Vietnam is an incredibly photogenic country. From its charismatic people to the colourful handcrafts they create and of course the diverse, rugged landscapes. While each region of the country has its own personality and characteristics, one of the most appealing areas is arguably the province of Ninh Binh. Located just 1.5 hours south of Hanoi, this charming town is mostly renowned for the Tam Cốc River, featured in scenes of the blockbuster film Kong: Skull Island.
I want to reveal the best photography locations in Ninh Binh which I discovered on my personal adventures around the province. You’ll want to keep your camera close during your time in Vietnam as there are spectacular photo opportunities around every corner.
1. Wooden Row Boats on the Tam Cốc River
The most popular thing to do in Ninh Binh is to take a pleasant wooden boat ride down the peaceful Tam Cốc River. Also known as “Ha Long among the rice paddies”, the impressive limestone structures and green rice fields form the landscape. In peak season, hundreds of these boats flock the waters carrying visitors between the mountains and through stalactite and stalagmite lined caves. With some caves reaching 125 meters in length, when floating along the water your sight is blinded by the darkness and you’re other senses heighten; hearing the sounds of bats and smelling the scent of ancient stone. The moment you exit the cave is one of the many priceless photo opportunities on this majestic ride.
Don’t let the women strategically positioned along the way disturb this natural wonder. You may be pressured into buying overpriced drinks and snacks for you and your guide. To avoid this bring some in your bag from town and an extra water for your guide as well.
The best time to take the boat ride is early in the morning or in the very late afternoon sun for the best photography opportunities. Purchase a conical hat beforehand to get that classic whimsical shot from inside the boat.
2. The Docked Boats
Just as stunning as the boat ride itself are the vessels awaiting their passengers. Lined up along the river bank in a very Vietnamese-like scattered yet organised way; the green, red and blue rustic tin and wood boats sit silently and calmly. Witness the local women navigating these boats with their unique rowing method. Instead of rowing by hand, they prefer to use their feet and legs to do the brunt of the work to ease the pressure on their backs and arms. The boats are captured best in the still of early morning light or on a quiet overcast day.
3. Hang Mua (Flying Dragon Mountain)
The highest view point in the area and possibly the best lookout in all of Ninh Binh is from the top of the Mua Caves. The caves themselves are nothing to write home about but the 500 step climb to the top will be well worth the effort with panoramic views of the land. At the very top is a grand stone dragon who watches over the valley. You’ll see Tam Cốc, Trang An, Ninh Binh City and the abundance of rice paddy fields. It is a steep trek to the top of these limestone steps and is advised not to be tackled in the heat of the day. If you decide to do the hike at sunset be sure to bring along a torch to make it back down to the base safely.
4. Base of the Mua Caves
Many people flock to the Mua Caves to climb the steps and witness the best views of the area. What they’re not expecting are the jungle-esque gardens at the base of the ascent which consist of hanging vines and a very aesthetic footbridge passing over a small stream. Take some time with long exposure to enjoy this area before or after your trek up the stairs.
5. Hoa Lu Ancient Capital
Located away from the city and nestled between the mountains, this historic place is the perfect way to spend your time admiring the expansive gardens, unique architecture and stunning views of the surrounding area. Sense the impressive history of the empire that once ruled this land for more than 1000 years.
Sadly the ancient citadels are no longer standing but you’ll still find plenty of photo opportunities discovering the temples and shrines which were built in honour of the former emperors and their queens.
6. Bich Dong
Built in 1428 this complex is made up of three separate pagodas on various levels: Hạ, Trung, and Thượng pagodas. The arched entrance across the stone bridge surrounded by lotus flowers sets a magical scene before the climb up of the stone steps. Built within the caves and on the outside of the mountain, the steep walk takes you through the cool of the caves, past the places of worship and up to the top arriving at a stunning viewpoint.
Not far from the Tam Cốc River, this site is easily accessible by bicycle. As it isn’t as popular as other nearby attractions, it’s a lovely place to enjoy some quiet and spend some time wandering the grounds listening to the frogs sitting on the lotus flower pads.
7. The town and countryside
Compared to the tourist hotspots such as Ha Long Bay and Hoi An, Ninh Binh has kept much of its authentic appeal. There are very few signs in English, subtle bed and breakfasts instead of large hotel chains, street food aplenty, and a busy yet relaxed atmosphere. Wander the streets and catch special moments of the colourful people living here whether at the local market, down on the waterfront or on the streets.
The countryside here is so beautiful it is nearly impossible to take a bad photograph. The land is full of farmers working hard on their properties, quaint old houses built at the base of the limestone giants, and greenery as far as your eyes can see.
Take your time in this special place otherwise you’ll miss the most important moments. Ninh Binh is a photographer’s wonderland. I hope you enjoy your visit as much as I did.