SIGHTS WITHIN A FEW HOURS DRIVE OF HANOI

HOA BINH PROVINCE

HOA BINH PROVINCE (82 kilometers southwest of Hanoi) embraces a rugged region of jungle covered mountains, limestone outcropping and villages inhabited by Muong and Black T'ai hill tribes. The villages visited by travelers are often tourist traps with tribe members who parade around in traditional costumes for photographs. More authentic villages are further to the west. Hoa Binh is on the way to Dien Bien Phu. To the north, towards the Chinese border, is Laichau Canyon where the Black River cuts through a gorge with vertical walls that rise up to 2,600 feet. This gorge is so deep and narrow that at the bottom it as often as dark as night during the daytime.

Hoa Binh Province covers 4,595.2 square kilometers and is home to 793,500 people. The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Viet (Kinh), Muong, Thai, Tay, Dao. The capital is Hoa Binh City. The districts are: Da Bac, Mai Chau, Ky Son, Cao Phong, Luong Son, Kim Boi, Tan Lac, Lac Son, Lac Thuy, Yen Thuy.

Hoa Binh is a mountainous province in the North. It is bordered by Phu Tho and Ha Tay in the north, Ninh Binh and Thanh Hoa in the south, Ha Nam in the east, and Son La in the west. The topography is combined by mountains and narrow valleys. The annual average temperature varies between 23 and 25 degrees C. The main attractions of Hoa Binh are several ethnic groups with their own languages, traditional literature, and festivals. Tourists especially enjoy the ethnic specialty dishes including rice cooked in bamboo and grilled meat. At night, visitors can stay in stilt houses at Lac Village in Mai Chau Valley, enjoy watching traditional dancing, music performances (bronze drums, gongs), and Thai minority singing and dancing. The remote Muong, Dao, Tay minority villages draw visitors who like study the life of ethnic groups. Beautiful brocade and forest products are interesting souvenirs.

In the mountainous terrain you can find Thac Bo, Hoa Tien grottoes, Ret Cave, Pu Nooc Primitive forest and many clean springs are suitable for swimming, climbing, walking, and hunting. Visitors are also fascinated by superb beauty of Hoa Binh Hydroelectric Power Plant, the largest one in Vietnam. Boating on Da River is an enjoyable feeling. Apart of these, scientific tests have shown that the mineral water at Kim Boi Hot Spring is good for drinking, bathing and treatment.

Transportation: Hoa Binh Town is 82 kilometers from Hanoi. Da River is five kilometers from Hoa Binh City. Road and water transportation are convenient. There is National Highway No. 6 from Hanoi vie Ha Tay to Hoa Binh, Son La, National Highway No. 15 from Mai Chau to Thanh Hoa, National Highway No. 12B from Hoa Binh to Nho Quan (Ninh Binh).

PHU THO PROVINCE

PHU THO PROVINCE (80 kilometers west of Hanoi) is located in the plains and Midland in the northern Vietnam. Covering 3,532.5 square kilometers, it shares borders with Tuyen Quang, Yen Bai provinces on the north, Vinh Phuc, Ha Tay provinces on the east, Son La Province on the west and Hoa Binh Province on the south. There are 1,322, 000 people living (2010). The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Viet (Kinh), Muong, Dao and San Chay. The capital is Viet Tri City. Administrative divisions: Town: Phu Tho; districts: Ha Hoa, Thanh Ba, Doan Hung, Lam Thao, Thanh Son, Yen Lap, Tam Nong, Thanh Thuy, Phu Ninh, Cam Khe, Tan Son.

The terrain is mainly made up by hills. There are also three big rivers namely Red, Da and Lo rivers running through Phu Tho. Phu Tho has a monsoon tropical climate with a cold winter and hot summer, annual average temperature of 23 degrees C, annual average rainfall of 1600-1800 millimeters and annual average humidity of 85-87 percent.

Phu Tho is considered the ancestral land of the Vietnamese. Den Hung (Hung Temple) is tied to the legend about 18 Kings Hung who built Van Lang State, the first one of Vietnam, with Phong Chau as the capital. Archaeological sites include like Son Vi, Dong Dau and Lang Ca. There are many pagodas, temples, tombs around Nghia Linh Mountain prove that Phong Chau used to be cultural center of ancient Vietnamese. Xuan Son National Park and Ao Chau Pond are famous beauty spots. Phu Tho is home of many festivals including Bach Hac and Chu Hoa. The most honorable one is Den Hung Festival, held on the 10th day of the Third lunar month (late March or April) annually corresponding to the anniversary of the Kings Hung. Now, it becomes a great ceremonial festival of the Vietnamese nation.

Viet Tri (80 kilometers from Hanoi) is the capital of Phu Tho Province and the gateway to the heart of Vietnamese civilization. The modern town has some oddly inspired ‘60s art deco buildings. Hung Temple is an oasis of serenity and sanctity, nestled in the midst of over 1,000 hectares of emerald green rice fields dotted with a host of decorated temples and stone paths leading through an untouched forest. On the 10th day of the Third lunar month (late March or April) is the Hung festival and over three million Vietnamese people comes to this sacred site in Phu Tho Province to celebrate the birth of the nation, because it is here that the Vietnamese civilization is believed to have begun over 4,000 years ago.

Viet Nam has a long-standing tradition of ancestral worship and the Hung Temple site is among the most sacred lands in the country, paying respect to the ancestors who are the cradle of Vietnamese civilization. [Source: Viet Nam News, April 30, 2008]

The designation of the Hung Temple festival as a national holiday marks the celebration of the origins of the Vietnamese as a civilization. Legend has it that Viet Nam was born when a dragon genie named Lac Long Quan hooked up with a fairy genie named Au Co. Au Co then laid 100 eggs that bore 100 sons. Compatibility issues crop up with Lac Long Quan and Au Co belonging to different species and all, and they part ways. Fifty sons follow Lac Long Quan out to the sea where they go on to lead various tribes while the remaining 50 siblings follow Au Co to the mountains. Her oldest son becomes the first Hung King who establishes the Van Lang state, the precursor to Viet Nam.

Inside the modern-looking museum are relics dug up from the area and from neighbouring provinces. The items serve not only as testament to the ancient aspect of Vietnamese civilization, but the detailed art work that depict daily life during the Hung era also shows that the people were cultivating rice even as other nations were into hunting.

The oldest temple in the area is the Trung temple, built in the 13th century, on the site where it is said the 18th Hung King abdicated in favour of Tiet Lieu. Coming second is the Ha Temple, the lower temple, which dates back to the 15th century. The temple dedicated to Au Co was just finished in 2005 after four years of construction. While there has been a temple for Au Co in neighbouring Yen Bai province that is five or six centuries old, the central part that she plays in the legend of the birth of the Vietnamese civilization has prompted authorities to give visitors and worshippers a chance to pay tribute to their ancestors at the site of the Hung Temple itself.

Transportation to Viet Tri: Viet Tri City is 80 kilometers from Hanoi. It is on National Highway No.2 linking Hanoi with Ha Giang Province and the China Border. The train from Hanoi to Lao Cai stops in Viet Tri.

Mai Chau (40 miles from Hoa Bihn) is regarded as the closest place to Hanoi, where you can see authentic hill tribes living in villages. In this pleasant valley white Thais live in decorated stilt houses.

KINGS HUNG TEMPLE

KINGS HUNG TEMPLE (Viet Tri City, Phu Tho Province) is located on Nghia Linh Mountain, 175 meters by sea level. It is a complex of majestic architectures that consist of Ha Temple and Thien Quang Pagoda, Gieng Temple, Trung and Thuong temples, and King Hung Tomb. A total of 225 brick steps lie between Dai Mon Gate and Ha Temple, which was built in the 15th century. According to the legend, in this place, Au Co gave birth to a pouch containing 100 eggs, which later hatched to become 100 children. Her husband, Lac Long Quan, led 50 children down to the coastal region to populate the land and propagate the race. Au Co brought 49 children up to the mountainous area. The eldest child, Hung Vuong, was left to become King; he founded the capital in Phong Chau and named the country Van Lang.

In front of Ha Temple, there is a 700-year-old tree. It is in this temple where late President Ho Chi Minh had a talk with the soldiers on their way to Hanoi in 1954. He told them "The Hung Kings had the merit of founding the country. You and I must stick together to safeguard it.Trung Temple: Over 168 brick steps must then be climbed to get to Trung Temple. According to legends, the Kings Hung built the house as a place to rest and hold political meetings. It is also where Prince Lang Lieu presented sticky rice cakes (Banh chung and banh day) to his father the King on the occasion of Tet Holiday.

Over 102 brick steps lead from Trung Temple to get to Thuong Temple, where exclusively used for the kings to have offerings to the Sun God, the Earth God, the Rice God, and Saint Dong, a legendary hero, defeated the An invaders of the ancient Chinese Dynasty. This is also the place where King Hung, the 18th, abdicated in favor of Thuc Phan, who erected a stone pillar and swore to take care of the temple and of the Hung family's inheritance.

King Hung Tomb was the tomb of the 6th King Hung. Legend has it that, after defeating the An invaders, the 6th King Hung took off his clothes and left it on the branch of the kim giao tree and died on the spot. Gieng Temple (Well Temple): At the foot of the mountain is the Gieng Temple, where worshipped Ngoc Hoa and Tien Dung, the 18th Hung King's daughters. It is said that the two princesses used to comb their hair and look at themselves in the water of this well. Nowadays, the nearby public reception house, Cong Quan, houses the Kings Hung Museum, built to present numerous artifacts from the dawn of the nation when the Kings Hung founded and ruled the country. People in this region here preserve some traditional songs: xec bua, vi, dum, xoan, gheo songs.

TAM DAO NATIONAL PARK AND HILL STATION

Tam Dao Hill Station (80 kilometers northwest of Hanoi) is located at an elevation of 3,000 feet. Sometimes referred to as "Dalat of the north," it is a nice enough place with drab Soviet-style buildings interspersed with colonial houses in need of some restoration. Some assimilated hill tribes live in the area. It is possible to hike to the summit of nearby 5,000-foot-high Tam Dao Mountain.

Tam Dao Tourist Area (Tam Duong District, 86 kilometers from Hanoi, between Ban Thach, Thien Nhi, and Phu Nghia Mountains) covers an area of 235 hectares and lies at the altitude of 900 meters above sea level. It has been known since the Ly and Tran dynasties for its wonderful scenic spots. However, it was not transformed into a tourist area— by the French— until the 20th century (1904 - 1906). In Tam Dao, there are villas, hotels, restaurants, sports fields, swimming pools, and dancing halls. The weather is cool all year round with an average temperature of 20 to 22 degrees C. In summer, tens of thousands of tourists visit Tam Dao to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery.

Tam Dao National Park (Ho Son Commune, Tam Duong District, 70 kilometers northwest of Hanoi) is located in the Tam Dao mountain range and covers an area of 36,883 hectares. The vegetation cover is representative of five types of tropical forest. The flora consists of 904 species classified into 478 geniuses and 213 families of high plants, 64 of which are listed in Vietnam’s Red Book. The rich fauna includes 307 species, 56 of which are registered in Vietnam’s Red Book (22 mammal species, 17 reptile species, 9 bird species, 7 amphibian species and the remainder of insects).

The Tam Dao National Park can be reached if you follow National Road No.2 to Vinh Yen Town (Vinh Phuc Province) where you should turn right into National Road No. 2B and go head about 13 kilometers. Tam Dao is in a vast high mountainous region affected by tropical humid monsoons. The average temperature during the year is 22.9 degrees C. The mean humidity is about 84 percent.

NINH BINH PROVINCE

NINH BINH PROVINCE (90 kilometers south of Hanoi) covers 1,389.1 square kilometers and is home to 900,600 people (2010). The capital is Ninh Binh City Administrative divisions: Town: Tam Diep; districts: Nho Quan, Gia Vien, Hoa Lu, Yen Mo, Yen Khanh, Kim Son. The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Viet (Kinh), Muong, Thai, Tay. Hoa Lu and Tom Loc (east of Cuc Phuong National Park) are regarded as Halong Bay without the water. The are areas with impressive limestone formations..

Situated on the Red River Delta, Ninh Binh separates the North and the Central Vietnam by Tam Diep Mountain Range. It is surrounded by Hoa Binh, Ha Nam provinces on the north, Nam Dinh Province on the east and Thanh Hoa on the west and the south. Ninh Binh's topography is divided clearly into three parts: the mountainous area in the west and northwest; the delta and coastal area in the east and south. Ninh Binh has Day, Van Sang rivers, and Non Nuoc, Canh Dieu mountains. Annual average temperature is 23.4 degrees.

In Ninh Binh, Hoa Lu Ancient Capital (in Truong Yen Commune, Hoa Lu District now) was chosen as the first capital of Vietnam feudal centralism regime and the Dai Co Viet's political, economic and cultural center with the name of Kings Dinh Tien Hoang, Le Dai Hanh and Ly Thai To in 10th century. In 1010, King Ly Thai To moved the capital from Hoa Lu to Thang Long (Hanoi now), opening a new era for Vietnamese people.

Sights in Ninh Binh Province include beautiful Tam Coc, Bich Dong, Dich Long, Hoa Son, Tien caves and Van Trinh Grotto. Cuc Phuong National Park is home of varies of strange flora and fauna. Ninh Binh's people have created such famous and traditional products such as Kim Son's fine arts, Hoa Lu's high-class embroidery, rocky sculpture, Gia Vien's rattan and bamboo knitting products.

Located 90 kilometers far from Hanoi, Ninh Binh has convenient waterway and road networks of transportation. The Reunification Express Train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City stops at Ninh Binh City. National Highway No.10 connects to Nam Dinh, Thanh Hoa provinces and National Highway No.12B links to Hoa Binh Province.

Phat Diem Cathedral (130 kilometers south of Hanoi, and 28 kilometers southeast of Ninh Binh Town) is the center of Catholicism in north Vietnam and also a tourist site. Built between 1875 and 1899 and located in Luu Phuong Commune, Phat Diem Town, Kim Son District, Phat Diem Cathedral has four roofs and six sets of iron wooden pillars and consists of a network of ponds, lakes, churches, and artificial caves.

Phuong Dinh Church, part of the Phat Diem complex, is a giant building entirely made of stone. Numerous stone sculptures are on the inside and outside walls. A large bell cast in the 1890s weighing nearly 2 tons is found in the bell tower. On both sides of the church are four smaller churches of different styles. On the extreme north corner are three stone caves. The most beautiful of these caves is Lo Duc Grotto. In the area surrounding this massive stone and wood cathedral, the rice paddies are peppered with stone churches. But, unlike these structures, built by Europeans and resembling typical churches of the era, Phat Diem Cathedral was designed by a Vietnamese priest, known as Father Sau. Father Sau rallied the local population to build the cathedral, five side chapels, three artificial grottoes, an artificial lake and a bell tower.

Phat Diem Cathedral seems to have changed very little since Graham Greene described its gigantic pillars formed out of single trees and the scarlet lacquer work of the altar. Indeed, with its multi tiered, curling roofs and its 48 lime-wood columns - (the largest of which weigh seven tones), Phat Diem is a far cry from a European cathedral. Stone relief angels overlook carved dragons and the cathedral's two-tone bell is accompanied by a giant brass gong.

Local Catholics view the cathedral's survival as almost miraculous; a bombing in 1972 flattened two of the side chapels and caused the cathedral to lean by some 20 degrees. Despite the ongoing war, restoration started immediately and today, the only obvious trace of the bombing is the destruction of some intricate stone carvings. And on Christmas Eve, an unforgettable midnight mass, attended by thousands and accompanied by a brass band, is held in the cathedral grounds.

TEMPLES AND PAGODAS IN NINH BINH PROVINCE

Bai Dinh Pagoda (95 kilometers south of Hanoi, 12 kilometers from Ninh Binh City) is the largest pagoda complex in Vietnam, covering 700 hectares. From the main entrance, the pagoda's magnificent three-door gate is the biggest of its kind in Vietnam, built with 550 tons of iron wood. The gate is flanked by two 5.5-meter -high solid bronze guard statues (Ho Phap), weighing 12 tons each and four pillars tower over the entrance is 13.85 meters in height and 0.5 meters in diameter each. Around the gate are eight smaller bronze statues of Kim Cuong angels, each weighing 8 tons.

After walking along the corridor of about 1 kilometer where 500 white-stone Arhat statues are placed two sides, there will be the bell tower with the largest bronze 36-ton bell that is hanging here. Each Arhat statue, 2-2.5 meters in high, 2-2.5 tons in weight, is carved from monolithic stone, need one month for completion and different from each other. Going up is the 800 square meter Kwan Yin Sanctum - a wooden one-layer-roof building with five main chambers and two side chambers. In the center of the sanctum is the stunning 10-meter-high bronze statue of Kwan Yin with a thousand eyes and hands. This 40-tonne statue is considered as the biggest Kwan Yin statue in Vietnam.

The Phap Chu Sanctum - an imposing imitation wooden two-layer-curve-roof building - where a 10 meters-high bronze statue of Lord Buddha sits on his lotus throne situated. This 100-tonne statue has been recognized as the tallest and heaviest bronze depiction of Lord Buddha in the country in 2006 by the Vietnam Guinness Book of Records (Vietbook). The Tam The Sanctum is located on a high hill at 76 meters above sea level. This is a majestic, grandiose building with three-layer-curve-roof style and an area of 3000 square meter where three bronze statues represent the past, present and future weighing 50 tons each placed.

Far from the large site about two kilometers is the place where the old Bai Dinh Pagoda located. Almost of all pilgrims and travelers want to reach there. Even this is not short way for walking, it is really a good time for people refresh while strolling. After a long way walk and contemplate around beautiful view, travelers will see a modest three-door gate locates next the roadside. Through the three-door gate, turn to the small path rather slope, go up about more than 200 steps to the top of mountain, an old pagoda appears in ancient and tranquil.

Bai Dinh Pagoda is located in Gia Sinh Commune, Gia Vien District, Ninh Binh Province, five kilometers from Hoa Lu Ancient Capital, close to Trang An Tourism Area

Dinh and Le Temples: Dinh Temple is located in Truong Yen Ha Commune and Le Temple is located in Truong Yen Thuong Communce, Hoa Lu District, Ninh Binh Province. Dinh Temple worships King Dinh Tien Hoang and Le Temple worships King Le Dai Hanh. These temples were built in 17th century.

Dinh Temple was built in the shape of a Chinese character. Through the first entrance called Ngo Mon, there is a stone royal bed with Nghe (imaginary animals of the old times) standing on both sides. Inside the temple is Khai Thanh in worship of Emperor Dinh's parents. The temple consists of three parts: Bai Duong for the community, Thien Huong in honor of mandarins, and Chinh Cung where Dinh Tien Hoang's statue is located. On his left is the statue of his eldest son Dinh Lien, and on his right are those of Dinh Hang Lang and Dinh Toan. On each side of the altar, there is one stone dragon similar to the ones placed near the royal bed.

Le Temple is almost the same as Dinh Temple in term of architectural design, except for some details. Le Temple also consists of three parts: Bai Duong used for the community, Thien Huong, in memory of the royal mandarins of King Le, and finally, the altar in memory of the King. The Le Hoan Statue is at the centre, on the left is the statue of Queen Duong Van Nga and on his right is that of Le Ngoa Trieu, his fifth son and the third King of the Pre Le Dynasty.

Thai Vy Temple (west of Van Lam Hamlet, Ninh Hai Commune, Hoa Lu District, Ninh Binh Province) worships four generations of Tran kings: Tran Thai Tong, Tran Thanh Tong, Tran Nhan Tong and Tran Anh Tong. According to history, Thai Vy Temple was built during Tran Dynasty (the 13th 14thcentury) follow the internal attack with outside support (noi cong, ngoai quoc) architecture. The "noi cong ngoai quoc" architectural style means Cong Chinese character in the inner part and the Quoc Chinese character in the outer.

In front of the temple is Ngoc Well with green stones and clear and full water all year round. Behind the temple are forested Cam Son Mountains. Entering into the temple, at triumphal arch (nghi mon), there are two green stone monolithic horses. Passing the nghi mon, you come to a two-storey ironwood bell-tower with eight roofs of mui hai tile is on the right. The corners of the bell-tower roof bend like the tail of a phoenix. The bell inside was cast in 1689.

The interior of the temple is spacious and the worship rooms are meticulously decorated. Many stone pillars—round or square—are carved with parallel sentences and dragons, phoenixes, unicorns, turtle and images of cam, ky, thi, hoa (music, chess, poetry, painting — regarded as the four amusements or accomplishments of a feudal intellectual).

In the sanctum, statue of King Tran Thanh Tong (the first-born child of King Tran Thai Tong) is between statues of his parents (King Tran Thai Tong and Queen Thuan Thien). Besides, the votive tablet of King Tran Nhan Tong (the first-born child of King Tran Thanh Tong) and the votive tablet of King Tran Anh Tong (the first-born child of King Tran Nhan Tong) is worship here.

Every year, Thai Vy Temple Festival takes place on the 14th day of the Third lunar month (late March or April). This is occasion for people commemorating the merit of Kings Tran. There are activities such as palanquin procession, sacrifice ceremony, human chess playing, wrestling contest, dragon dancing and boat rowing.

HOA LU ANCIENT CAPITAL

HOA LU ANCIENT CAPITAL (13 kilometers from Ninh Binh Town, Ninh Binh Province) was capital of Dai Co Viet for 41 years (968-1009). In 968, Dinh Bo Linh ascended to the throne and took the name of King Dinh Tien Hoang and reunified the country under the name of Dai Co Viet. The mountains and sea combined to make Hoa Lu's picturesque landscape. Hoa Lu lays in a flat valley surrounded by the Trang An lime stone mountains, which form a natural wall protecting the old citadel. The city's northwest is bordered by the Hoang Long River, the tributaries of which run through the capital, cooling the weather within the city and serving as convenient waterways.

The Royal Court was built in an area of 150 hectares in the eastern part of the capital while the western part served as a site to educate and protect children. As the capital of the country for 41 years, Hoa Lu has many palaces, pagodas, tombs and pavilions that were built by different dynasties. One of the most popular pieces of architecture is the Bao Thien Tue Palace, which was plated with gold and silver. However many vestiges have been destroyed due to time and weather.

When King Ly Thai To moved the capital from Hoa Lu to Thang Long (now Hanoi) in 1010, two temples were built to dedicate to King Dinh Tien Hoang and his successor Le Dai Hanh. These two temples were first built in the 11th century and reconstructed in 1696. Coming to Hoa Lu visitors can attend traditional cultural festivals here, and the most important and largest of them is the Truong Yen Festival, which is held on the 10th day of the Third lunar month (late March or April). The festival is in memory of the Kings of the Dinh and Le dynasties. The festival lasts for three days with many traditional games and martial arts, reflecting local residents' legends. Hoa Lu and Tom Loc (east of Cuc Phuong National Park) are regarded as Halong Bay without the water. The are areas with impressive limestone formations.

CAVES AND NATIONAL PARKS IN NINH BINH PROVINCE

Bich Dong Cave (in the Ngu Nhac Son Mountains, in Dam Khe Village, Ninh Hai Commune, Hoa Lu District, Ninh Binh Province) was described by King Le Canh Hung as the second nicest grotto in Vietnam, after the Huong Tich Grotto in Ha Tay Province. In 1773, Nguyen Nghiem (the father of the great writer Nguyen Du) visited this cave. After viewing the whole scenery of the mountains, waterways, fields, and sky covered in green mist, he gave the cave a very beautiful and romantic name, Bich Dong (which literally means "Green Pearl Grotto").

Bich Dong Pagoda was built on Ngu Nhac Mountain near the cave in the Le Dynasty. It is divided into three levels: Ha Pagoda (lower pagoda), Trung Pagoda (middle pagoda), and Thuong Pagoda (upper pagoda). On the mountain peak stands the statue of a scholar Mandarin looking at the horizon in hope of viewing the spectacular landscapes of Hoa Lu.

From the upper pagoda, one has the most magnificent view of Bich Dong. The location for this pagoda was chosen in 1428 after two monks were charmed by the view of the river and the mountains. Later, King Le Canh Hung wrote a poem in honor of the beautiful pagoda and landscape. He was the one who said that Bich Dong Pagoda was the second nicest pagoda in Vietnam, after the Huong Pagoda (also called Perfume Pagoda) in Ha Tay Province.

One cannot visit Bich Dong Pagoda without visiting Tam Coc Grotto, located approximately two kilometers from the pagoda. Tam Coc is three kilometers from Van Lam Wharf. Take a boat from Van Lam Wharf to reach the Tam Coc Grotto, consisting of the Hang Ca, Hang Hai and Hang Ba grottoes. These caves are adorned with beautiful stalactites and stalagmites of different shapes and colours that sparkle like gemstones.

Cuc Phuong National Park (100 kilometers south of Hanoi and reached by minibus in two hours on a narrow rutted road) is Vietnam's first and oldest national park. Created in 1962 and covering 60,000 acres, it features tropical rain forests and forest-covered limestone karst formations, with towering Buddhist trees, huge ferns, tent trees with hanging vines and huge buttresses. One very old tree requires 17 people to completely encircle it.Hoa Lu and Tom Loc (east of Cuc Phuong National Park) are regarded as Halong Bay without the water. The are areas with impressive limestone formations.

There are plenty of plants and mammals living in the park. There are an estimated 2,000 different species of flora and the 450 species fauna account for 38 percent of the national fauna. The vegetation cover is classified into three types. The flora is quite a treasure with a wide variety of 1,944 species, 908 genuses and 229 families. Especially it is enjoyable to touch the thousand-year-old cho xanh (parashrea stellata) and sau (Dracontomelum Duperranum or Dancorra Edulis) trees, 50-70 meters high. This natural reserve is covered with 2,000 species of plants. Especially orchid flowers are abundant with 50 species, some of which blossom and have aroma all year around.

Wildlife includes 319 species of birds, 36 kinds of reptiles, including king cobras, baned kraits and cobras, 17 types of amphibians and 64 species of mammal and 280 species of butterfly. Rare species include the palm civets, endangered Delacour's langurs (black and white monkeys with a three-foot-long bushy tail), clouded leopard, Chinese pangolins, Asiatic black bear bear, wild boar, tiger, leopard, fox, squirrel, monkey, etc. A large area, for half-natural breeding, is reserved for raising wild animals such as the spotted deer, deer, golden monkey, langur (vooc quan dui), flying squirrel, draco (than lan bay) and for research.

Thanks to the limestone terrain,Cuc Phuong National Park has a multitude of grottoes, including Thang Khuyet, Con Moong, Pho Ma, and Nguoi Xua, etc. Quen Voi, also part of the park, is where Nguyen Hue's army was stationed before it made its surprise attack on Thang Long and defeated Qin enemies in the spring of 1789.

At the visitor’s center there are caged animals, several basic multi-room guest houses built on stilts. The rooms go for between $20 and $40 a night for a double, including breakfast and dinner. Hiking destinations include waterfalls, stands of tall trees, teak forests, Muong tribal villages, and several limestone caves. Con Moong Cave (where neolithic tools and 12,000-year-old skeletons were found) can be reached by climbing 235 carved steps and six iron staircases built into a cliff face. The highest mountain May Bac Peak is 656 meters high. Its has high limestone cliffs and cloud forests often shrouded in mists. May Bac means "Silver cloud."

About 20,000 people a year visit the park. The best time of the year to visit is in the dry season from December to April when the temperatures are reasonably comfortable and there aren't any leeches. The best time to spot wildlife is early in the morning. Usually people hear rustling in the branches and catch glimpses of birds by rarely see large mammals.

Cuc Phuong National Park park is conveniently located on the route to several tourist attractions, including Bich Dong Pagoda, Hoa Lu, and Sam Son Beach. It is located 100 kilometers south of Hanoi in Ninh Binh and it is on the borders of three provinces of Ninh Binh, Hoa Binh and Thanh Hoa.

THANH HOA PROVINCE

THANH HOA PROVINCE (153 kilometers south of Hanoi) covers 11,133.4 square kilometers and is home 3.4 million people (2010). The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Viet (Kinh), Muong, Thai, Hmong, Tho. The capital is Thanh Hoa City. Administrative divisions: Towns: Sam Son, Bim Son; Districts: Muong Lat, Quan Hoa, Quan Son, Ba Thuoc, Cam Thuy, Lang Chanh, Thach Thanh, Ngoc Lac, Thuong Xuan, Nhu Xuan, Nhu Thanh, Vinh Loc, Ha Trung, Nga Son, Yen Dinh, Tho Xuan, Hau Loc, Thieu Hoa, Hoang Hoa, Dong Son, Trieu Son, Quang Xuong, Nong Cong, Tinh Gia.

Among of five provinces in North-Central Vietnam, Thanh Hoa Province is surrounded by Son La, Hoa Binh, Ninh Binh provinces on the north, Nghe An Province on the south, The South China Sea on the east with 102 kilometers coastline, and Laos on the west. Topography is divided into plain, coastal and mountainous regions. Hilly and mountains account three quarters of the total area. The Western region own abundant resources of forest products, and huge hydroelectric potentials. The plain is the third largest one of Vietnam. Owing to the cool climate and high rainfall, the province has annual average temperature of 24.5 degrees C. The rainy season often begins in June and ends in October.

Sights and Places of Interest: Located 16 kilometers from Thanh Hoa City, Sam Son Beach attracts lot of visitors. Beside the beach, Sam Son offers scenic spots such as Trong Mai Rocks, Doc Cuoc Temple and Mount Co Tien. Tourists also visit Ben En National Park, Cam Luong Fish Spring is another interesting place in Thanh Hoa, The stream contains thousands of fish that no one dares catch it. Fish in the stream have red mouth and fins, and brown scales, resembling carp. Please come to this place to play with fish, visit beautiful caves and grottos, watch dancing performances of Muong people and enjoy traditional lam rice and can wine. In addition of these, Thanh Hoa is famous of historical sites like Ham Rong Bridge, Ho Citadel and Lam Kinh Remains. Lam Son is the birthplace of national hero Le Loi and the starting point of the Lam Son revolutionary insurrection.

Getting to Thanh Hoa: Thanh Hoa is 153 kilometers from Hanoi, 62 kilometers from Ninh Binh, and 139 kilometers from Vinh (Nghe An). National Highway No.1A and North-South Express Train run through province. There are National Highway No.15 linking to Nghe An and National Highway No.217 connecting to Laos via Na Meo Bordergate.

Ben En National Park (in Nhu Xuan District, Thanh Hoa Provice) features breathtaking, karst scenery, with hills, mountains, rivers, cliffs, rock formations and a lake looks similar to Halong Bay. The park covers an area of 16,634hectares. The water surface accounts for 3,000 hectares of the park. With 21 big and small islands on its water, the lake looks similar to Halong Bay. Tourists and naturalists are interested in Ben En also because of its large bio-diversity. One can find a great range of plants and animals. Different ethnic groups including the Kinh, Muong, Thai and Tho live within the park.

CITADEL OF THE HO DYNASTY

CITADEL OF THE HO DYNASTY (170 kilometers south of Hanoi) is considered as the only stone citadel remaining in Southeast Asia and is one of the few remains in the world. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, it was built in 1397 by Ho Quy Ly who was the highest-ranking mandarin of the Tran Dynasty at the time. After the citadel was completed, Ho Quy Ly forced King Tran Thuan Tong to move the capital from the citadel of Thang Long (Ha Noi) to Thanh Hoa. In 1400, officially became the capital citadel. The citadel of the Ho Dynasty is also known as names of An Ton, Tay Do, Tay Kinh, Tay Giai, Thach Thanh.

The citadel of the Ho Dynasty, built according to the feng shui principles, testifies to the flowering of neo-Confucianism in late 14th century in Viet Nam and its spread to other parts of East Asia. According to these principles, it was sited in a landscape of great scenic beauty on an axis joining the Tuong Son and Don Son mountains in a plain between the Ma and Buoi rivers. In terms of architectural history, the citadel of the Ho Dynasty plays an important place in the planning and building of urban areas in Viet Nam. It shows the uniqueness in the construction of a citadel in general and a stone citadel in particular, and a breakthrough in Viet Nam’s tradition of building citadel. Thanks to the unique construction techniques all the major stone sections are intact and have not been affected by time and weather or by recent urban encroachment. The citadel of the Ho Dynasty is an architectural masterpiece of the 14th century with impressive architecture of the walls and other parts. The citadel buildings represent an outstanding example of a new style of Southeast Asian imperial city with a combination between the Vietnamese architecture and the unique building techniques of Viet Nam, Southeast Asia and Eastern Asia. [Source: UNESCO]

The Ho Citadel is an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble in a landscape setting.The use of large blocks of stone testifies to the organizational power of the Neo-Confucian state, and the shift in the main axis distinguishes the Citadel layout from the Chinese norm. It represents new developments in architectural style with respect to technology and, in adapting pre-existing geomantic city planning principles in an East Asian and South-east Asian context, makes full use of the natural surroundings and incorporated distinctly Vietnamese and East and Southeast Asian elements in its monuments and landscape.

The Ho Citadel has three major components which represent the characteristics of the Ho Dynasty: the Inner Citadel, the Nam Giao altar and part of La Thanh Outer Wall. These elements reflect the presence of a citadel that has remained almost intact, with massive stone walls within a landscape setting that is easily recognizable. Excavations have also demonstrated a rich source of archaeological evidence preserved underground below the present rice and other crops within the boundaries of the three components. The buffer zone includes all cultural elements that were part of a large imperial city during the late 14th – early 15th century, including religious monuments, traditional villages, common houses, ancient roads, markets, landing places and scenic beauty spots, which are a direct tangible expression of the cultural values of the property.

According to historical documents, ancient bibliographies and archaeological research, the complex of the citadel of the Ho Dynasty includes Thanh Noi (Inner Citadel and also known as Imperial Citadel) with the remains of the royal palaces and temples inside; La Thanh and Nam Giao Altar (for worshiping the Heaven). The Thanh Noi is a unique architectural work, with its wall and four main gates made of green square stone plates beautifully carved and overlapped tightly one after another. On the average, each stone plate is 1.5 meters long, one meter thick and weighs about 15-20 tonnes. The citadel is fairly square with about 877 meters long north and south sides, 879.3 meters long east side and 880 meters long west side. Its four domed gates are called the Southern, Northern, Western and Eastern gates (or also known as the Front, Back, Left and Right gates). The stone plates on the dome are carved as sections of a grapefruit, tightly overlapping. The Front gate in the south is the main gate and has three doors. The middle door is 5.82 meters wide and 5.75 meters high. The side doors are 5.45 meters wide and 5.35 meters high. Each of three remaining gates has only one door. The wall of the citadel is 5-6 meters high on average. The highest wall section is the front gate with the height of 10 meters. Scientists estimated that the entire wall was made of 25,000 cubic meters of stones. Inside the stone wall was another wall made of approximately 80,000 cubic meters of soil.

According to the documents, there were palaces in the Thanh Noi such as Hoang Nguyen, Nhan Tho, Phu Cuc, Dong Cung, Dong Thai Mieu, Tay Thai Mieu, Diem Canh… However, now the Thanh Noi remains some relics such as a part of the citadel’s wall and four gates, vestiges of lakes, a couple of stone dragons with sophisticated carving features, foundation of Thanh Noi architecture, Hoa Nhai marble-paved road, stone balls, stone bullets, pottery, the Southern gate precinct and valuable objects with specific characteristics of Tran - Ho dynasties culture.

Called Hao Thanh, the system of water trench surrounded the Thanh Noi and connected with Buoi River through a canal at the southeast corner of the citadel. The Hao Thanh had four stone bridges over to the Thanh Noi at the four gates. Nowadays, many parts of the Hao Thanh have been filled and dried. However, the traces of the Hao Thanh still can be seen very clearly in the north, east and south of the citadel.

The La Thanh, the outer wall of the citadel built to protect the Thanh Noi was home to residents in the citadel. The La Thanh was approximately 10 kilometers in perimeter and its construction based on the natural terrain. The Ho Dynasty built the La Thanh by banking up and making bamboo hedge to connect the mountains of Don Son (Vinh Thanh Commune), Hac Khuyen (Vinh Long Commune), Xuan Dai, Trac Phong, Tien Sy (Vinh Ninh Commune), Kim Ngo (Vinh Tien Commune), Kim Nguu, Tuong Son (Vinh Quang Commune) with two rivers of Buoi and Ma. Now, the trace of La Thanh in Beo Village (Vinh Long Commune) with a length of 2000 meters has been localized for protection.

The Nam Giao Altar, an importance royal architectural work, was built in 1402 in the southwest of Don Son Mountain, on the spiritual pathway directly connected with the Southern gate, about 2.5 kilometers away from the citadel of the Ho Dynasty to the southeast. The Nam Giao Altar has an area of 43,000 square meters . Currently, the altar appears 5 grounds with 5 terraces. There is a difference of 7.80 meters between the highest and the lowest. The Nam Giao Altar is the place to sacrifice to the heaven; pray for harmonious rain and wind, peaceful country and happy people, prosperous and everlasting dynasty. In addition, the altar is also the place to sacrifice to the soul of dead kings, stars and many other genies. Nam Giao ceremony is considered as a royal ritual. The first Nam Giao ceremony of the Ho Dynasty was held in the same year of constructing the altar.

At the citadel of the Ho Dynasty, apart from construction of the Nam Giao Altar and performance of Nam Giao ceremony in 1402, the Ho Dynasty had left historical marks such as establishing Xa Tac Altar (altar of the Earth Genie and the Shennong - the Divine Farmer) in 1397, organizing two state exams in 1400 and 1405. In addition, the Ho Dynasty had been associated with remarkable innovations, such as reforming examination, building more schools, heightening the Nom scripts and issuing paper-money.

The recognized heritage places: Thanh Noi, La Thanh, Nam Giao Altar. Adjacent relics: Binh Khuong Temple, Dong Mon Communal House, ancient house, Tam Tong Temple, My Dam Lake, Nang Cave and An Ton Mountain, Giang Pagoda, Tran Khat Chan Temple, Du Anh Pagoda and Ho Cong Grotto.

Travel Information for the Citadel of the Ho Dynasty: The citadel of the Ho Dynasty is situated in hamlets of Tay Giai, Xuan Giai (Vinh Tien Commune) and Dong Mon (Vinh Long Commune), Vinh Loc District, Thanh Hoa Province, 150 kilometers south of Hanoi and 45 kilometers northwest of Thanh Hoa City. From Hanoi, go along National Highway 1A about 130 kilometers, turn right to Road 217, then go about 30 kilometers. From Thanh Hoa City, go along National 45 approximately 45 kilometers. Admission: Adults: VND 10,000/person; Children from 8 to 15 years old: VND 5,000/person. Opening time: Every weekday, including Saturday, Sunday and holidays. Summer: from 6:30am to 5:00pm. Winter: from 7:00am to 5:30pm

VU QUANG NATURE RESERVE

VU QUANG NATURE RESERVE (near the Laos border 170 miles southeast of Hanoi) is a beautiful mountainous area of dense, unmapped tropical rain forest with wild birds, cattle-like gaurs, forest pigs, sambar deer, gibbons, tigers, leopards, elephants and deer. In 1993, the first large mammal discovered in over 50 years was found here. The new species, the Vu Quang ox, was classified as a kind of wild cattle even though it has backward-pointing antlers similar to horns of a goat.

How could a species live here undiscovered for so long. "Part of the explanation," wrote Eugene Linden in Time magazine, "lies in the region's steep, ragged terrain and exceptionally wet, sweltering weather conditions...Incessant rains during the rainy season and dripping fogs during the dry season nature a slick algae that adds a treacherous coating to rocks and other surfaces...The presence of what maybe be ancient species is evidence that Vu Qunag and its environs have been ecologically stable for millions of years.

Established in 1986, and later enlarged from 40,000 acres to 150,000 acres, the park is named after 19th century Vietnamese who revolted against the French. There has been some logging in the park, but mostly it remains covered by virgin rain forest. Vu Quang is connected with the 900,000 acre Nakai Nam Theun National Biodiversity Conservation Area in Laos. There are plans to create 750,000 acres of reserves in the surrounding mountain forest in Vietnam.

See New Species of Animal

HAIPHONG

HAIPHONG (120 kilometers southeast of Hanoi) is the second largest port and the third largest city in Vietnam. Bombed by the French in 1946 and the Americans in 1965 and 1972, it is large, dirty and heavily industrialized there is little here of interest to tourists other than a few pagodas and some colonial buildings. Haiphong is also famous for its little tiger (cat) restaurants.

Haiphong City covers 1,522.1 square kilometers and is home to about 1.8 million people (2010). Administrative divisions: Districts: Hong Bang, Ngo Quyen, Le Chan, Kien An, Hai An, Duong Kinh, Do Son. Rural Districts: Thuy Nguyen, An Duong, An Lao, Kien Thuy, Tien Lang, Vinh Bao, Cat Hai, Bach Long Vi. Because of the proximity to the South China Sea, Haiphong's weather is affected by inter-tropical monsoons. The annual average temperature varies between 23 degrees C and 24 degrees C.

Sights and Places of Interest: Haiphong has many temples, pagodas, mausoleums and shrines such as ancient Du Hang Pagoda, Nghe Temple, Hang Kenh Communal House... Haiphong has famous historical Bach Dang River, where the national heroes defeated three Chinese feudal invasions. The third victory over the Yuan-Mongolians was known all over the world. Many of the teakwood pointed spikes have been discovered in this river. Haiphong is on tourism route: Hanoi - Haiphong - Halong Bay. Do Son Beach, located 20 kilometers from Haiphong, is a sand strip for bathing. However, during the monsoon season, the Red River's alluvial sands cause the water to turn yellow. From Do Son, tourist can visit Cat Ba National Park, and continue to Bai Tu Long Bay and Halong Bay (Quang Ninh Province). Haiphong is also famous for many festivals, of which Choi Trau Festival (Do Son Buffalo-fighting festival) in Do Son is unique.

Transportation to and from Haiphong: Haiphong is served by an important transportation network of sea routes, roads, railways, and airlines. Road: The National Highway No. 10 links Haiphong to the provinces of Quang Ninh, Thai Binh and Thanh Hoa. Haiphong is 102 kilometers from Hanoi. Airlines: There are connecting daily flights with Ho Chi Minh City, departing from Cat Bi Airport, Haiphong’s domestic airport: Airport to City transport: VND 50,000 (Taxi); Vietnam Airlines Sales Office: 30 Tran Phu Street, Tel: 392 1242; Flights From Ho Chi Minh City: 28 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 691, 1,112, 02h00'. Railway: There are trains from Hanoi to Haiphong and vice versa. Boat: Daily ferries from the dock on Ben Binh St. for other destinations. The ferry runs from Haiphong to Cat Ba Island several times a day. The hydrofoil boats run between Haiphong - Cat Ba and Haiphong - Hon Gai. The high-speed air-condition Thong Nhat Boat leave daily from Haiphong to Cat Ba.

Du Hang Pagoda (121 Du Hang Street, Du Hang Kenh Ward, Le Chan District, Haiphong) is Haiphong’s most famous pagoda. Built during the Ly Dynasty, it was renovated in the 17th century by Nguyen Dinh Sach, an officer of the imperial guard who resigned and became a Buddhist monk. In 1899, during the reign of King Thanh Thai, a monk by the name of Thong Hanh expanded the pagoda and built a bell tower. The existing pagoda resulted from the repair work carried out during that time. Inside the pagoda are several statues that are intricately engraved in the style of the Nguyen Dynasty. Valuable relics, such as bronze tripods and gongs, are also kept in the pagoda.

Hang Kenh Communal House (Du Hang Kenh Ward, Le Chan District, Haiphong City) is famous for its valuable wooden sculptures. Hang Kenh Communal House, also referred to as Nhan Tho Communal House in Sino-Vietnamese. Built in 1717, Hang Kenh Communal House was later expanded in 1905. The main front hall, also called "dai dinh", connects to the back part through a tiled roof bridge. There are lots of valuable items in the communal house, of which there are 156 pieces with a dragon as the main theme. Altogether, there are 308 dragons of different shapes and sizes. The pagoda also houses a statue of Ngo Quyen and a palanquin. Every year from the 16th to 18th of the Second lunar month (late February or March), ritual ceremonies, festivals, traditional games and performances of "cheo", "tuong" and other folk songs are held at the communal house, attracting large crowds.

Do Song (20 kilometers southwest of Haiphong City, about 120 kilometers from Hanoi) is northern Vietnam's most popular beach resort. Bordered by green forest and coconut palms, it embraces a three-mile long stretch of beaches and small islets. The beach is often crowed. A small casino has been set up for foreign tourists in the old Van Hoa hotel.

Do Son is a small peninsula located between the Lach Tray and Van Uc Rivers. Do Son beaches are shaded by thousands of sandalwood trees and surrounded by mountains and Pine Hills. Immediately upon setting foot in Haiphong, the French turned Do Son into a summer resort for their expatriate community and the Vietnamese upper class.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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