Next Stop: Ninh Binh
Closer to Hanoi than Halong Bay, yet just as breathtaking, this up-and-coming destination offers surreal limestone karsts, tranquil boat rides and a new all-villa resort. By Karryn Miller
Published on Jan 23, 2012
With its otherworldly landscape of massive limestone karsts, and its location away from Vietnam’s coast, Ninh Binh is sometimes dubbed “Halong Bay on land.” Like the famed UNESCO World Heritage site three hours east of Hanoi, the destination is best viewed by boat. But in Ninh Binh’s case, instead of an emerald sea at the base of its cliff faces, a network of tributaries from the Hoang Long river wraps around and siphons through the towering stone formations.
Until recently, the area’s limited tourist infrastructure meant that it drew only intrepid travelers, usually backpackers or adventurous day-trippers coming from Hanoi. That changed last month, with the opening of Ninh Binh’s first high-end stay. The Emeralda Resort & Spa has 172 luxe-rustic villas with terracotta-tiled floors, exposed-brick walls and standalone claw-foot tubs in the bathrooms. Guests can swim in and lounge around semi-private pools, dine on fare prepared with ingredients from the on-site organic garden, and stroll or pedal around the 16.2-hectare property next to the Van Long Nature Reserve.
Of course, the real draw for visitors to Ninh Binh is still its natural assets. A few kilometers from Emeralda are the Trang An Grottoes, a network of waterways and caves. The surrounding terrain remains rugged, with shacks built under overhangs and wild mountain goats perched on the rocks. Once at Trang An’s jetty, a simple rowboat takes you on a two-hour loop along the waterways, gliding alongside the karsts and pagodas, and past a series of rock faces into low-hanging caves.
Vietnam’s former capital, Hoa Lu, is a short ride down the road from Trang An. Explore the two temples, Le Dai Hanh and Dinh Tien Hoang. They show their age up-close, but venture to the tomb of Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang, sited on a neighboring hillside, for views of the citadel and the surrounding countryside. It’s a 15-minute ascent up a set of steep steps, but from there, the vista remains as stunning as it was over a millennium ago, when the complex was the political center of Vietnam.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Ninh Binh is roughly 90 minutes from Hanoi by car. The Emeralda can organize door-to-door transfers. Day-trip tours usually include hotel pick-up; operators include Footprints Travel (footprintsvietnam.com) and Exotissimo (exotissimo.com).
WHERE TO STAY
Steer clear of cheap guesthouses and check into Emeralda Resort & Spa (Tap Ninh Hamlet, Gia Van Commune, Gia Vien district; +84 303 658 333; emeraldaresort.com), the area’s only upscale option.
WHERE TO EAT
Emeralda’s earth-toned Organics Restaurant serves home-style fare—try the bo la lot beef wrapped in pepper leaf, or the lime-seared mountain goat, a local specialty. With furnishings constructed from its namesake, the easy-to-spot Bamboo Bar & Restaurant (Ninh Thang, along the main road) has a mainly Vietnamese menu. Finish your meal with the tasty banana flambé.