Ninh Binh is known as the 'Halong Bay on land', and it is easy to see why, with the dramatic limestone mountains which pepper the beautiful countryside. Whilst there are some beautiful temples, the main reason to visit Ninh Binh is to enjoy the great outdoors, with bicycle rides through picturesque scenery, boat trips which pass through mysterious caves and trekking through national parks.
Ninh Binh is only two hours from Hanoi, and whilst this means it is possible to visit the area as a day trip from the capital, it is worth spending a few nights here to make the most of the picturesque scenery.
It is fair to say that the town of Ninh Binh is not hugely inspiring, therefore most visits here will involve heading out into the countryside, if not to stay in a more serenely located hotel, at least to explore during the day. Tam Coc and Van Long offer great opportunities for boat trips through the dramatic scenery. Local rowers (who often use their feet to row - a local technique!) will take visitors in a sampan boat along winding rivers, passing through dark caves. Van Long is home to the highly endangered Delacour's langur, which is endemic to northern Vietnam, and at Tam Coc it is possible to watch goats seemingly defy gravity and traverse across the steep cliffs.
For those seeking more nature, there is Cuc Phuong National Park. The park has some excellent trekking paths and there are also two conservation centres; the Endangered Primates Rescue Centre, which has over 140 primates including 15 species of gibbon, and the Turtle Conservation Centre, which has over 1,000 turtles, many of which have been rescued from poachers trying to smuggle the reptiles to China.
The Ninh Binh district was the capital of Vietnam at the end of the 10th Century, chosen for its high mountains to deter invasion. The seat of power at the time was Hoa Lu. Whilst little of the original citadel remains, there are now some more modern temples at the site, dedicated to the Dinh and Le dynasties who ruled during this time. Dinh Bo Linh is particularly revered, as he is said to have conquered the notorious '12 warlords' and unified the nation.