Sixty miles south of the capital city lies the small, sleep city of Ninh Binh, capital of the province of the same name. This former garrison town is most often used as a base for exploring the dramatic surrounding scenery, although the city does have a few charms of its own.
Most tourists arriving from Hanoi will arrive by air-conditioned bus, which departs from Hanoi Giap Bat Station and takes around three hours. Getting around the town itself is easy enough on foot, but to see the countryside, you’ll either need to join a tour, use a taxi or rent a motorbike.
Phat Diem Cathedral dates back to the 1870s and is renowned as one of the loveliest churches in the country. From there you can make your way to Dinh Tien Hoang Plaza, by the riverside, to take in the relaxing atmosphere of the city and enjoy the riverscape. As evening approaches you can find plenty of eateries around the train station area. If you’re looking to sample the local cuisine, be sure to ask for Com Chay – a specialty of Ninh Binh which consists of burned rice and pork. Wash it down with a glass of sugarcane juice – another local favorite, while you plan your visit to the surrounding area.
Perhaps the most popular of the areas around Ning Binh is Tam Coc River Garden. Board a boat here and be rowed by a local through some of the most wonderful scenery in all Vietnam. As the cliffs of the river disappear behind you, you’ll pass through three cave systems, which were carved through the mountain by the river, millions of years ago. Once your riverboat ride is over, you can head into Tam Coc itself and find the Bich Dong Pagoda, for equally spectacular views looking out from the cliffs over the river you just traveled on. Try to get their early and avoid public holidays, and Tam Coc is popular with both foreign and Vietnamese tourists.
Not all that far from Tam Coc is Hang Mua Peak. The trek up this mountain is made easier by the construction of steps for most of the way, but be aware that the peak does drop away dramatically, so this is not for those who are afraid of heights. The drop, however, does off magnificent views which, as you approach the top of the peak, become a complete panorama of breathtaking proportions. From the distant mountains to your west, you can watch the land pan out into the Red River Delta to your west. If you’ve brought a camera, you’ll definitely want to use it here.
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