In the far south east corner of Kim Son District in Ninh Binh Province, there is a short stretch of coastal water abutting the Tonkin Bay on the Eastern Sea of Vietnam. Only 18 kilometers wide, this area is part of the extensive Red River Delta system, encapsulating the area between where the Day and Can River tributaries meet the sea.
This confluence of two large rivers has created a massive bay of mud and sand flats that regularly change their marine topology depending on water flows, tidal surges and alluvial deposits. For this reason the locals call it the Floating Sea and talk about sand dunes that move around, both underwater and on the shorelines. Fringed by over 50 species of mangrove and fed with the fresh water of the precocious tributaries, the ocean is less saline and the seafloor relatively shallow and flat from the silt deposits carried thousands of miles to exit here.
The warm water, shallow seas and the profusion of mangroves have created a natural and world acknowledged marine hatchery and breeding ground. Recognized by UNESCO as a world biosphere reserve, there has been considerable effort put into conserving and enhancing this important watershed.
Over the millennia, well before its ecological importance was scientifically documented, a few small sand and clay atolls formed in the bay, the largest and most well-known being Con Noi (Noi Island). Some 6km from the nearest mainland town of Kim Dong, for many years this isolate haven of bird and marine life was rarely visited by anyone bar local fishermen.
The story is that as recently as 2003, a local fisherman, Tran Van Thong, ran his vessel aground here. Waiting for the tide to change, he explored part of the 1000 hectare sanctuary and returning home, proposed a project to plant Casuarina (beach she oaks) and pine trees to enhance the protection of the bay from the periodic typhoons which sweep through this part of the world, with a mind to increasing the aquaculture here.
Con Noi Causeway
In less than twenty years, Tran Van Thong’s vision has proved prophetic and things have changed dramatically. Besides applying and receiving the UNESCO accreditation, a spectacular 5km concrete and steel causeway was constructed to connect the island to the distant mainland. Bear in mind that until that time, Con Noi was an uninhabited island wilderness in a “floating sea” of shifting mud and sand flats in a remote part of the province. Even to this day, many Ninh Binh residents have yet to visit.
The causeway itself is reason enough to visit. Besides the architectural and engineering feat of building such a long permanent access road across a wide bay of mud flats and shifting sands, the sheer exhilaration of traveling across such a huge expanse of ocean, often with no other vehicles in sight, is indescribable and not for the faint of heart.
Not that there is any danger from the well-constructed and smooth roadway but rather just the sensation of traveling at speed on top of the ocean, literally miles from land is an unique , thrilling and sometimes eerie experience that should not be missed.
Demonstrating Vietnamese ingenuity, technical skills, project management and sheer risk taking, the Xuan Truong Construction Enterprise along with the Ninh Binh Provincial Government have a vision of a huge marine eco-tourism precinct, with international hotels, temples, research centres and construction of a permanent town on the island.
Con Noi Beach
A beach area has already been constructed by building a long break water on the eastern, ocean facing side of the island. While it attracts a steady influx of local tourism, the beach itself is of brackish sand and the water somewhat cloudy and would be hard pressed to compete with places like Nha Trang, Mui Nui, Cat Ba, Danang and so on. After all, the bay is dominated by mudflats and mangroves that are essential to the ecological diversity here.
Which is not to say the effort has been wasted. As a marine research station, a fabulous bird sanctuary, a superb location for recreational fishing and a place of serene natural beauty, it has an attraction second to none.
Coming down from Phat Diem, the rice fields and palms gradually give way to massive fish farms and an estuary serenity that belies the massive effort that has been required to reclaim this tangle of streams, rivers and lakes into irrigation channels, dams, dykes and safe river harbors.
The view from the causeway itself is of endless horizons dotted everywhere with large “sentry” cabins built on stilts over the sea, looking like huge aquatic spiders hovering over and guarding their precious oyster farms below.
Around 45 km from Ninh Binh city and 24km from the spectacular Phat Diem Catholic Cathedral, it is a long way from most of the provinces major attractions and sees very little foreign tourism. Access is via self-drive, an expensive taxi ride or tour operators. It is a long drive either way. However, it is truly a unique and special part of Ninh Binh, a far cry from the historic mountainous temples and palaces of a bygone age that the Province is renowned for yet well worth the visit if you have the time.
One last tip – bring insect repellent and any refreshments you might need. If you are on a self-drive, make sure your vehicle is in good repair and has plenty of fuel. A the time of writing, shops and garages are few and far between once you get on the causeway.