A paddleboat tour amid limestone karst mountains, a climb up Mua Cave and the world's largest population of Delacour's langurs are among the attractions Ninh Binh has to offer.
The best time to visit the northern Ninh Binh Province is between May and July, which coincides with the rice and the lotus seasons.
Tam Coc-Bich Dong, a complex of limestone karst mountains rising out of water, caves and Buddhist pagodas, has emerged as a tourist magnet with locals earning a living by rowing their boats with visitors through rice fields on the Ngo Dong River.
May-July is the rice harvest season in Tam Coc with ripened rice paddies dyed in golden yellow stretching along both sides of the river making it ideal for a two-hour boat tour.
It costs VND120,000 ($5) per person for a sightseeing ticket in Tam Coc and VND150,000 for the boat ride which requires at least four passengers for a trip.
The tours are available from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day.
Visitors are advised to carry water, hats and umbrellas to protect from the bright sun.
Michael, an American tourist, who visited Tam Coc last month, said local women wearing conical hats carry passengers on small bamboo boats.
"Along the way, they also attempted to sell embroidered goods to us. Rowing with their hands for long hours can lead to severe back pain, and so they are also good at rowing with their feet," he told VnExpress International.
Bich Dong pagoda complex
One of the highlights of the cruise is a visit to the Bich Dong pagoda complex, which can only be reached by boat.
It was built in 1428 during the reign of King Ly Thai To on the Truong Yen limestone mountains.
The pagoda is made of wood and stone and has brick tiled roofs.
After getting off the boat, tourists walk through a stone bridge spanning a large lotus pond, which explodes with bright pink blossoms in summer.
Beyond a gate is a tranquil courtyard and three other ancient temples hidden at the foot of a large mountain.
Like many other Buddhist sites, Bich Dong Pagoda has a dress code that requires visitors to cover their shoulders and knees.
In Tam Coc, a place that should not be missed is Hang Mua (Dancing Cave), dubbed Vietnam’s miniature Great Wall of China.
Legend has it that King Tran Thai Tong, who reigned from 1225 to 1258, ordered the construction of the Thai Vi Temple, and often visited the place to enjoy dancing and singing, and hence the name Dancing Cave.
Visitors can walk up 500 white stone steps to the top of the mountain. On both sides of the steps are handrails elaborately decorated with the dragon or phoenix symbols of the Tran Dynasty.
The top offers spectacular views of Tam Coc with its yellow paddy fields below.
A ticket for a sightseeing tour of Hang Mua costs VND120,000.
Bai Dinh Pagoda
The Bai Dinh pagoda complex spreads over 1,700 hectares and has a giant gold-plated bronze Buddha statue and Arhat corridor.
Some 500 craftsmen and groups of workers from famous traditional craft villages in northern Vietnam used traditional materials such as green stone and ceramic tiles from Bat Trang village to create Vietnamese architectural features at the pagoda.
It takes a lot of time to visit the whole site, and it is a good idea to climb aboard an electric shuttle bus that costs VND80,000 for a two-way ticket to go around and visit a tower within the pagoda complex.
Cuc Phuong National Park
Only an hour away from downtown Ninh Binh is Cuc Phuong national park, a popular camping spot.
The country’s first national park has tropical forests, 1000-year-old trees, and extremely rich and diverse flora and fauna, especially the black and white douc langur, the symbol of Cuc Phuong.
In addition to trekking, cycling and camping, visitors can also go on a wildlife watching tour at night to observe animals that come out to feed and kayaking on Yen Quang Lake.
Cuc Phuong is home to the Muong ethnic minority people, who live in stilt houses and are masters of brocade weaving.
It is not a bad idea to carry hats, trekking shoes, medicines, food and drink, and binoculars for sightseeing.
Van Long reserve
Travel bloggers have said a boat ride around Van Long wetland nature reserve, famous for appearing in Hollywood movie "Kong: Skull Island," is a must-try experience with local men acting as tour guides.
Costing VND60,000 ($2.58) per person for a maximum two passengers per boat, the journey takes around one hour through karst limestone mountains and magnificent caves.
From the boat you can watch birds such as kingfishers, herons and storks and even see a very rare monkey, the Delacour’s langur, if you are lucky.
Goat meat is a specialty in Ninh Binh. While goats can be found everywhere in the country, they are said to be special in Ninh Binh with the firmest meat because they graze on meadows atop mountains.
Some places to try the meat are Hoang Giang Restaurant, Hang Ca Mountain in Truong Yen District, and Hoang Long Restaurant on Trang An Street, and 446 Nguyen Hue Street.
Eel vermicelli is another famous dish in Ninh Binh. Again the dish here is highly recommended by travel bloggers as it comes with broth made from stewed bones. The eels are fragrant and yellow after being mixed with red chili, onion, pepper and fish sauce and fried in hot oil.
You can try this dish at 999 Tran Hung Dao Street.
Com chay (rice crackers) is a crispy dish made by burning rice with onion, dried pork and handmade sauce.
Thang Long, Duc De and De Quy restaurants are the most popular places for this dish.
Other dishes that carry the unique flavors of the northern delta, like sour soup with fish, cellophane noodles served with eel and field crab roasted in betel leaf are other amazing culinary offerings in Ninh Binh.
Overlooked by foreign tourists for years, Ninh Binh found its name on the global tourism map after "Kong: Skull Island" was shot there in 2016, and in response to the tourism boom since, locals have developed homestays.
Some places for budget tourists are Chezbeo Homestay, Ninh Binh Valley Homestay, Tam Coc Homestay, Ninh Binh Panorama Homestay, Nguyen Shack Homestay, Ninh Binh Greenland Homestay, Ninh Binh Family Homestay, and Ninh Binh Mountain View Homestay.
Most of them are set amidst green paddy fields and lotus ponds.
More upmarket accommodation includes Toki Cottage, An's Eco Garden, Bai Dinh Garden Resort, Tam Coc Garden Boutique Resort, and Emeralda Ninh Binh Resort at prices starting from VND1 million a night.
In Hanoi, you can take a bus from Giap Bat station to Ninh Binh for the two-hour journey with tickets costing VND100,000 - 150,000.
Taking a train from Hanoi to Ninh Binh is not a bad option for enjoying the stunning landscape along the way. The journey takes approximately 2.5 hours with the fares starting at VND70,000 and the earliest train leaving at 6 a.m.
You can also opt for a motorbike ride. In that case, from downtown Hanoi follow Giai Phong Street and turn into the Phap Van-Cau Gie National Highway and go down the Cau Gie-Phu Ly road to reach Ninh Binh.
Story by Hoang Phong