The one-day tours out of Hanoi don’t have much variety. Any sense of relaxation is spoiled by the cramped conditions sat inside a minibus, a strict timetable and a lack of movement on what you actually get to see.
Determined to avoid the tour groups but intent on experiencing the beauty of the area, one that uniquely blends a verdant wetland with dramatic limestone karsts, the trip had to be organic, made up as the day went on with just a few selected dots on a map to visit with no idea what to expect.
The Journey Begins
Wanting to finish the day at Tam Coc, the first stop, which appeared as a green expanse on the map, was Van Long Wetland Nature Reserve. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Was it going to be another tourist hot spot with ticket booths and hawkers? Or was it going to be a small dyke road with kingfishers and herons stalking for lunch? I found out that asking bemused locals was something I was to get used to.
With wild laughs and big smiles, the security guards of a quarry detailed a route to the ‘boats’. Peeking above the paddy fields like meerkats as I arrived, a minibus was dropping off passengers who were about to board the scores of bamboo crafts docked on the shore.
A member of a group, who had just disembarked, said it was like a dreamland; so peaceful and serene. The murky, overcast weather, recovering after Typoon Nari, added to the scene, reminiscent of the fantasy books of C.S. Lewis.
But, as this was about avoiding the tour groups, the boat trip was declined and instead I followed a signpost to a temple a few more kilometres along the dyke road. Hard to find, it’s an eager eye that picks up the five-element Buddhist flag at the top of a peak.
Climbing up the steps, I arrived at the temple which was nestled in a secluded garden guarded by steep peaks. Although the path and the steps looked new, there was no one there. This was the time for quiet reflection as the next destination turned out to be one of Vietnam’s newest and busiest tourist attractions.
Largest in Vietnam
To get there, a diversion, obeying another intriguing signpost to ‘hot springs’, took me through the village of Kenh Ga, which translates as ‘chicken canal’. The riverside settlement, that almost has a continental feel, with its church and uniformly separated trees marking the shore, no longer has so many wild chickens, but a boat trip can be taken to the old floating village and the hot springs. Again, an eager offer was politely declined and on it was to Chua Bai Dinh.
The Buddhist complex looms large on the map where it has a title of Thap Chuong, but it’s only when you arrive that you can appreciate the sheer size of the place.
Built on the grounds of an ancient temple (which still stands), a new temple and pagoda complex was constructed in 2003 and covers an area of 700 hectares. It’s still being added to, and an unfinished 13-storey pagoda visible from miles around sits proudly on the mountainside.
It is the largest complex of Buddhist temples and pagodas in Vietnam and also sets several more records nationally and internationally for its size and contents. On my arrival I was told it was unusually quiet — meaning the existence of some pockets of tranquility in the smaller temples. But for the most part crowds of mainly domestic tourists were everywhere, as were the hawkers.
Worth a stop is the old ancient capital of Hoa Lu with two temples still standing on the site favoured by the Dinh and Le dynasties. A steep climb to the tomb of Emperor Dinh Tien Huong also provides magnificent views over the surrounding area — if you have the energy.
Dusk Setting In
The pinnacle of the day was Hang Mua. After getting lost (for about the fifth time), the sun was setting fast but along some back roads and again, not populated by tourists you’ll find a small cave where the main attraction is actually the climb of 450 steps up the side of a mountain to an altar at the top.
It sounds clichéd, but the climb marked a great end to my day trip out of Hanoi. The sun setting behind the karst landscape to one side cast a shadow over the pan-flat rice fields. On the other were the distant lights of Ninh Binh City.
I’ll be back for the boat trips. Ninh Binh has more to offer than just Tam Coc. And I didn’t even make it to Cuc Phuong National Park.