AROUND NINH BINH
Known to travellers as ‘Halong Bay without the water’, ‘Halong Bay on the rice paddies’ and so on, Tam Coc boasts breathtaking scenery. While Halong Bay (see the North-east Vietnam chapter) features huge rock formations jutting out of the sea, Tam Coc has them jutting out of its rice paddies. Some travellers will notice a striking resemblance here to Guilin and Yangshuo in China.
Tam Coc means ‘Three Caves’, Hang Ca, the first cave, is 127m long; Hang Giua, the second, is 70m long; the third and smallest, Hang Cuoi, is only 40m. The best way to see Tam Coc is by rowboat on the Ngo Dong River. The boats are rowed into the caves, and this is a very peaceful and scenic trip. The boat trip to all tree caves takes about two hours and tickets are sold at the small booking office by the docks. A boat costs 55,000d including the entry fee, and seats two passengers. Even on cloudy days, bring sunscreen and a hat or umbrella – there’s no shade in the boats. You can rent an umbrella at the pier.
You may find you need a healthy dose of patience and good humor at Tam Coc; if you’re prepared for a bit of a hassle then it won’t seem so irritating. One reported problem is that boat owners ask you almost constantly to buy embroidery – if you don’t want any, they will ‘suggest’ (rather strongly) that you buy a Coke for the person rowing your boat. Many travellers do this and then later find that the oarsperson simply sells the Coke back to the drink vendors for half the price.
The area behind the Tam Coc restaurants is Van Lanvillage, which is famous for it embroidery. Here you can watch the 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’s cheaper to buy them here directly from the artisan. The village has as better selection and slightly lower prices than those available from the boat vendors.
Getting There & Away Tam Coc is 9km southwest of Ninh Binh. Follow Hwy 1 south and turn west at the Tam Coc turn-off. Budget cafes in Hanoi book day trips to Tam Coc; the fast-food version goes for about US$12, or it’s closer to US$20 with a smaller group, comfortable vehicle and professional guide, Ninh Binh hotels also run day tours, and rent motorbikes and bicycles if you’re staying in town and want to make your own way there.
The scenery here resembles nearby Tam Coc, though Hoa Lu has an interesting historical twist. Hoa Lu was the capital of Vietnam during the Dinh (968-80) and early Le (980-1009) dynasties. The site was a suitable choice for capital city de to its proximity to China and the natural protection afforded by the region’s bizarre landscape.
The ancient citadel of Hoa Lu (admission 30,000d), 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 backdrop for Hoa Lu’s two remaining temples. The first temple, Dinh Tien Hoang, was restored in the 17th century and is dedicated to the Dinh dynasty. Out the front is the stone pedestal of a royal throne; inside are bronze bells and a statue of emperor Dinh Tien Hoang with his three sons. The second temple, Le Dai Hanh (or Duong Van Nga), commemorates the rulers of the early Le dynasty. Inside the main hall are an assortment of drums, gongs, incense burners, candle holders and weapons. On the hillside above the temples is the tomb of Dinh Tien Hoang. It’s a good climb up 207 steps, but your efforts will rewarded with great views.
In 1998, archaeologists unearthed a ‘new’ section of the old citadel, which has been dated to the 10th century. This, and some associated artifacts, have been preserved on site and are on show in a display room built around them.
There are guides at the temples who work for free (offer a tip if you use their services) or you can wander around alone. Once you’ve got through the hassle of persistent sellers on the way in, it’s very peaceful inside the complex, especially in the late afternoon when you miss the crowds.
Getting There & Away Hoa Lu is 12km north of Ninh Binh. There is no public transport, so most travellers get there by bicycles 9US$1 per day from Ninh Binh), motorbike or car.
Banh Long Pagoda
While not spectacular, this Buddhist pagoda is only 6km from Ninh Binh and worth at least a quick look. From hwy 1 (Đ Tran Hung Dao in Ninh Binh), turn west on the road beyond the Viet Hung Hotel.
Kenh Ga Floating Village
Kenh Ga (Chicken Canal) apparently gets its name from the number of wild chickens that used to live in the area. Well, that’s the story told by our boat driver’s father, who remembers them from his youth, though you’re unlikely to see any now. Kenh Ga is essentially a floating village on the Hoang Long River, with just a few permanent buildings on the riverbanks. About the only other place in Vietnam where you can see anything like this is in the Mekong Delta. On the other hand, nowhere in the Mekong Delta will you find as stunning a mountain backdrop as the one at Kenh Ga. Another difference; people in Kenh Ga row boats with their feet, leaning back and watching the world go by.
It’s a lovely area, and one of the best places in northern Vietnam to see river life. People here seem to spend most od their lives floating on the water, either at their floating fish-breeding pens, harvesting river grass to feed the fish, trawling in the muddy shallows for the shellfish, or selling vegies boat-to-boat. Even the children commute to school by boat.
From the pier, you can hire a motorboat to take you for an hour or s touring around the village for 80,000d per boat. The boat trips have been organized through the local government tourism agency since 2000 and, thankfully, so far they’ve managed to keep the operation low-key and hassle-free. How long can it last?
The locals are very friendly. The children gleefully shout ‘tay oi’ (Westerner) at every tourist they see, even Vietnamese tourist!
Getting There & Away The Kenh Ga floating village is 21km from Ninh Binh. Follow Hwy 1 north for 11km, then it’s a 10km drive west to reach the boat pier. There are some fantastic, apparently unmapped back roads, through wonderful scenery, which also lead to the pier, but you’ll need a local to draw a mud map for you. Alternatively, try to locate Mr Cao, a well-travelled, English-speaking Kenh Ga local who has been guiding and training tour guides in the area for many years. ET Pumpkin Tours ( 9260739; 85 Pho Ma May, Hanoi) should be able to contact him.
Phat Diem (sometimes called its former name, Kim Son) is the site of a cathedral remarkable for its vast dimensions and unique Sino-Vietnamese architecture with a European flavor. During the French era, the cathedral was an important center of Catholicism in the north, and there was a seminary here. The 1954 division of Vietnam caused Catholics to flee to the south en masse, and the cathedral was closed. It is mow functional again, and there are also several dozen other churches in Phat Diem district. Current estimates are that about 120,000 Catholics live in the area.
The vaulted ceiling is supported by massive wooden columns that are almost 1m in diameter and 10m tall. In the lateral naves, there are a number of curious wood and stone sculptures. The main altar is made of a single block of granite. The outside of the church reaches a height of 16m.
The cathedral complex comprises a number of buildings; the main one was completed in 1891. The whole project was founded by a Vietnamese priest named Six, whose tomb is in the square fronting the cathedral. Behind the main building is a large pile of limestone boulders – Father Six piled them up to test whether the boggy ground would support his planned empire. Apparently the test was a success.
Opposite the main entrance at the back of the cathedral is the bell tower. At its base lie two enormous stone slabs, one atop the other. Their sole purpose was to provide a perch for the mandarins to sit and observe (no doubt with great amusement) the rituals of the Catholics at mass. All the big carved stones here were transported from some 200km away with only very rudimentary equipment.
Atop the cathedral’s highest tower is such an enormous bell that Quasimodo’s famous chimer at Notre Dame pales in comparison. This bell, and all the other heavy metal, was pushed and pulled to the cathedral’s top via an enormous earth ramp. After construction was completed, the earth was used to raise the whole site about 1m higher than the surrounding terrain. This has, no doubt, offered important protection against floods.
Near the main cathedral is a small chapel built of large carved stone blocks, and inside it’s as cool as a cave. Also not far from this cathedral in a covered bridge dating from the late 19th century.
Hordes of Vietnamese tourist come to this place. Few of them are Catholic, but many are extremely curious about churches ad Christianity in general. Admission to the complex is free, but you may have to negotiate hordes of sellers and beggars at busy times. The church is usually locked – if you want to go inside, ask at the guide kiosk just outside the main entrance. Daily mass is celebrated at 5am and 5pm.
Getting There & Away
Phat Diem is 121km south of Hanoi and 29km southeast of Ninh Binh. There are direct buses from Ninh Binh to Phat Diem. Or you can go by motorbike.
There are no regular tours to Phat Diem, though any of the budget agents in Hanoi should be able to offer a customized day trip by private car, with or without a guide.