North Central Vietnam

Thai Binh - Ninh Binh - Around Ninh Binh - Phat Dien - Cuc Phuong National Park Vinh - Around Vinh - Phong Nha Cave - Dong Hoi


Tam Coc:
Poetically penned "Halong Bay on the rice paddies', the area around Tam Coc boasts stunning scenery. While Halong Bay has rugged rock formations jutting out of the sea here they soar skywards from a sea of green, 'Tam Coc (entry fee 30,000d,boat 40,000d) is named after the low caves through which the Ngo Dong River flows. The essential Tam Coc experience is So sit back and be rowed through the caves - a serene and scenic trip, which turns into a surreal dance towards the end. The boats carry two people as well as the main rower at the rear and a secondary rower, usually an elderly woman, whose purpose becomes clear at the end of the journey. Hang Ca, the first cave, is 127m long; Hang Giua 70m long; and the thirds Hang Cuoi, is only 45m. The boat trip takes about two hours and tickets are sold at the small booking office by the car park. Even on cloudy days, bring sunscreen and a hat or umbrella, as there s no shade in the boats. It pays to arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the day-tripping crowds from Hanoi. The area behind the Tam Coc restaurants is Van Lan village, which is famous for its embroidery. Here local artisans make napkins, tablecloths, pillowcases and T-shirts. A lot of these items wind up being sold on Hanoi’s Pho Hang Gai , but it is cheaper to buy them here directly from the artisan. The village has a much better selection and slightly Sower prices than those available from the boat vendors.

This charming cave pagoda is just a couple of kilometres north ot Tam Coc and worth a visit if you have your own wheels. The scenic road winds through rice fields hemmed in by karsts and ends in a dusty village. Bich Dong (Jade Grotto) is cut into the cave of a karst and is a holy site of pilgrimage for Vietnamese. The smoke of burning incense and the gloom of the caves give this place an unearthy atmosphere
With all the recent development it’s possible to stay the night in comfort in this quiet village and get an early start on the river the next day.
The Long (r200,000d;This attractive new building opposite the city has big rooms with balconies, and a large restaurant (meals 60,000d) on the ground floor,
Tam Coc is 9km southwest of Ninh Binh. Follow Hwy 1A south and turn west at the Tam Coc turn-off. Ninh Binh hotels run day tours. but it is more fun to make your own way by bicycle or motorbike. Hotel staff can also advise you on some beautiful back roads that link Tam Coc with Hoa Lu, Budget cafes in Hanoi book day trips to Tam Coc and Hoa Lu;the fast-food version goes for about US$15, but it's closer to US$20 with a smaller group, comfortable vehicle and professional guide.
HoaLu: Hoa Lu was the capital of Vietnam during the Dinh (968-80) and early Le (980-1009) dynasties. The site was a smart choice for a capital city because of the natural protection afforded by the region's bizarre landscape, with rocky outcrops as spectacular as Tam Coc's. the ancient citadel of Hoa Lu (admission 10,000d), most of which has been destroyed. covered an area of about 3 sq km. The' outer ramparts encompassed temples, shrines and the king's palace. The royal family lived in the inner citadel. Yen Ngua Mountain provides a scenic back drop for Hoa Lu's two remaining temples. The first, Dinh Tien Hoang, was restored in the 17th century and is dedicated to the Dinh dynasty. At the front of the main temple building is the stone pedestal of a royal throne: ínide are bronze bells and a statue of Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang with his three sons. In a building to the right a display features photos and some-artefacts, while to the left are three Buddhist prayer stones - one supported by a turtle another with a crab and two rats at the base The second temple is dedicated to Le Dai Hanh, an early Le monarch. Inside the main hall are an assortment of drums, gongs, in cense burners, candle holders and weapons with a statue of the king in the middle, his queen on the right and their son on the left In the left-hand section of this complex a modern museum features part of the excavations of the 10th-century citadel wall, unearthed in 1998 Once you've navigated the hassle of persistent sellers on the way in, it's very peaceful inside the complex, especially in the early morning or late afternoon when the crowds head back to Hanoi. On the hillside above the temples is the tomb of Dinh Tien Hoang. It's a good 15-minute climb up 207 steps, hut your efforts will be rewarded with great views.
Hoa Lu is 12km northwest ot Ninh Binh; turn left 6km north of town on Hwy 1A. 1 here is no public transport, so most travellers get there by bicycle, motorbike or car. Ask your hotel about the blissful back roads linking Hoa Lu to Tam Coc. Kenh Ga The village of Kenh Ga (Chicken Canal) gets its name, apparently, from the number of wild chickens that used to live here. It's a lovely area, and one of the best places outside of the Mekong Delta to see river life - but nowhere in the Delta will you find stunning limestone formations like the ones providing the backdrop here. Another difference: people in Kenh Ga row boats with their feet, leaning back and watching the world go by. The local people seem to spend most of their lives on or in the water: at their floating fish-breeding pens, harvesting river grass used for fish feed, trawling in the muddy shallows for shellfish or selling veggies boat-to-boat. Even the children commute to school by boat. The river is used for everything from bathing, to washing plucked chickens, lo defecating in.
Until recent years this was largely a floating village, with just a few permanent buildings on the riverbanks. You'll still see some tiny wooden shelters on boats where the poorest of the poor live. However, as fortunes improve, people aim to stake their claim on solid ground. From the pier you can hire a motorboat (tell: 868560;40,000d) to take you for an hour or so touring around the village.
Kenh Ga is 21km from Ninh Binh off the road to Cuc Phuong National Park. Follow Hwy 1 A north for 11km, then it's a 10km drive west to reach the boat pier. Hotels in Ninh Binh can arrange tours, often through fantastic back roads with wonderful scenery.
Van Long Nature Reserve: Set amid yet more ot the limestone pinnacles that characterise this region. Van Long (entry 20,000(1) is a reedy wetland that attracts the birds. It's become a popular spot for inter national birdwatchers keen for a sighting of a rare black-faced spoonbill, a cotton pygmy goose, a white-browed crake or other fantastically named feathery fauna- The fee includes a punt through the shallow waters and, with your eyes peeled, you just might see a Dela-cour's langur monkey lurking in the outcrops Van Long can be easily combined with a visit to Kenh Ga and, at a stretch, both can be visited en route to Cuc Phuong National Park. Van Long is 2km east of Tran Me, a small town 23km from Ninh Binh alone the road to Cuc Phuong.
As with many tourist traps in Vietnam, don't attempt the Tam Coc boat trip without a good sense of humour, or at least a modicum of patience As you head through the caves you'll notice boats starting to circle, stocked up with snacks and drinks. Usually they wart until you reach the dead end before they lunge. After they’ve exhausted the refreshment limits of their captive audience, they try their next, extremely effective, gambit: 'Drink for Madame?' Given that you're probably already feeling awkward that the frail-looking octogenarian has had to paddle you ait this way, it's a hard line to resist. Many travellers cave in, only to find that 'Madame' sells the drink straight back to the vendor for half the price A good scheme to appease your conscience without being scammed is to offer Madame some of your own drink - she'll probably refuse. With this litt!e dance completed, the boats head back and it's Madame's turn to cut in. It seems that all that splashing about wasn't required at all, as she's now suddenly able to put down her oar and start producing an endless stream of embroidered pictures, tablecloths and T -shirt', for sale. Some of them are quite lovely but be warned even if you buy the entire boxful won’t be enough to satisfy As you reach the respite of the shore, laden down with hand-stitched doilies for the great- aunts' Christmas presents, Madame unashamedly reaches out her hand and asks for a $2 tip more than what most Vietnamese make in a day! Still, you got off lightly, If this scenario pans out, at least you got to see the caves Another common scam is for people driving towards Tam Coc to be approached by women offering to lead them to the boats. Instead you're driven to someone's private boat elsewhere on the river where a paddle around random rice paddies may cost 120,000d.