For a long time, I did not really think there was much to see in Ninh Binh except for Bai Dinh Pagoda and Hoa Lu Ancient Capital. How wrong I was! Ninh Binh has seemingly come into its own and this beautiful area has gradually been discovered by travellers, both domestic and international alike. Ninh Binh attracts so many people and there are so many remarkable stories about this historical land.
THE STORY OF THE ANCIENT CAPITAL
Less than 100km from Hanoi, a far cry from the dazzlingly hectic metropolis, Ninh Binh exudes a true sense of solitude, tranquillity and mystery. This land is home to all different kinds of landforms, from mountains and hills to coastal plains and lowlands. With such great natural richness and diversity, many travellers are curious to know how Ninh Binh came to be such an incredible variety of mesmerising, picturesque landscapes.
Aside from stunningly picture-postcard natural scenery, Ninh Binh beholds a significant history, when Dinh Bo Linh defeated 12 opponent armies to become the king and was named as the country Dai Co Viet and settled in Hoa Lu as the capital. During history classes at school, I simply thought that the king had built capital in his own homeland. However, it was not until I was older that I clearly understood that his set-up was actually a thoroughly strategic plan to thrive and protect the country. Many imposing mountains arranged in an arc act as a solid barrier to protect the capital of Dai Co Viet.
According to archaeologists, all sides around the capital were firmly surrounded by Cot Co Mountain to the East, high rapids for the marines to practice and there is also Tien Cave and Ton Cave which hide many national secrets. I am neither a history buff nor an avid researcher, but when arriving in Ninh Binh, seeing first-hand the relics that have been destroyed over the course of over ten centuries, I want to discover every last detail of the fascinating tales.
GETTING LOST IN TRANG AN
No trip to Ninh Binh is complete without visiting and exploring Trang An. I often hear rumours and praise for the beauty of Trang An, for instance, I have heard it referred to as a ‘Ha Long Bay on land’, ‘a shining pearl hidden amidst Ninh Binh’ or it is also known for featuring in the Penglai scene in kung fu movies. It would be no exaggeration to say that Trang An is a stunning, one-of-a-kind place and I am so fortunate to have seen it with my own eyes.
Trang An rolled out the red carpet for me when I visited for the first time. I was overwhelmed with how beautiful the area was, marvelling at the landscape dappled in gentle rays of sunshine and appreciating the refreshing breeze. Sat on a small boat, following other boats carrying groups of foreign tourists slowly drifting along the river, towards the undulating rocky mountain ranges on the water, I wondered how there is such a magnificent, untouched natural spectacle in Northern Vietnam.
I could not get over the towering rocky mountains soaring from the depths of the calm emerald water, it is such a charming place that truly leaves visitors feeling spellbound. As the boat gradually approached the dark cave. A feeling of mystery and fear suddenly struck me, “Why are we entering this dark, rocky mountain? Where are we going? Is there anything in there that will make me jump?” I bet many people have the same thoughts as me. I was burning with curiosity and trepidation as the boat went further into the cave, but the scene was just so overwhelming inside the cave. There were so many unique stone formations lurking in the shadows, sometimes I felt as if I was going to bang my head on a stone pillar, but the boat driver was so skillful that we could easily glide through the cliffs whilst the water murmured around us.
The most memorable moment of the trip would have to be the second we exited the cave and all of a sudden, both the boat and the people sitting on it suddenly seemed minuscule in comparison to the breath-taking natural surroundings. The landscape was illuminated under the bright blue sky and the scene left me feeling momentarily staggered. That day, I felt like I really noticed the most intimate details of Trang An. I took in the branches of trees, the dewy drops of water, the ﬂuffy cloud formations, each and every aspect governed by its own story – all colliding together to form this beautiful tale about Ninh Binh.
LISTENING TO NATURE
After spending a day enjoying the enthralling beauty of Trang An and listening to the historical stories of the Hoa Lu Ancient Capital, I woke up and started my journey to explore Cuc Phuong National Park as I was desperate to satisfy my passion for nature.
Measuring an amazing area of approximately 25,000 hectares, Cuc Phuong National Park is considered one of the most remote and attractive destinations in Vietnam. I had heard about the great richness of this tropical forest. It is home to a stunning variety of animal and plant life, including 2,234 species of plants and moss in which there are 433 species of medicinal plants, 229 species of edible plants and many others that are on a red list of precious species in Vietnam.
The park is also home to an abundance of animals, including 122 species of reptile, 66 species of fish, nearly 2,000 species of insect and 135 species of mammal. Impressively, Cuc Phuong is also home to 336 species of bird, thus allowing me to indulge myself in this epic natural world that is worlds apart from my daily life. Here, there is not a car in sight nor streets chock-a-block with buildings, I just listened to the idyllic sounds of the dainty ﬂowers and ancient trees whispering the tales of their own verdant lives.
Aside from the mind-blowingly abundant natural environment, Cuc Phuong National Park intrigues many visitors with the unique activities it offers. On this visit, I gained a fascinating insight into the distinct culture of the Muong ethnic people, the lifestyle captured in the traditional stilted houses and brocade weaving frames. I also had the opportunity to experience a campfire whilst hearing the stories of daily life and enjoying the beautiful songs played by the hospitable people of Ninh Binh.
Because of the limited time, I was not able to camp overnight, to fall asleep after admiring the starry night sky in all its celestial glory. With much missed due to time constraints, I will definitely return to Ninh Binh in the future to really soak up the atmosphere after nightfall in the Cuc Phuong National Park.
I used to think that there was not much in Ninh Binh that would blow my mind. However, it is only after visiting I realised how wrong my impression of this magnificent place was. Free of the hectic streets and contemporary architectural structures, Ninh Binh intrigues people with its magnificent mountains, alluring rivers and epic historical stories. Everything about Ninh Binh left me feeling in awe, my soul felt content whilst exploring this terrific destination.
W. TIPS TO NINH BINH
BEST TIME TO TRAVEL
If you are planning a trip to Ninh Binh, then you can travel at any time of the year as Ninh Binh comes into its own every season. I opted to travel to Ninh Binh in February, when the weather is mild and pleasant, making it perfect for visiting temples and pagodas. Additionally, May is the butterﬂy season in Cuc Phuong Forest, so take time to visit here if you are keen on exploring the animal world.
Travellers will be spoilt for choice with a vast array of accommodation options in Ninh Binh, from high-end hotels and resorts surrounded by lush green nature to reasonable homestays infused with regional culture.
BEST TOURIST ATTRACTIONS
In Ninh Binh, you should spend time visiting a whole host of attractive destinations such as Trang An Landscape Complex, Bai Dinh Pagoda, Tam Coc – Bich Dong, Hoa Lu Ancient Capital, Mua Cave, Am Tien Cave, Phat Diem Stone Church, Thung Nham Eco-tourism Area, Van Long Nature Reserve and more.
Aside from famous goat dishes or burnt rice, Ninh Binh cuisine is renowned for many other delicious locally-favoured dishes, for instance, Nhech Salad, Yen Mac Sausage, Sticky Rice with ant eggs or Bun Cha.