With Vietnam fast becoming a favourite travel destination especially for eco-travellers, authentic experiences often need to be shared among many other tourists. But here’s the good news, while the number of visitors in Hanoi can sometimes reach up to a whopping 28 million yearly, Ninh Binh receives just over a quarter of that amount. This means a little more space to bask in nature’s tranquillity, less crowded streets, genuine prices, and an overall glimpse of what life is like as a local without the strong presence of foreigners. Soon you’ll be telling others that they have “never been to Vietnam unless they have visited Ninh Binh”. That is, after you find out why this city and its province is a reflection of untouched Vietnam. Here are some reasons why this underrated gem glimmers ever so brightly.
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Often dubbed as “Halong Bay on land”, Trang An is a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring a river that meanders through beautiful limestone mountains that are connected by rice paddies instead of either solid land or water. Locals use paddle boats to get around this unique terrain without damaging crops. This activity has been extended to visitors as a great way of slowing down and appreciating Trang An’s calm water and lush greenery. Paddle boat tours usually lasts for about two hours and there’s a guide who will do the paddling for you. The scenery changes along the ride as you are taken through a handful of caves and also narrow and wide waterways with dramatic scenic views.
Fun fact: Trang An is also one of the filming locations of the 2017 movie Kong: Skull Island!
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It seems that no matter where you go in Vietnam, there is always a festival to look forward to. Sometimes it is celebrated nationwide and other times it is unique to the city you’re in, like the Hoa Lu Festival! Hoa Lu is a district that is part of Ninh Binh, just west of the city centre. This festival is held here annually around the month of March, mainly to remember the two kings who established the Dai Co Viet Kingdom and built the ancient capital of Hoa Lu. Dragon boating on the Hoang Long River is part of the ceremonial procession along with a few traditional rituals performed by locals. Visitors can observe these traditions and participate in fun activities such as human chess, Han ideography, human chess, and a special traditional game called Cờ lau tập trận.
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Because it is an area that has some of the most scenic natural landscapes in Vietnam, Ninh Binh also offers a delightful variety of well-built eco-lodges that makes you feel like you’re “one with the environment”. Two notable ones are Hang Mua and Hoalu. Hang Mua Ecolodge is located among the mountains near Mua Mountain, giving guests a spectacular view from where they are staying. Rooms are fitted with furnishings made of natural materials with a modern design. This quaint ecolodge includes simple luxuries such as air conditioning, hot showers and even complimentary breakfast for some rooms. Prices start at USD 40 depending on which room you opt for.
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For a more natural and raw feel, check out the spacious bamboo bungalows at Hoalu Ecolodge Homestay. The homestay does a wonderful job of making the accommodation experience feel just like home, factoring in the needs of families with young children as well. There is a swimming pool and a bar, and also plenty of activities available including cooking classes on floating bamboo rafts on the Sao Khe River! Room rates start as low as USD 19 with breakfast.
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Pagodas and temples are common places of worship in Vietnam and are often elaborately designed. Understandably, Phat Diem Cathedral stands out, not just because it is a cathedral, but because it is one with a good deal of Vietnamese influence for a European establishment - a rare sight indeed! This fusion of cultures in the building’s architecture is so unique that the term “eclectic architectural style” is used to describe the design of the temple-like cathedral. The cathedral was built in stone in 1892 for a significant Catholic population that resided in Ninh Binh before they were forced to leave in 1954. Thanks to restoration efforts, it has endured the test of time including a bombing that occurred in 1972. Various depictions of the Catholic faith are carved in stone within the building, including an angel with Asian facial features. It is a lovely symbol of how faith need not be confined to particular physical representation and its true beauty is revealed when it transcends traditions.
Fun fact: Phat Diem Cathedral was part of the setting described in Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, Quiet American which later inspired the 2002 movie featuring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser.
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Goat meat, which is sometimes referred to as “chevon”, is quite common in Northern Vietnam . If you’ve tried goat meat before, try it again here because it is different in taste and texture due to the natural diet that mountain goats in Ninh Binh have. Linh Trang Restaurant in Hoa Lu District is popular for dishes made with goat meat that is typically rubbed with ginger, chilli, lemon, and citronella among other herbs.
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The restaurant also serves “burned rice”. Contrary to how it sounds, this is an actual speciality dish of Ninh Binh cuisine. It is carefully prepared by slicing cooked rice into shapes, and then stuffing it with spices, minced vegetables, beef, and offal before deep frying. No part of an animal goes wasted here in Ninh Binh!
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Many travellers who visit Ninh Binh also flock to the Thung Nham Bird Garden to witness nature’s grand showcase: the cycle of thousands of birds leaving early in the morning and returning to their nests in the late afternoon on a daily basis. The garden (which is more like a bird park really), is located 6km from Tam Coc town and also features many walking trails to explore. Entry fee is only about USD 4 and there are a few restaurants there which you can dine at when you get hungry. The best thing to do would probably be to pack some food so you can find a good spot to watch these graceful feathered creatures glide in the air while you enjoy your little picnic.
Overall, besides being very affordable, Ninh Binh is great to travel to because the weather is pretty decent all year round. That being said, a key feature of Ninh Binh’s landscape are its green rice paddy fields which can appear rather muddy and brownish once the harvest is over. So the best time to catch Ninh Binh in all its glory is anytime before September, which means you still have time to squeeze in a trip this year. Remember to book your flight with Mayflower to get the best deals!