While many interesting historical sights and experiences in Ninh Binh are clustered around the Hoa Lu-Trang An area, there is much more on offer. Gia Viễn is a large rural district of around 180km² around 20kms from Ninh Binh City in the north east of the province. It is also home to the internationally reknowned Bai Dinh Pagoda.
Bordering Hoa Binh and Ha Nam provinces to the north and Nam Dinh province to the East, Gia Vien is a wonderland of protected forests and waterways. There are also myriad caves, ancient temples, stunning landscapes and a friendly, welcoming population. In many ways it is similar to its more famous southern cousins but without the crowds and with a lot more wildlife and terrain to explore.
To the south east of Gia Vien lies the Gia Sinh mountain range which has formed a protective natural barrier for Hoa Lu since time immemorial. Another border of the district abuts the Trang An Landscape Complex and claims similar topology, including a number of large caves.
After the Bai Dinh Pagoda, perhaps its most prominent claim to fame is the large, man-made dyke that created the massive Van Long wetland reserve. The lake is now a breeding ground for countless endemic and migratory birds and an important contribution to Ninh Binh’s ecological wealth. If your interest is in the natural wonders of Vietnam, a country increasingly under pressure from population growth and industrialization, you should not miss a visit to Gia Vien!
With its huge environmental footprint, much work has gone into preserving this unique area of biodiversity. Nearby the Van Lang wetlands is the Kenh Ga Hot Springs with an average temperature of 60°C. Located on a fork on the large Day River, a tributary of the famed Red River, the warm waters attract many diverse species of fish. This abundance led to the creation of the Kenh Ga floating village which is often included in guided tours of the area.
A popular destination for domestic visitors is the “hidden valleys” of Thung La and Thung Lau, the childhood home of Dinh Bo Linh, the revered “father” of modern VIetnam. As mentioned, there is also the massive Bai Dinh temple complex that recreates the glories of Vietnamese architecture, art, culture and religion. But there are many other sites and temples out there waiting to be rediscovered by the more intrepid tourist.
Gia Vien district is relatively free from the large scale industrialization of modern Vietnam. Nature reserves like Van Long are a necessity to retain the country’s biosphere and extensive bird life. If you are interested in conservation in any form, it is an effort well spent finding the time and money to support and learn about these efforts. The bonus is that you will have a great time doing so!
Day trips from Tam Coc, Trang An, Tam Diep or Ninh Binh city are easy to find. Just remember that the journey itself is half the joy. Traveling along quiet country roads with rice fields spread out in carpets of green and gold in every direction as you wind through karst mountainscapes and over the many streams and rivers that meander through the timeless land is a priceless experience. It is also a great opportunity to get up close and personal with the “real Vietnam”.
If you want to extend your stay (and some places are large and interesting enough to get lost in for days!) there has been a lot of recent investment in tourism infrastructure to make Gia Vien a world class eco-tourism area. For specifics and availability for accommodation, sites like TripAdvisor and Booking.com are your best friends.
Transport outside of guided tours can be problematic. Taxis and Grab from the city are easy to find however, unless you also book the return journey, getting back is more difficult. We recommend self-drive or day hires but ask around to current pricing. Like any tourist town, Ninh Binh has its share of scams. Unless you have prior knowledge or trusted friends, booking through your hotel or with a known tour operators is probably your safest bet.