Tourists rent a boat and are rowed along the river through a spectacular landscape which is quite similar to Halong Bay only without the sea. To one's left and right side, rough limestone rocks reach an altitude of up to 100m. Sometimes, daring mountain goats climb up the steep rocks, jumping from one little un-overgrown square meter to the next. Amidst all this beauty, Ngo Dong river flows tranquilly, water lilies and other plants growing at its sides.
While these views alone would be worth the trip, the caves are even more spectacular. The first one you reach is called Hang Ca. It's the biggest with a length of 127m and a width of 20m. Nonetheless, mind your head! It may be long, but its ceiling is only some centimeters above you. Shortly after, you'll reach Hang Hai, the second grotto. With a length of 60m, it's a lot smaller, but also very impressive. Finally, Hang Ba, the third and last cave awaits you. After 46m under one of the limestone hills, you reach a little pool where a bad surprise is waiting.
Several women will try to sell you everything from bananas to cola, from cookies to kitschy souvenirs. Of course the prices are very high here, but you have no choice. Your rower won't go back until you've bought something. Moreover, the annoying vendors will also try to force you to buy a drink for your rower. The trick with this one is that he or she won't drink it anyway, but will sell it back to the vendors later on. You lose a lot of money and the vendors make their deal. On your way back, enjoying the landscape again is hindered by the rower trying to sell you more things. Usually they now unpack some ugly embroidery and show it to you until you buy one. As you will never need it again, you should persistently say "No!" and give a tip at the end of your trip instead (something they will ask for anyway).
Nevertheless, Tam Coc is well worth going there - best by an organized tour from Hanoi. The tours usually include Hoa Lu citadel as well and cost around 20$ per person.
- Water Sports
Cuc Phuong NP - home of rare species
Cuc Phuong NP is a rarity in Vietnam: an untouched rainforest. Due to the Vietnam War and its devastating environmental desasters, Vietnam has hardly any vast areas of rainforest left. Ho Chi Minh himself inaugurated the national park in 1962. Nowadays, it covers an area of more than 220km² with numerous wildlife species living there. In the park, there's also a Centre for Rescueing Endangered Primates which tourists can visit. Other activities in the park usually include hiking or a visit to one of the minority villages.
I went to Cuc Phuong in 2004 and unfortunately only stayed there for a day. As the trip to Cuc Phuong takes 3 hours from Hanoi, you should at least stay overnight, perhaps even longer. Cuc Phuong is a rather untouristy location, so you might have to ask at several hotels or tour agencies in Hanoi for a good, tailormade tour.
- National/State Park
- Jungle and Rain Forest