Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ninh Bình

It's been three weeks since I went to Ninh Bình, and I still haven't been able to write about it. Part of it is simple exhaustion: I've been (happily) busy with my work, and unable to find the time to organize my thoughts. Part of it is, however, attributable to the beauty of the province. How to write of such a place without gushing or sounding like a guidebook? This has been my dilemma.

Still, I want to record this place because it is one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. So here goes, and please forgive, in advance, the melodrama.
[Fade in. A flock of egrets flies over a rice field. Slow pan across the landscape as narrator speaks]

About two hours south of Hanoi lies a place, known as the "Inland Halong Bay," where limestone karsts rise out of verdant rice fields, ancient Buddhist temples stand, and secret waterways run through the heart of mountains. Inside this timeless land, water buffalos pull wooden carts, children are tended by women in conical hats, and traditional Vietnamese village life operates as it has for thousands of years....

[Cue music]

Okay, now that I got that off my chest...

The topography of Ninh Bình was formed millions of years ago, when a body of water that later became the South China Sea receded from this inland zone. These mildly acidic waters began etching the land, leaving behind piles of twisted rock that, over time, won the trust of the local flora. As the waters continued to recede, larger openings appeared, accelerating the drainage and forming caverns, sinkholes, spires, gnarls, and hills shaped like serpents and dragons and other creatures from the mythological imagination.
Within this contorted landscape lies a Shangri-La of lotus-covered ponds, meandering waterways, and lush, green rice paddies, dotted with temples, pagodas, and weathered Buddhist shrines. Ornate mausoleums rise from the center of small lakes, and rustic abodes are built under natural overhangs or nestled into the living rock. A thousand years ago, the province housed the Imperial Court of Đại Cồ Việt, an honor it lost in 1010 A.D. when King Lý Thái Tổ moved the capital to Thăng Long (modern-day Hanoi). The ruins of this kingdom still lie on the small plain of Hoa Lư, protected by the hills from Chinese invasion.
If you were to fall asleep and wake up inside an Asian brushstroke landcape, Ninh Bình is most likely where you would land. I doubt that life here has changed a great deal in the last millenium or two. Despite a growing tourist infrastructure, it is still possible to feel the steady rhythms of traditional Vietnamese village life. Women tend to the rice fields, men cast nets into tranquil waters from small wooden boats, and water buffaloes are bathed at the end of a long workday. A motorbike ride into the mountains allows you to get lost in this land, and is surely one of the great pleasures of traveling in Vietnam.
Tam Cc, the region's main tourist draw, is well worth seeing. Tourists pay 50,000 đồng for a three-hour boatride that includes boat journeys inside three long caves, and a stop at an old temple. Women paddle up to you to sell mediocre embroidery, some of them controlling their boats' oars with their feet, but for the most part it's a mellow scene, and the landscape is awe-inspiring. As spectacular as Tam Cốc is, however, for my money Tràng An is even better. Just a few miles away, Tràng An provides equally dramatic scenery in a calmer setting, with fewer tourists. Regardless, the routine is the same: sit back, take in the setting, and dream.

The town of Ninh Bình itself is unremarkable, but a comfortable place from which to explore the province. Goat meat is the local specialty. The Ngoc Anh Hotel is very good: clean, cheap, and friendly. Two days are sufficient to get the lay of the land, but more time would allow you to fully explore the sites, which include a nearby national park.

Let the pictures tell the rest of the story.


  1. NIce job Hal. Beautiful place. Thanks for sharing it with the rest of us.
    Kitty Spangler

  2. Breathtaking scenery! This is why I just LOVED Vietnam - the countryside and the way that old and new can coexist so peacefully side by side. I especially like the first picture and the one of the old man!

  3. I have recently started following your blog. I have wanted to visit Vietnam for a very long time and plan to make that happen in the next 6 months. Your blog and this post in particular have resolved my convictions. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for posting this, Ninh Bình's just moved way up my list of places I want to visit.

  5. Hola Halito:->
    Soy Azusa!
    A mi me gusta tu Blog!

  6. Dear Hal,

    This is Ben. Can I get in touch with you please? My email:

    Thank you.

  7. Pics took my breath away. Thanks.

  8. What was the weather like in September. Heading to Vietnam for a 17 day jolly but I am now a bit worried I booked September instead of October. Cant believe a few weeks could make a massive difference - what was your experience. I am going down to Hue and then working back up finishing in Hanoi.Hope you can advise