Ninh Binh is a small town about 100km south of Hanoi, which is surrounded by a number of lesser known interesting sites. Hoa Lu was the first capital of the independent Vietnam, under the Dinh dynasty and the early Le Dynasty (968-1009).
There are two sanctuaries, each of them devoted to the emperors of one of these two dynasties. They are set into a landscape of limestone mountains reminiscent of some the better known sites of South China. In Tam Coc, you can take a boat tour on a river which tunnels several times into the same type of mountains. The river is actually used by local villagers to access their rice fields. The nearby Ken Ga canal provides the opportunity to observe river life in the North, and contrast it with what you can see in the Mekong Delta. The whole area was an important center of catholicism, and you will be surprised to see churches among the rice fields. Phat Diem has a vast cathedral which has a unique Sino-Vietnamese architecture.
Known to travellers as “HaLong Bay without the water”; “Halong Bay on the rice paddies” and so on; Tam Coc boasts breathtaking scenery. While Halong Bay features huge rock formations jutting out of the sea; Tam Coc has them jutting out of its rice paddies. Some travellers will notice a striking resemblance here to Guilin and Yangshuo in China.
Tam Coc means “Three Caves”. Hang Ca; the first cave; is 127m long; Hang Giua; the second; is 70m long; the third and smallest; Hang Cuoi; is only 40m. The best way to see Tam Coc is by rowboat on the Ngo Dong River. The boats are rowed into the caves; and this is a very peaceful and scenic trip. The boat trip to all three caves takes about two hours and tickets are sold at the small booking office by the docks. A boat costs 55.000 D including the entry fee; and seats two passengers. Even on cloudy days; bring sunscreen and a hat or umbrella – there`s no shade in the boats. You can rent an umbrella at the pier.
You may find you need a healthy dose of patience and good humour at Tam Coc; if you’re prepared for a bit of a hassle then it won`t seem so irritating. One reported problem is that boat owners ask you almost constantly to buy embroidery if you don`t want it; just say no. There are also boat vendors who paddle up along side your boat and try to sell drinks; if you don`t want any; they will “suggest” (rather strongly) that you buy Coke for the person rowing your boat. Many travellers do this and then later find that the oarsperson simply sells the Coke back to the drink vendors for half the price.
The area behind the Tam Coc restaurants is Van Lan village. which is famous for its embroidery. Here you can watch the local artisans make napkins; tablecloths; pillow cases and T-shirts. A lot of these items wind up being sold on Hanoi`s Pho Hang Gai; but it’s cheaper to buy them here directly from he artisan. The village has a better selection and slightly lower prices than those available from the boat vendors.
Phat Diem (sometimes called its former name; Kim Son) is the site of a cathedral remarkable for its vast dimensions and unique Sino-Vietnamese architecture with a European flavour. During the French era; the cathedral was an important centre of Catholicism in the north; and there was a seminary here. The 1954 division of Vietnam caused Catholics to flee to the south en masse; and the cathedral was closed. It is now functional again; and there are also several dozen other churches in the Phat Diem district. Current estimates are that about 120;000 Catholics live in the area.
The vaulted ceiling is supported by massive wooden columns that are almost 1m in diameter and l0m tall. In the lateral naves; there are a number of curious wood and stone sculptures. The main altar is made of a single block of granite. The outside of the church reaches a height of 16m. The cathedral complex comprises a number of buildings; the main one was completed in 1891. The whole project was founded by a Vietnamese priest named Six; whose tomb is in the square fronting the cathedral. Behind the main building is a large pile of limestone boulders – Father Six piled them up to test whether the boggy ground would support his planned empire. Apparently the test was a success.
Opposite the main entrance at the back of the cathedral is the bell tower. At its base lie two enormous stone slabs; one atop the other. Their sole purpose was to provide a perch for the mandarins to sit and observe (no doubt with great amusement) the rituals of the Catholics at mass. All the big carved stones here were transported from some 200km away with only very rudimentary equipment.
Atop the cathedral`s highest tower is such an enormous bell that Quasimodo`s famous chimer at Notre Dame pales in comparison. This bell; and all the other heavy metal; was pushed and pulled to the cathedral`s top via an enormous earth ramp.
After construction was completed; the earth was used to raise the whole site about 1m higher than the surrounding terrain. This has; no doubt; offered important protection against floods. Near the main cathedral is a small chapel built of large carved stone blocks. and inside its as cool as a cave. Also not far from this cathedral is a covered bridge dating from the late 19th century.
Hordes of Vietnamese tourists come to this place. Few of them are Catholic; but many are extremely curious about churches and Christianity in general. Admission to the complex is free; but you may have to negotiate hordes of sellers and beggars at busy times. The church is usually locked – if you want to go inside; ask at the guide kiosk just outside the main entrance. Daily mass is celebrated at 5am and 5pm