The first image that comes to mind when you picture Vietnam is usually the famous Halong Bay – with its strikingly beautiful landscape of limestone islets and emerald waters, it is not surprising that it features at the top of every traveller’s bucket list. However, here our Asia Specialist Chloe tells us why she thinks lesser-known Ninh Binh, two hours south of Hanoi, is the jewel in Vietnam’s crown…
On a recent trip to Northern Vietnam I was lucky enough to spend a few nights in a little village called Ninh Binh. I am so glad I included this little-known part of the country on my trip – this is Vietnam countryside at its best. Sweeping valleys, meandering rivers and luscious rice paddy fields extend as far as the eye can see. It really is one of my favourite places in Southeast Asia.
This wonderful rural area boasts a truly spectacular landscape of limestone karsts that are very similar to those of Halong Bay, the only difference being that the ocean has been replaced by tranquil rivers and rice fields. This explains why the area is often referred to as ‘Halong Bay on land’, and to me it seems only right to draw some comparisons between this lovely little-known gem and the country’s most heralded area of natural beauty.
Although Ninh Binh has plenty of interesting activities for western tourists, it does not feel as such. I have rarely felt so relaxed. My first day was simply incredible; I was taken on a wooden boat tour down the river, where we visited a few caves and even spotted some wild monkeys swinging from tree to tree! We would stop from time to time to get out and admire the fantastic pagodas too – the Bich Dong Pagoda was the most impressive in my eyes. I have seen plenty of temples during my numerous travels around Asia, but for me, the ones in Ninh Binh offter something really different due to the serene and authentic surroundings – it really emphasises the whole experience!
My day ended with a bike ride through the undisturbed countryside, and an enjoyable dip in the hotel pool. Emeralda Ninh Binh has beautiful grounds, and very tastefully decorated rooms. I enjoyed an organic duck confit dish at the Organic Restaurant, which was a pure delight. Ninh Binh is also very well-known for its local goat meat; it is considered the best in Vietnam as the goats here are bred up in the mountains and are supposedly healthier. Trying this local speciality is a real must whilst in Ninh Binh and can be found in most hotels and restaurants.
If you are a nature and wildlife enthusiast, I highly recommend visiting the Cuc Phuong National Park. The trek is clear and the forest is beautiful, filled with plants, insects and a few birds. You will also have the opportunity to visit the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre. The staff are very friendly and passionate about saving these animals, which comes across so clearly when they take you around the centre.
All in all, I absolutely loved discovering Ninh Binh. The landscapes and atmosphere are different from anything else that you will experience in Vietnam, and I highly recommend making time to visit this incredible place for an authentic Vietnamese experience.