With royal ruins, limestone mountains, caves and crystal rivers, northern Ninh Binh Province has nearly everything a visitor could want.
Around 100km south of Hanoi, the province offers a world of opportunity to explore nature, culture and history. Considered one of the original dia linh (sacred) lands, Ninh Binh has 975 notable sites, of which 80 have been dubbed national heritage sites, and throughout history it has given birth to great talent, including the likes of Dinh Tien Hoang, Duong Van Nga, Nguyen Minh Khong, Truong Han Sieu and Nguyen Cong Tru. Such vast, unadulterated beauty couldn’t remain secret for long. Slotted for upcoming development, the Trang An Grottoes Eco-tourism Complex consists of limestone mountain ranges, valleys and rivers which blend harmoniously together in a wash of green. Located 4km southwest of the Hoa Lu old capital in Truong Yen Commune, the destination is made more alluring by the route there. Tourists can begin their visit at King Dinh Tien Hoang and King Le Dai Hanh temples before boarding a row boat down the Sao Khe river to Xuyen Thuy grotto, past rice fields and villages. Upon reaching the complex, one encounters a system of caves, some of the more noteworthy being Ba Giot (Three Drops), Dia Linh (Holy Land) and May (Cloud). But for those with different interests, there are numerous historical relics related to architecture, economics and social and military history from the Dinh, Le and Ly dynasties. The 200m-high Bai Dinh Pagoda Mountain , with its many caves and areas of worship, is part of the larger Trang An Grottoes eco-tourist complex and is slotted for serious improvements. Ecologically and historically rich, much like the rest of the province, in 1997, the Bai Dinh Pagoda Mountain area was recognized as a cultural and historical heritage site. A recently undertaken project for the 107ha area will involve the construction of a 100 tones bronze statue of the Great Buddha Sakyamuni, three bronze statues Tam The (50 tones each) and 500 statues of La Han (Arhats) made of Ninh Van stones. Bai Dinh Pagoda will become the largest religious tourist centre in Viet Nam upon completion in 2010 to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of Hoa Lu-Thang Long-Hanoi capital. Not far from Ninh Binh City is another must-see attraction: the caves of Tam Coc, the "Halong Bay on Land." A stunning set of three low-hanging caves along the muddy Ngo Dong river, Tam Coc lies at the southern entrance of the dramatic Karst mountain range. Tam Coc literally means three grottoes, also called the Xuyen Thuy (or Water Tunnel-Caves), named the waterways which centuries of erosion have created. "Our managing board puts serious focus on environmental protection and security," said Vu Thi Tuyet Nhung, a tour guide at the Tam Coc - Bich Dong tourist site. "So we send out three or four boats to pick up rubbish despite the great number of visitors and the shortage of boats." "We also hold training courses annually for local rowers in order to raise awareness about tourism and improve service skills."
The truly adventurous can explore a more remote area by visiting the Van Long wetland conservation area, 15km north-west of Ninh Binh City. It is the largest wetland reserve in the north of Vietnam with an area of nearly 3,000ha, located in Gia Vien District.
It possesses rich fauna and flora including conifers, Tibetan bears and king cobras. There have been 457 species of plants and 39 species of mammals identified in the area. Eight and 12, respectively are listed in the Red Data Book of Vietnam. Even a few very rare Delacour langur (Trachypithecus Delacouri) live in the protected area. This species exists only in a very small area in northern Viet Nam. According to estimates, there are only 300 animals left today, of which about 40 live in Van Long.
Still mostly untouched by tourism, the area has a system of 32 caverns each with a distinct shape. "Some regions have beautiful landscapes, others have great historical relics, but Ninh Binh has both: enchanting scenery and deep history," said rower Do Van Bien. "I’m proud of to be a local."