If you by any chance do not have time to go to Halong Bay or simply want to go off the beaten track, there is a place that is just as magical as Halong Bay. Perhaps you have heard of Ninh Binh, often referred to as ‘Halong Bay on Land’, where you also get a unique glimpse into the Vietnamese villagers life. Ninh Binh is slowly becoming a favorite amongst travelers and is not as crowded as the very popular Halong Bay. Instead of cruises, you will see small bamboo boats, which you can hop on for an unforgettable journey into some of Vietnam’s most spectacular landscapes. The Trang An Landscape Complex is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its many limestone karst peaks and caves surrounding this region. There are also rice paddies, pagodas and temples which you can visit here. Ninh Binh is an excellent option for those who want to see something just as mesmerising as Halong Bay. There are three places you must visit when you go to Ninh Binh and they are:
It is fully possible to do a day trip from Hanoi to Tam Coc since the distance is about 90 km. Tam Coc is the most popular place in Ninh Binh and you will find that the crowds are a bit bigger here than in other places. Nevertheless, it is an extraordinary place where you will be able to cruise around in small boats and see the magic of Vietnam unfold. There are also caves here, just like in Halong Bay, that were created by erosion of rocks. If you do decide to stay in Tam Coc for the night, there are hotels, bungalows, resorts and even hostels here. This wonderful place is worth staying the night for and you will then have plenty of time to discover the other places in Ninh Binh as well.
A bit more quiet than Tam Coc and less crowded, this is a great alternative if you prefer to have a place for yourself. You can explore Trang An by biking for example, and see all the rice paddies. But the best way to enjoy Trang An is by doing a boat tour. This way you will get to see the most scenic spots in this region. The boat trips usually lasts about 2 hours and you will get to go through caves and grottoes as well. There are also some bungalows you can stay in here if you prefer to stay. If you are on a tight time schedule, it is very doable for instance to do a day trip from Hanoi.
Van Long Nature Reserve
This incredible nature reserve is the largest wetland natural reservation area in the north of Vietnam. It lies in the Ninh Binh province, about 82 km from Hanoi city and is an excellent option for those who are interested in eco-tourism. This is one of the least discovered sites in Ninh Binh, but is slowly gaining popularity as more international tourists are traveling to Vietnam. The reserve is rich in fauna and flora and you can see mountains as far as the eye can see, valleys, quaint villages and rice paddies. The countryside is simply incredible here and offers a more serene atmosphere than other places.
If you have some extra time, visit the Mua Caves as well. Many travellers say this is a must-see when you are in Ninh Binh. You want to get a panoramic view over Tam Coc? Go hiking in the Mua mountains, the view will not disappoint you. There is an entrance fee of about 5 USD. Try to visit Mua cave either early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is not so strong. It is highly recommended to see sunrise or sunset here as well. Some say the best season to go to Ninh Binh is during summer time, when the colors change from green to yellow.
If you have not applied for a Vietnam visa yet, remember to do it before you enter the country. Some European and Asian countries can stay in Vietnam visa-free up to 15 days, but if you want to stay for longer, you will need to get a Vietnam visa. You can apply for a Visa on Arrival or go to your nearest Vietnam Embassy or Consulate. There is a third option, which is to apply for an E-Visa. However, this is only allowed for certain countries so if you are uncertain if you can apply for an E-Visa, contact your embassy for further information.