Approximately two and a half hours south of Hanoi lies the city of Ninh Binh, a fairly grim industrial looking town that would never deserve a mention if it was not for the fact it is located next to a very special piece of countryside.
Most travellers use it as a base to explore the spectacular scenery in the region - the jagged limestone cliff and rock formations that rise out of the paddy fields reminiscent of Ha Long Bay or the cliffs of Krabi, Thailand.
These fantastic hills, or karsts as they should be called, are an impressive, memorable sight as they rise out of the mists of North Vietnam.
Although the key attractions in the area are Tam Coc or Hoa Lu we were content to spend a day on bikes simply getting lost amongst the hills, the rural roads winding between a far cry from the hectic main road that cuts through Ninh Binh.
Tam Coc – Bich Dong
The closest attraction to Ninh Binh is Tam Coc, a network of three beautiful caves carved by the local river as it winds through the karsts. Surrounded by paddy fields and dwarfed by the karsts towering above, a row down this river is a serene, peaceful experience that allows you to take in the natural beauty of the area at a gentle pace.
There are almost 2,000 low income families in the area who take turns to row boats up the river, spending the rest of their time working in the paddy fields. Obviously this means their chance to row may only come up once every week or two, and since the cost of a river trip is just a couple of dollars most try to top up their row-boat income by selling handicrafts, embroidery and T-shirts on the boats.
If you would prefer to relax and take in the scenery rather than spend your boat ride haggling consider offering a generous tip or making a token purchase - the boat ride is already fantastic value and people living in the area depend on the additional income from tourists.
Bich Dong Pagoda is located in Ninh Hai Commune, Hoa Lu District, 11km from Ninh Binh Town, and can be reached by either boat or car. Bich Dong Pagoda, built on Ngu Nhac Mountain, is divided into three levels: Ha Pagoda (lower pagoda), Trung Pagoda (middle pagoda), and Thuong Pagoda (upper pagoda). On the mountain peak stands the statue of a scholar Mandarin looking at the horizon in hope of viewing the spectacular landscapes of Hoa Lu. From the upper pagoda, one has the most magnificent view of Bich Dong, which is romantically charming in terms of architecture and history. The location for this pagoda was chosen in 1428 after two monks were charmed by the view of the river and the mountains. Later, King Le Canh Hung wrote a poem in honour of the beautiful pagoda and landscape. He was the one who said that Bich Dong Pagoda was the second nicest pagoda in Vietnam, after the Huong Pagoda, also called Perfume Pagoda, in Ha Tay Province.
Hoa Lu ( Dinh & Le Temple )
Hoa Lu was the ancient capital of Vietnam, circa 800 BC, and the ruined remains of pagodas and imperial courtyards can be found dotted around the area, although many are focused a short journey north-west of Ninh Binh.
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: Bai Duong for the community, Thien Huong in honour of mandarins, and 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. Le Temple is almost the same as Dinh Temple in term of architectural design, except for some details. 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.
Phat Diem Cathedral
Located 130km south of Hanoi and 28km southeast of Ninh Binh, Phat Diem Cathedral was built between 1875 and 1899 and consists of a network of ponds, lakes, churches, and artificial caves.
Phuong Dinh Church, part of the Phat Diem complex, is a giant building entirely made of stone. Numerous stone sculptures are on the inside and outside walls. A large bell cast in the 1890s weighing nearly 2 tons is found in the bell tower. Phat Diem Cathedral was built in 1891 with four roofs and six sets of iron wooden pillars. On both sides of the church are four smaller churches of different styles. On the extreme north corner are three stone caves. The most beautiful of these caves is Lo Duc cave. Phat Diem Cathedral is the center of Catholicism in north Vietnam and also a tourist site attracting foreign and domestic visitors. The cathedral of Phat Diem seems to have changed very little since Graham Greene described its ..gigantic pillars formed out of single trees and the scarlet lacquer work of the altar, more Buddhist than Christian" in his 1955 classic The Quiet American. Indeed, with its multi-tiered, curling roofs and its 48 lime-wood columns - (the largest of which weigh seven tonnes), Phat Diem is a far cry from a European cathedral. Stone relief angels overlook carved dragons and the cathedral's two tonnes bell is accompanied by a giant brass gong.
In the area surrounding this massive stone and wood cathedral, the rice paddies are peppered with stone churches. But, unlike these structures, built by Europeans and resembling typical churches of the era, Phat Diem Cathedral was designed by a Vietnamese priest, known as Father Sau Between 1875 and 1899, Father Sau rallied the local population to build the cathedral, five side chapels, three artificial grottoes,an artificial lake and a bell tower. He died the same year as the complex was finished.
Local Catholics view the cathedral's survival as almost miraculous; a bombing in 1972 flattened two of the side chapels and caused the cathedral to lean by some 20 degrees. Despite the ongoing war, restoration started immediately and today, the only obvious trace of the bombing is the destruction of some intricate stone carvings.
The best day to visit Phat Diem is on a Sunday, when the district's roads are full of people, walking or cycling towards the cathedral or one of the dozens of neighbouring churches. And on Christmas eve, an unforgettable midnight mass, attended by thousands and accompanied by a brass band, is held in the cathedral grounds.
Cuc Phuong National Park
Cuc Phuong National Park is one of Vietnam’s most beautiful and important protected areas and easily accessible from Hanoi - only a 2 ½ hour journey by road. The ancient forest contains almost 2000 species of trees and amongst them lives some amazing and rare animals including the Clouded leopard, Delacour’s Langur, Owston’s Civet, Otters and Asian Black Bears! Below we have provided a sample of the tours currently available from Cuc Phuong National Park tourism department, but we can cater for any tour, just contact us and we can help you arrange an unforgettable experience.
Cucphuong Tour, Cuc Phuong bird watching, National Park in Ninh Binh, plants & mammals: Cuc Phuong National Park is located 100km south of Hanoi in Ninh Binh province. The park is conveniently located on the route to several tourist attractions, including Bich Dong Pagoda, Hoa Lu, and Sam Son Beach. It was officially opened in 1960 as the first national park in Vietnam. Cuc Phuong National Park is surrounded by several limestone cliffs, the highest being May Bac, meaning "silver cloud," with a height of 656m. There are plenty of plants and mammals living in the park. There are an estimated 2,000 different species of flora and the 450 species fauna account for 38% of the national fauna.