Nestled around 80 km from Hanoi, the Van Long lagoon and wetland reserve has awed visitors with tranquil, pristine charms and notable biological diversity.
After crossing the Gian Khuat Bridge on National Highway 1, one will enter Gia Vien District in the northern province of Ninh Binh.
They cannot miss Van Long Dyke, which spans more than 30km and meanders through quiet villages and immense paddy fields.
Thanks to the 52-year-old embankment, Van Long became an expansive marshland which has been named the northern delta’s largest wetland reserve.
The area takes pride in thousands of floral and fauna species, including the Delacour's langur, a critically endangered species of lutung indigenous to northern Vietnam.
The primate has predominantly black hair, with white markings on the face and distinctive creamy-white fur over the rump and the outer thighs which give them the colloquial name of vooc quan dui (shorts-donning langur) or vooc mong trang (white-buttock langur).
The complex also boasts stunning rocky outcrops and resplendent grottos.
Tran Thuy Linh, a celebrated artist and Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper contributor, visited Van Long as a storm swept through several northern provinces, including Ninh Binh, in mid-July.
Though the downpours and rising water levels kept them from exploring the grottos, Linh and her group found it a blessing in disguise as they had memorable experiences taking a leisurely boat ride to a lotus lagoon spanning some hectares in area and admiring submerged plants beneath the 250-million-year-old karst mountains.
The area, which is inaccessible by boat in normal weather conditions due to mud and shallow water, is dotted with the Delacour's langurs.
The teeny boat then made its way through canyons teeming with flowering plants in the sedge family.
Mountains glistening in the mist and clouds stood aloft in the distance, giving the beholders a surreal, overwhelming feeling and fitting the complex’s name, Van Long (which literally translates as ‘a dragon in the clouds).
The torrential rain, however, prevented Linh and her group from visiting a century-old pagoda and a slab of rock bearing hieroglyphic characters which have baffled scientists so far.
As observed by Linh, Van Long stays gorgeous throughout the year, offering vacationers a clutch of delights whatever season they arrive in.
In autumn, the area is a haven for a type of huge algae and also brims with birds of different kinds.
Van Long is also known as “the bay without waves” as visitors on a boat marvel at a flat, still surface that resembles a huge, flawless looking glass.
Over recent years, Ninh Binh has emerged as a beloved tourist destination with a host of alluring scenic spots, including the UNESCO-recognized Trang An Landscape Complex, which boasts limestone karst peaks permeated with valleys, many of them partly submerged and surrounded by steep, almost vertical cliffs.
Inundated basins surrounded by karst mountains which locals dub thung are also a notable topographic feature.
Nestled not far from Tam Coc, part of the Trang An complex, Thung Nang is considered one of the locality’s most spectacular spots where stalactites of various shapes mirror themselves on the crystal-clear water.
The area is home to Thoong Nang Temple, where ba Chua thuong ngan, one of the country’s noted goddesses, is worshipped, and Voi Temple, which is built from centuries-old bricks with ornate carving details.
One cannot miss Thung Nham, or Thung Chim, which provides shelter for a wide range of birds and waterfowl, including storks, herons, teals, as well as endangered ones.
Thung Nham is also famous for scores of pristine caves with illuminating stalactites, with an example being But (the folklore Buddha) Cave, where a Buddha-shaped rock slab is seated in the center.
One must trek and ascend 439 rocky steps in order to reach Vai Gioi Grotto, another cavernous wonder in Thung Nham.
The 5,000m² grotto boasts three layers dotted with astounding stalactites and stalagmites.
It was where people in the old times made offerings to God to pray for auspicious weather and bumper crops.
Other draws are paradise-like An Tiem Grotto, also known as Tuyet Tinh Coc (Breakup Ravine), which is part of Hoa Lu, Vietnam’s ancient capital under the Dinh Dynasty (968-980), and a pagoda where Duong Van Nga, a notorious contemporary queen, stayed during her final years.
Meanwhile Mia Mountain and Mia Cave offer visitors stunning panoramas of ripening paddy fields at their prime time and imposing limestone mountains in the distance.