Deservedly popular, the karst area around Ninh Binh probably displays the most beautiful scenery in Vietnam. Tourists come here for underground boat rides in Tam Coc and Trang An, and the famous 360-degree panorama seen from Hang Mua, but the landscape is exceptional wherever you go. Limestone hills rise out of green rice fields, rivers dive into caves and re-emerge miles later, farmers in conical hats herd ducks in the water - just keep your camera ready. As always, karst cliffs present an opportunity to practice rock climbing, and the flat terrain between them is perfect for cycling.
This is the main attraction in the area - underground boat rides. At Tam Coc, a river flows through three consecutive caves, with deep gorges between them. The caves are preserved in their natural state, without the multi-colored lights Vietnamese are so fond of. It is a very popular destination, with a continuous caravan of boats passing back and forth, and some scams are present, but the views make up for all that. A local alternative to Tam Coc - Trang An, a few km away - offers more or less the same thing: boat rides on an underground river. The difference is that there are fewer foreigners here and perhaps fewer people in general, but many of the caves have been artificially enlarged, destroying the natural outlook. Otherwise, the scenery is just as good, and a few classical Vietnamese pavilions built here and there might either mar the view or nicely augment it, depending on your tastes.
Again, there is a certain similarity between those two sights: both pagodas are built on limestone hills overlooking the river. But the difference is significant: Hang Mua is merely a monument, a single tower, but it is located in such a perfect spot that views from it are often claimed to be the best in Ninh Binh. Reaching the summit of a cliff on steep stairs here requires a bit of effort, and the reward is a 360-degree panorama of the karst landscape, including the caves of Tam Coc and the tourist boats down below. It is just the sort of viewpoint to replace a drone. Bich Dong, further away, stands on a slope, and the views from it are not as broad, but the temple itself, partly set in natural caverns, is much more interesting.
"Kenh Ga" translates as "chicken canal", even though the place is mostly famous for its mineral hot spring. But the spring is somewhat over-developed, and while soaking in it for a while is supposed to bring countless health benefits (which should be taken with a grain of salt), getting there is 9/10 of the fun. The road follows an actual canal, mostly on a dyke, and crosses some beautiful Vietnamese countryside. It is ideal for cycling, and most locals use it this way. Be prepared for the cliche sights of Vietnam - bicycles loaded with so much grass they look like giant green furballs or with 50 live chickens tied to every part of the frame. On both sides of the road, rice fields stretch almost all the way to the horizon, only to be cut off from it by bizarrely shaped karst cliffs.
What if you want the same scenery, karst peaks, caves and rivers, but without an army of tourists? One good option is Van Long Nature Reserve. Established to protect aquatic avifauna, it is harder to reach from Ninh Binh than the more popular attractions above - you would need your own wheels - and some negotiations might be required to hire a boat, but nature here is untouched. Birdwatchers would obviously have a reason to visit, but the reserve should also attract spelunkers and every other nature lover. For mammals, other national parks are preferable, but for the sheer beauty of the landscape, it is one of the best in Vietnam.
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