The provincial capital of Ninh Binh, 62 mi/100 km south of Hanoi, is worth a two- or three-day visit on its own, rather than the usual day trip from Hanoi. It is a bit off the trodden tourist trail, and there the life of contemporary Vietnam is visible without the prepackaged spin that most resorts put on the traveler's experience.
The haunting landscapes of Tam Coc are 6 mi/9 km from Ninh Binh. In scenery reminiscent of classic Chinese scroll painting, tiny wooden rowboats will take you on a river journey through brilliant green rice fields farmed by men and women wearing the traditional Vietnamese conical straw hats and country dress. Rising from the fields are sheer-sided limestone karsts very similar to those found in Halong Bay, but hung with tropical vegetation and home to darting cliff swallows. Three of the karsts are so large that naturally occurring caverns pass through them, and the effect of the vibrant landscape framed by the arched openings of the tunnels is breathtaking.
This is no commercial conceptualization—it is the real, rural life of Vietnam happening alongside the narrow river. At the end of the journey, your oarsman will most probably offer you examples of the high-quality local embroidery on tablecloths, napkins or T-shirts—at amazingly low prices, though as always, a certain amount of bargaining is expected.
Cuc Phuong National Park is 28 mi/45 km from central Ninh Binh, measures 106 sq mi/275 sq km, spans three provinces and protects some of the oldest forests in Vietnam. An hour's trek takes you to the Big Tree, an ancient forest giant with roots so widespread, 16 people must join hands in order to circle it.
Up several steep flights of stairs is the vast Cave of Prehistoric Man, where an estimated group of 25 protohumans lived together at the edge of the sea. Dinh May Bach (Silver Cloud Peak) has rugged hiking trails up its 2,125 ft/648 m height.
The Endangered Primate Resource Center near the entrance is a kind of mental and physical rehabilitation center for gibbons, several kinds of languars and lorises, all of which have been rescued from cages or illegal traders. The center's breeding program has been a great success, and infant monkeys are a common site as they cling to their mother's fur. The park has basic cabins for rent within the grounds, where visitors can experience the vibrant, complex life of the jungle at length.
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