Vân Long Wetland Nature Reserve
Quite some distance from Ninh Binh City, Vân Long Lake is in the Gia Vien district which abuts the north border between Ha Nam and Ninh Binh provinces. In 1960, the 30km long Dam Cut dyke was created on the Day River stretching from Mai Phuong village, Gia Hung commune to Soi hill, Gia Thanh commune and creating a 2400 km² lake.
One of the few remaining wetland areas of the Red River delta, Vân Long was declared a protected Wetland reserve in 1999. Nestled in the foothills of the Pu Luong-Cuc Phuong mountain range of limestone Karsts, the lake is fed by tributaries of the Red River and numerous subterranean streams. Vân Long Lake provides a nature lovers paradise with spectacular scenery and bountiful, often endemic, fauna and flora.
As Van Long Lake is around 20km from many of Ninh Binh’s most popular attractions, it can be difficult to get to using public transport. Most visitors will come up from Ninh Binh City, Trang An or Tam Coc using self-drive motorbikes, chartered taxis or guided tours. There were signs of hotel and resort development near the central Gia Van commune prior to 2020 however further expansion has been slow during the pandemic
Far from the bustling crowd, the designated Vân Long Protected Wetland Reserve is around 3000 km², the majority of which is inaccessible to the average traveler. The accepted way to visit is via a boat ride which will take you across the mirrored waters for an hour or so, perhaps with a chance to spot a Delacour’s langur – one of the world’s most endangered primates – in the wild.
Bird watchers have long been ecstatic about the success of Vân Long Lake as it is now an important nursery for over 100 water borne species including herons, kingfisher, egrets, cranes and many more migratory species. It has also become an important natural fishing nursery, with over 54 local species in abundance; indeed, prior to its “discovery” by conservationists and tourism, fishing and rice growing were the staples of the local economy.
From the roadways, Van Long may look soemwhat devoid of life. Be aware though, Vân Long contains many species of deadly snakes, the Asiatic Black bear, Cloud leopards, the Sumatran Chamois, Red-faced Monkeys and other animals less respecting of human encroachment. Although many of these animals are now on the endangered list, with some thought to be extinct, we suggest sticking closely to the habitable areas, the regular boat rides or guided tours. This is not the place for unguided trekking or kayaking by amateur adventurers.
There is at least a couple of resorts close by, several homestays and a small town center with restaurants and small shops stocked with the necessities of life. We would however suggest bringing any specialist supplies with you.
Most travelers will spend an afternoon here, on their way back from Cuc Phoung National Park or as a day trip out of one of the main tourist centers. But with such a huge area and so many unique natural treasures, staying a night or two will give you much more time to soak up the surroundings and a chance to explore some of the less visited areas.
To navigate the shallow lake, non-motorized wide flat keel wooden boats are used, manually propelled by local residents. Similar to Tam Coc and Trang An in many ways but nowhere near as formalized. Generally it is 2 people and around USD3-4 per boat. It is good to check around first about the cost and any extras like tips and we strongly advise you to wear loose clothes and to take some water, a hat and a waterproof bag for any electronic goods. Tours are a great way to go as they can do most of the bargaining and sort the permit (around 20K VND to enter the park at time of writing) and depending on the tour operator, negotiation of the boat fee, foods and so on.
Afternoons are the best for bird watching and so there is heavier demand for the boats while mornings will be less busy, equally pleasant but just not as much wildlife. The standard boat rides will last for an hour or so as many tours will include a visit to Cuc Phuong National Park and it is a long drive back into town. If you stay overnight, it should be easier to charter longer trips in the morning. Just remember the line about “Mad dogs and Englishmen” and the the noon day sun. Rowing across mirror like reflecting bodies of water at midday in the tropics is something most people, including definitely the rowers, would rather avoid.
Please remember that the rowers, mostly women, are paid comparatively little by the operators for their efforts and a “tip” at the end of the ride is an accepted politeness.
Like most of the porous limestone karsts of Ninh Binh, Vân Long Lake has its share of wet and dry cave systems and reportedly has over 1000 caves, some with future tourism potential. Larger known caves are the Fish Cave (Hang Ca), Ball Cave (Hang Bóng), Turtle Cave (Hang Rùa), Shadow Cave (Hang Bóng Tối ) and Chanh Cave. Ca cave is particularly interesting as it is a reported 250 m long, 8 m high, 10 m and is an important nursery for catfish, perch, and banana fish. Many, if not most boat rides will include a visit to the partially submerged Ca Cave.
To paraphrase John Lennon, life is about the journey, not the destination. With Vân Long Wetland Reserve, we believe it can be both. While the main town of Van Long is not far off the busy interconnect QL1A highway between Hanoi and Ninh Binh, we do not know of any direct bus routes. Besides which, you will miss out on one of the great pleasures of a trip to Vân Long – coming up from Ninh Binh City and witnessing at first hand the glowing rice fields, meandering waterways, energetic rural villages and the majestic mountains that make up this spectacular province.
Again, we do not know of any local public transport but tour, charter and self-drive opportunities abound. English is not widely spoken in Vietnam and rare outside the main centers, so make sure you have a local to guide you or your smart phone primed with Google translator and plenty of charge!
That being said, Vietnamese are renowned as a helpful, accommodating people and while the journey is relatively long, it is not arduous and abounds with photographic opportunities. Just remember that many Vietnamese businesses (and people!) will take a siesta break during the hottest part of the day between 12-3pm, so an early morning start is advised.
Besides a stroll through the lakeside villages, Vân Long Lake is not a trekkers paradise – it is a huge Wetland Reserve after all. However, if you have the time and resources, we can recommend a walk along some of the more scenic segments of the lengthy dyke that created this sanctuary. From the top of this endless embankment, you can see the true extent of the reserve and its inhabitants. Just remember to take some water, insect repellent, solid shoes and a wide brimmed hat. And it goes without saying, your camera or smartphone!