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Float in space - Travel to Ninh Binh

Ninh binh province is home to ancient temples and stunning natural landscapes where you can float amongst the watery valleys, says Duc Hanh
Despite my tiredness I’m determined to make the most of my Saturday. My friend suggests we drive to Trang An caves in Ninh binh province, which is about two hours from Hanoi I’m persuaded by the fact that my friend has a Car I must admit negotiating the dusty and crowded provincial highways on a motorbike is no longer my idea of a fun day out, most especially on Highway 1A.

So I get to doze off in the back while he drives – perfect! When I wake up we have left Vietnam’s main artery behind and we’re driving along a country road that meanders between the green rice fields. Our first stop is at a site which is home to two of Vietnam’s oldest temples, which worship King Dinh Tien, who took the throne of Dai Co Viet in 968AD, and King Le Dai Hanh, who took the throne in 980AD, respectively.

The Dinh Temple was built in the shape of a Chinese character. Through the first entrance, called Ngo Mon, there is a royal bed made from stone with various legendary animals standing on both sides. Dinh temple consists of three parts: Bai Duong for the community, Thien Huong in honour of mandarins, and Chinh Cung, which is in honour of Dinh Tien Hoang. His statue still stands today alongside the statue of his eldest son Dinh Lien and other illustrious members from the Dinh family line.

Le Temple is almost the same as Dinh Temple in terms of architectural design and also consists of three parts in honour of the community, royal mandarins and the Royal Family. The statue of King Le Hoan is at the centre, on the left is the statue of Queen Duong Van Nga and on his right is that of Le Ngoa Trieu, his fifth son and the third King of the First Le dynasty As we drift away from the temples towards the car park we spot that you can rent bicycles and so we decide to be clean and green and peddle our way towards Trang An’s ecotourism centre, which is just 2km away.

The new wide and smooth road that runs between the imposing rocky mountain ranges is ideal for cycling. Though this perfectly built and rather romantic road quickly ends near the centre, where the road suddenly becomes thick with mud as the result of the construction of the new road and tunnels. This means we have to negotiate a tunnel of scaffolding to get back out into the untouched valleys on the other side.

But besides the infrastructure developments, there are no hotels, restaurants, cafés or shops in the valley. It is a wonderfully clear road towards the Trang An caves, though perhaps it won’t be this way for long. “With such a rich natural beauty it’s unlucky that the tourism in the province is still in development,” says Trinh Xuan Hong, the director of Ninh Binh province’s tourism department. “We lack high-quality accommodation and services but we are now investing to upgrade everything.” It’s not surprising that the local authorities believe that tourism can thrive in such a magical setting.

“The Trang An cavern system is like a Halong Bay on land, where limestone mountain ranges, river, flooded valleys and caverns mix together to create this imposing and mysterious place,” adds Hong. The Trang An eco-tourism centre is large enough, covering a total area of 1566ha, including 980ha of protected mountains and forest with the remaining land set aside for building the necessary infrastructure to cater for growing tourism.

We decide to stroll towards a wharf on the edge of a lake. Floating on the crystal clear pools are a number of row boats where local women are waiting hopefully for a customer to appear amongst the trickle of tourists. Once these local women were farmers but their paddy fields were incorporated into the development of the Trang An ecotourism centre and now they survive on rowing tourists around their backyard.

At the moment it’s far from a lucrative gig, but in time perhaps that will change. A row boat is definitely the perfect way to enjoy the scenery at Trang An. All around us there are more than 30 water-submerged valleys, which are linked together by a clear and blue river, that offer access to some 50 caves that sit under the limestone mountains. Floating on the waters I bask in this poet’s paradise.

The area is rich in rare and precious flora and fauna. But I also gaze into the waters, keeping my eyes peeled as I was told that numerous antiques dating as far back as the 10th century were dredged up here. We row through nine caves towards the “Ancient People’s cavern”, or Bang cave, where in 2007 archaeologists found tools made of pebble stone dating back to the Stone Age. In the end we spend three hours exploring the caves.

Our camera batteries start to do die as we head back to the shore. There’s time for one last detour – up the hundred stone steps to the Tran temple, which was built in honour of the Tran dynasty in the 13th century. When we arrive, there is a Len Dong ceremony underway.

This is a ritual that is performed to make contact with certain deities, in this case Dao Mau, the Vietnamese Mother Goddess. Quietly we sit at the entrance and listen to the voices of the Hat Van singers and the music of dan nguyet (moon-shaped lute) drift over our heads, into the valley and out across the waters.


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Float in space - Travel to Ninh Binh
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Ninh binh province is home to ancient temples and stunning natural landscapes where you can float amongst the watery valleys, says Duc Hanh