LAND OF WONDER

With much sightseeing to discover and not far from Hanoi, Ninh Binh is a great destination for a summer vacation for either the single traveller or the whole family.

By Thuy Duong on July 14,2018 10:15 AM

LAND OF WONDER

Photos: Le Bich

CONSIDERED THE LARGEST WETLAND RESERVE IN THE RED RIVER DELTA, THE LAGOON IS ALSO SAID TO BE HOME TO THOUSANDS OF RARE FLORA  AND FAUNA. 

Happy to be going on holiday and leaving hectic Hanoi behind us, a group of friends and I made a mass exodus to Ninh Binh, a renowned tourism attraction some 100 km south of the capital.

Under Hanoi’s midday heat one day in June, staff from Emeralda Resort Ninh Binh patiently welcomed each passenger to the bus in their colourful ao dai. Fortunately, no one was late. The 45-seat bus quickly filled up and our journey began.

Fluorescent yellow rice paddies stretch as far as the eye can see on the journey to the mountainous area, with whole families skilfully hand irrigating the fields under the scorching sun while water buffalo rested in pools of mud. We arrived at Emeralda Resort Ninh Binh mid-afternoon. Rock-lined paths wind through a truly lush green oasis with lovely bungalows bearing ancient Vietnamese architecture hidden among the trees and mountains.

Featuring nine hamlets with 172 bungalows, the curved roofs of the traditional buildings whisk you back to a time long gone while lily ponds offer a sense of tranquillity. As one of the winners of The Guide Awards for a number of consecutive years, the resort and spa excels in merging nature with well-appointed facilities. Its strong environmental philosophy is reflected in the use of natural materials to keep the resort as environmentally-friendly as possible. Activities take place amid greenery too: thatched-roof huts house kid’s clubs for the little ones, while a mini golf course sits in the garden and wooden-pillared houses host a rural market-themed dinner.

We felt quite fortunate, as a culinary event entitled ‘My Village Market’ was underway at the time we visited Emeralda. Besides having the chance to enjoy local specialties such as goat or fish in banana leaves grilled over a charcoal fire, visitors to the event were also invited to play traditional Vietnamese games such as throwing cans, clay-pot blindfold, and crab racing, among others.

A friend ‘won’ a game called ‘Shrimp, Crab and Fish’. A ‘cash’ bet (hardcover parcels provided by the resort) is placed into a ‘Shrimp’ box, and if a shrimp appears when rolling the dice you win and collect an amount equivalent to the deposit. Another friend received two gifts in a darts game while I received a wooden puppet as winner of the crab racing. We spent a hilarious evening together and returned to our room just before midnight.

Secrets of Van Long Lagoon

LAND OF WONDER

One of the reasons we stayed at Emeralda is the famous sightseeing nearby. Just down the road, within walking distance, is Van Long Lagoon. We set out at 6.30am, the best time to explore it by bike, as birds were chirping in the garden.

LAND OF WONDER

Although it opened to tourism in 1998, Van Long remains as untouched as ever. There are almost no waves in the lagoon, and its tranquil surface resembles a giant mirror reflecting spectacular natural scenery. Considered the largest wetland reserve in the Red River Delta and with an area of 3,500 ha, the lagoon is also said to be home to thousands of rare flora and fauna, many of which are on the verge of extinction.

We rode our rented bikes from the resort to the lagoon at 6.30am and reached a dock with boats at around 6.45am, where we arranged a trip. We glided along through the shadows and light and saw beautiful limestone rock mountains jutting out of the water, worn away at the bottom by the gentle lapping of the tide until they take the shape of inverted icebergs. A tiny fish passed by; a flash of white in the teal blue water. Cruising deeper into the lagoon, the rowdiness of modern life was gradually replaced by the sound of the oars and hubbub grass bending in the wind. Moss and algae wound intermittently under the clear water to make a charming natural scene that made me imagine a yellow rice field was just under the surface!

LAND OF WONDER

We stopped at a mountain to explore a cave, its celling covered in bullet holes and water covering a dense carpet of yellow seaweed. There are 32 beautiful caves inside these limestone mountains, such as Bong, Rua, Chanh, and Doi, with Ca Cave in the Hoang Quyen Mountain Range being the most impressive, at 250 metres long, 8 metres high, and 10 metres wide, with many stalagmites and stalactites of various forms. The more adventurous who dare to climb up the rocks a little way will find the most stunning view of the lagoon.

AFTER CRUISING FOR HALF OF HOUR, THE BOAT RETURNED TO THE DOCK AND WE BEHELD VAN LONG LAGOON IN TWILIT SPLENDOUR, THE SUN SETTING BEHIND MOUNTAINS OF LIMESTONE ENCIRCLING MYRIAD DUGOUT FISHING CANOES.

After cruising for half of hour, the boat returned to the dock and we beheld Van Long Lagoon in twilit splendour, the sun setting behind mountains of limestone encircling myriad dugout fishing canoes.

If we had the opportunity to visit Van Long Lagoon once again we would definitely arrive at sunset, when there are monkeys in trees and goats on the limestone cliffs. The most special thing about Van Long, though, is probably the sight of thousands of white storks flying to shelter at night.

Another interesting thing about the lagoon is the mysterious ancient painting on one of the cliffs. According to our boatman, the painting was discovered about 100 years ago by local fisherman and kept a ‘secret’. The painting is only visible when people splash water on it, and depicts a fierce-looking man grabbing two little men in his strong hands, while another man sits in a chair nearby, staring happily. Nearby is a scene of people dancing and cheering. There are also some ancient letters that local scientists are yet to decipher.

According to scientists, the material used to draw the painting is a type of mineral containing iron oxide. There has been much speculation about the painting, but the story of its origin remains elusive.

Rainy day at Trang An

From Van Long Lagoon we decided to head south to visit the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex near Hoa Lu. Rain began to fall in the middle of the afternoon, but a friend said that summer rain never lasts long so we took a small boat to discover some caves and grottos. The feeling of floating on a giant expanse of water as the rain tumbled down brought a certain excitement that’s difficult to describe: an eagerness to discover what lay ahead combined with a touch of fear that the rain would only get heavier! Even when the skies open, however, Trang An is just as beautiful. Mother Nature was extremely generous here, giving it so many extraordinary things, like mountains, caves, grottos and fertile rice fields.

LAND OF WONDER

Covering an area of nearly 2,200 ha and boasting limestone peaks, hills, and river valleys, the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex is often referred to as ‘Halong Bay on Land’. The 250 million years of geological formation gave each limestone mountain its own characteristic karst tectonics, resulting in vastly different stalactites and stalagmites. And unlike a traditional mountain range, where the slopes connect to each other in a long undulating stretch on land, most peaks here stand in isolation and arise from water, making them even more spectacular in appearance.

Our little boat, under the control of a boatwoman, as is normally the case at Trang An, headed down the stream with its seven passengers. The dock quickly faded into the distance, with giant limestone mountains appearing dramatically and shading the blue water.

The entire space was blanketed by light rain, like a gossamer gown wrapped around mountains and forests. It felt like the middle of autumn, as purple water lilies joined the blue water.

The water in Trang An is always clean and clear year-round. The scenery is so striking it’s tempting to ask the boatwoman to stop for a few minutes, but then just around the next bend another beautiful sight awaits.

There are nine caves and grottoes named by local people based on their characteristics or history, such as the Toi or Dark Cave, Sang or Bright Cave, and Nau Ruou or Wine-Brewing Cave. Most have very low ceilings and from time to time the boatwoman warned us to duck our heads.

‘Wine-Brewing is one of the longest caves in Trang An,’ she told us. ‘It’s called this because the water from a well found in the cave was used by Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang to make wine for his troops after a military victory. The water here makes delicious wine.’

The oars fluttered gently on the calm waters, taking us into the cave. Inside, ancient stalactites and stalagmites appeared in various shapes, such as boulders, fairies, dragons or stone turtles, exhibiting the rich imagination of human beings. Water still drops down from the ceiling, creating new columns. Entry to Trang An, including the boat trip, is VND200,000 per person, and a little tip for the boatwoman is very much appreciated.

Alice’s wonderland

No trip to discover Ninh Binh is complete without a visit to Cuc Phuong National Park.

LAND OF WONDER

BATS WERE EVERYWHERE TOO, SOME RESTING ON THE CEILINGS AND WALLS WHILE OTHERS TOOK FLIGHT. WITHIN THE DARKNESS OF THE CAVE WERE HUNDREDS OF LITTLE BAT EYES LOOKING BACK AT US, JUST LIKE BRIGHT STARS IN A DARK SKY!

The best time to visit is between April and June, when the weather is dry and sunny and butterfly larvae break out. Along the 7-km trail starting at the park’s entrance are thousands of colourful butterflies sparkling under the sun. The sight is very much like a scene from ‘Alice in Wonderland’!

Deeper into the forest are so many butterflies that they resemble a carpet when they rest on the ground. They seem so at ease with people that they’ll just flutter down and rest on your hand. What a sight! It was impossible to capture their image on a camera, but I was more than content to experience this wonderful moment. The secret is that you should take some sweets or bread and the butterflies will actually find you.

Cuc Phuong National Park isn’t just home to butterflies, of course, as primates such as langurs, gibbons and monkeys are also found. The animals share a private area of around 2 ha that enables them to find food and stay accustomed to the wild. Being one of the national parks in Vietnam, Cuc Phuong also has other unique species. According to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, its 2,000 or so different species of flora and 450 species of fauna account for 38% of the country’s total. The local vegetation is classified into three types. The flora is quite a treasure, with 1,944 species, 908 geniuses, and 229 families. It’s especially enjoyable to touch the thousand-year-old Tro xanh (parashrea stellata) and Sau (Dracontomelum Duperranum or Dancorra Edulis) trees, which are 50 to 70 metres tall. Orchids are abundant, in 50 species, some of which blossom and fill the air with an aroma all year round.

The highlight of a trip to Cuc Phuong National Park is visiting an ancient cave of pre-historic man. It’s a small limestone cave on land and the perfect place for a little adventure caving without the normal danger. There were many beautiful natural limestone deposits that glittered in the beams of our flashlights. Bats were everywhere too, some resting on the ceilings and walls while others took flight. Within the darkness of the cave were hundreds of little bat eyes looking back at us, just like bright stars in a dark sky!

Any thoughts of weariness on the way back along the path were quickly overshadowed by the climbing plants growing in the primary forest, including Day Xanh trees (Adenia heterophylla) and Moc meo (Mucuna), which is said to be used as a main material for medicine treating memory impairment in humans, such as Alzheimer’s.

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