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Ninh Binh highlights and travel guide

Ninh Binh  was once home to the capital of Vietnam. During the 10th and 11th centuries, Hoa Lu was the political, cultural and economic centre and had a large citadel which was surrounded by the towering mountains. Although very little of the citadel remains, there are still a number of temples dedicated to the rulers of the time and their stories are still told in the historic sites throughout the area.

The summer in Ninh Binh lasts from May to September. This time is hot and humid and makes up for approximately 85% of the yearly rainfall. In contrast the winters there are cool and dry, lasting from October to April. As the weather changes, Ninh Binh's beauty changes too; the rice paddies changing from vibrant green to straw yellow and full circle again. Although Ninh Binh can be enjoyed in any season, the best time to visit is between November to April as these are the driest months.  

See and Do

A boat trip through Trang An Grottoes allows you to experience all of the elements together. The picturesque cave and river complex was awarded the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 not only for its outstanding beauty but also its cultural and historical significance. The journey on the small sampan takes you along the still waterways lined with lotus and waterlily. As the boats approach the rock face, they disappear into tiny openings into the water-worn caves that cut through the rock. The journey takes in rivers, caves and beautiful temples, and you are sure to feel weightless as you float along in the afternoon sun.

+ Tam Coc is another area of stunning beauty that takes in all the elements of the environment but this time with the added bonus of the ever evolving rice paddies. The river Ngo Dong, flanked by the fertile rice paddies whose patchwork of greens change with the seasons, slips between the imposing peaks and through the low-lying caves. Here the boats that meander along the silky river appear tiny, the skyline dominated by tremendous peaks which echo into the horizon.

+ The Van Long Nature Reserve is another opportunity to board a sampan and voyage through the incredible landscape of Ninh Binh. The large open waters are hemmed in by grand mountains creating a wildlife haven. The waters, caves and surrounding forests are home to many fascinating species including white shorts langurs, Asian black bears, Bengal slow loris and catfish. Hundreds of birds also flock to the reserve during the dry season as part of their migratory route filling the air with the sound of birds song and the flurry of feathers. The reserve also has 32 different grottoes to explore each one offering its own unique beauty.

+ Another stunning cave not to be missed in Ninh Binh is Hang Mua. The main attraction here is definitely the view from the top of the mountain. Next to the cave is a set of stairs which seems to climb high up into the clouds, twisting around the edge of the peak. The trek up the hundreds of stone steps is definitely worth the effort as the view from the top is truly astounding. In one direction you can see the patchwork of fields and rice paddies and in the other direction, the towering karst peaks which fade into the horizon. This view is best enjoyed at sunset when the beauty is illuminated by the glow of the sun. The majestic dragon which guards the peak creates an amazing silhouette against the changing hues of the sky as the sun dips down behind the mountains.

+ Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam, uncovers the rural area's important past. During the 10th century, Ninh Binh was home to the capital of Dai Co Viet, an ancient Vietnamese Kingdom. Although once a grand citadel, time and weather have taken their tolls on the area and very little of the original structure remains. Now visitors can enjoy strolling amongst the temples that have been erected in honour of the ancient capital's leaders. As well as offering a glimpse into Ninh Binh's significant history, the temples also showcase some traditional architecture set against some stunning backs.

Culture and Arts

+ Bich Dong Pagoda is a complex of three structures which emerge from the cliff face. Set into the edge of a Mountain, the site is believed to have been chosen by two monks Thich Tri Kieu and Thich Tri, and it is easy to see why. Its name translates to Pagoda of the Emerald Grotto and is believed to have come from Nguyen Nghiem, the father of a famous Vietnamese poet. It is clear to see where he took his inspiration from as the greenery that clings to the mountain is reflected in the mirror-like water creating an emerald glow around the pagodas.

+ Chua Bai Dinh is an example of a grand modern Buddhist complex which features a number of structures built between 2003 and 2010. The buildings have been skillfully constructed with the finest natural materials showcasing stone carving, bronze work and woodwork. The complex is watched over by a giant bronze Buddha who sits in Phap Chu Hall.

+ As well as some beautiful Buddhist temples, Ninh Binh also has a famous cathedral. Construction of Phat Diem Cathedral began in 1875 and took roughly 24 years to build. The architecture features elements of a traditional cathedral overlaid with a traditional Vietnamese style resulting in an elegant yet imposing structure. The cathedral was forced to close its doors in 1954 when the communists took power over Vietnam, and the Catholics were forced to flee south. It later suffered damage from bombing in 1972 but has since been restored. The Cathedral's past in combination with the gothic elements of its design give the area a tranquil yet solemn ambience. Visitors can now enjoy the peaceful atmosphere whilst taking in the cathedral, lake and stone church.  

Food and Drink

+ Ninh Binh's typography makes it a prime place to raise goats which has become a local delicacy. It is served up in a variety of local dishes from flavoursome stir fries to being served rare with herbs and seasoning, a real luxury.

+ Another local speciality is eel vermicelli. Carefully prepared eels are fried with seasonings and nuoc mam (fish sauce) and combined with banana flower and vermicelli to create a delicate but flavoursome dish. The dish is often accompanied by the fiery ginger and lemon juice to up the ante of the flavours.

Com Chay

Delicious Com Chay, a speciality in Ninh Binh.

Com chay is a simple but extremely satisfying local dish in Ninh Binh. Dried patties of rice are deep fried creating a crunchy delicious pancake which can then be topped with any variety things. Popular choices are fried beef, fried pigs heart and fried vegetables.

All of this tasty food is best washed down with a glass of the local drink Kim Son wine. The liqueur is made from glutinous wine which is dried under the sun and then fermented. The drink has a high alcohol content and is believed to have medicinal properties, especially when combine with other traditional ingredients.  

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