Hoa Lu - Tam Coc - Bich Dong
most remarkable sights of Ninh Binh Province

Hoa Lu used to be one of the many old capitals of Vietnam before Thang Long - presently Hanoi - take its historical role. From an exciting town and centre of cultural and military activities of the Dai Co Viet Kingdom in 10th century, the area now is more wellknown for its landscape since almost relics of the urban excitement had been collapsed, except in the Temples of King Dinh and King Le. A trip to Hoa Lu should be started from Tam Coc ("three caves"), which takes more than two hours driving from Hanoi, and visitors may say that distance is not a matter after seating in a boat rowed by one or two local persons in Hoang Long river and see the first limestone mountains, which will run along their riverway for several kilometers. The boat will run, sorry, will be rowed, through three caves on the river, all created by wind and water from a legend time, while the sea had occupied this area. The tide-mark is still on the rock about 2m above the water, and in higher mountainwall the erosion have carved some strange shapes that now filled of green grass, delicious foods of the goats that local people breed everywhere. If you are lucky, sometimes you can see mischievous monkeys. The river trip is wonderful for photo hunters, especially when local people come to harvest the water rice planted along the river, or when they transplant some seedling for the next crops. The tourists often compare the place with Guilin - China, or more closely, to the limestone islets of Halong Bay in the Tonkin Gulf for their similar geological structures and shapes. Thus Tam Coc is also called Halong-Bay-On-Land.

From the wharf of Tam Coc you can go further till reaching Bich Dong Pagoda, a combination of three pagodas on the Lower, Middle and Upper levels of a pretty mountain. You will need to climb a little bit till you get to the top of the Upper pagoda and your eyes catch the overall panorama of the paddy fields between Truong Yen mountain. All the pagodas, or lean upon a cliff, or simply have some statues inside a large grotto, deserve the name "Bich Dong" (emerald-like grotto). A scene of the popular French movie "Indochine" had been completed here in 1991, remarking a rush of the French-speaking tourists to Vietnam, who usually do not skip Halong Bay and Tam Coc-Bich Dong where the leading actress Catherine Deneuve left her footprints. 
On the way back from Tam Coc - Bich Dong to Hanoi you can pay a visit to the last relics of the ancient capital Hoa Lu - the Temples dedicated to King Dinh and King Le, the two heroes who lived in 10th century and chose Hoa Lu to build the citadel of the capital city. From time to time, archaeologists have excavated buried parts of this citadel with rusty weapons and ceramics. The temples are said to be built on the old foundation of their original palaces in 11-12th centuries and restored in 17th century. Though the temples are not maintained entirely some precious antiques are still preserved well like the whole-stone dragon thrones, wooden bas-relieves and lacquered statues of King Dinh, Kinh Le, Queen Duong Van Nga who in turn got married both of the kings, and the princes of the two dynasties.

Phat Diem - amazing Catholic Church 
Coming from an American or European environment, at first you may say that you're not interested in visiting a church in a far Eastern country. That is a mistake as you will miss one of the most remarkable religious architectures in Vietnam. Phat Diem Church is really a group of different churches made of stone and wood, and is the centre of Catholicism in Northern Vietnam. It is designed in Vietnamese style mixed harmoniously with European Catholic traditions. The architect, Mr. Tran Luc, a local Catholic from the late 19th century who designed the church without taking any training in architecture or painting, is buried in a grave situated on the church property. Phat Diem Church is divided into two sections: the churches and the clergy's house which were built gradually over the years. In 1875 the first Cavern was built to test the strength of the foundation. In 1889 the church of Saint Mary's Heart was erected. Then in 1891 the Big Cathedral and the Belfry were completed. And finally, the Saints' shrines of Giuse, Phero and Rocco, were finished around 1898. Traditional Vietnamese architecture is recognized in each section: the Belfry has curly tiled roof-tops with decoration of Vietnamese temples, the shrine of Jesus' Heart is made of jackwood, the Big Cathedral is designed as a grandiose Communal House with sophisticated multi-level rafters, and all the churches are decorated with lotus, lemon flowers, birds, tropical trees like apricot and bamboo, with matched inscriptions in Chinese which are popular in the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. All of the structures are admirable not only for the beauty of each individual fabric included but also for the amazingly unique co-ordination of European and Vietnamese cultures and is considered a proud example of contemporary initiative and work by Vietnamese workers.

Cuc Phuong National Park
Cuc Phuong National Park, opened in 1962, is the first National Park opened in Vietnam. It is 140 km South of Hanoi and 55km from Ninh Binh. It covers roughly 25,000 hectares. The botanical richness of the forest is impressive as it supports a wide variety of flora species and patches of primeval forest, including ancient trees with thick clusters of roots, and parasitic plants and ligneous creepers. Tree species come from Burma, India, and Borneo. Clusters of orchards grow near cave entrances where moisture conditions and light are ideal. Varieties of trees include thousand-year dracontomelum and parashorea trees which can be visited in a one or two hour hike. You can see coral, vanilla, snow-white and butterfly orchids everywhere. The park also has a large number of animal residents including panthers and bears which are rarely seen. But you will see monkeys, gibbons, flying squirrels and pheasants. There are also over 120 species of birds and many varieties of beetles that inhabit this beautiful park. In April and May you will be able to see swarms of butterflies. At night, million of cicadas create a deafening din and millions of fireflies flicker about. Because it is situate in a limestone area, there are numerous caves in Cuc Phuong. In the "Nguoi Xua" cave (Cave of Early Man), two ancient tombs have been discovered, along with Neolithic remains and evidence of stone implements. There have been similar findings in the Trang Khuyet (Crescent Moon), Thanh Minh, and Con Mong Caves. Hang Dan Cave is well-known for its bat population. When hiking in Cuc Phuong, you walk some kilometers of a beautiful trail, passing through old-growth forest with long vines wrapped around strangled trees. You can visit the caves, waterfalls and streams in the forest or stop over at a Muong ethnic village. Since the Park is located in between three provinces, it's easy to combine a trip to Cuc Phuong with a trip to Hoa Binh or Ninh Binh province, or you can depart from Hanoi, spend the whole day exploring the forest and spend the night at the Park's guest house.