A large swathe of land in Ninh Binh province is characterised by stony outcrops not unlike those at Ha Long Bay, though a bit smaller in size and of course without the water -- lakes and rivers aside.
If you're there at the right time of the year, when the paddies are full of water, the reflections make the landscape almost as beautiful as Ha Long Bay.
The best ways to enjoy the scenery are to rent a bicycle or take a boat trip, or both. The main kicking off points for boat trips are Tam Coc and Trang An, although smaller, less touristy outfits can be found near Bich Dong Pagoda and between Trang An and Hoa Lu.
Small boats will be paddled by local woman along the river for a couple of hours, through caves and past paddy fields and karst formations. If you start from Tam Coc you will also visit Thai Vi Pagoda. Whether one route is better than another is open for debate -- we'd suggest choosing whichever suits your travel plans better.
Both Tam Coc and Trang An are big tourist attractions -- Trang An in particular, though more popular with Vietnamese visitors -- so don't expect to have the river to yourself, but if you avoid weekends and Vietnamese holiday periods it's not too overwhelming.
Prices at both are fixed but differ: at Tam Coc you pay 100,000VND for the boat and 80,000VND per adult, with a maximum of two foreigners per boat, whereas Trang An charges 150,000VND per person with no apparent maximum, other than the number of seats. Use these prices as benchmarks if you decide to rent from one of the other operations.
How to get there
To get to Tam Coc from the railway station at Ninh Binh, go straight ahead, up to the main road (Le Dai Hanh St), turn left and follow it to the main four way intersection. Turn right then left so you are following the river with the canal on your right and continue along the main road for about 4km where you then take a right turn down a wide road with large stone pillars on either side. Continue along this road for another 4km and you will come to where the boats leave at Tam Coc.
For Trang An, follow the directions to Hoa Lu, above, and you'll pass Trang An around 10km out of town.
By Sarah Turner.
Last updated on 10th June, 2016.