The uncrowded alternative to Halong Bay that you probably haven't heard of

Nga Do
I was standing in King Kong’s lair, transported here by a bamboo sampan that had weaved its way along a network of ochre waters, cutting through buoyant bunches of purple hyacinth, gliding past rippling layers of emerald mountains, to a series of vast interconnected caves. Amber dragonflies darted through reeds, a lazy iguana lolls in the sunshine, out of sight copperhead snakes slither in the undergrowth, while eight different species of monkey swung through the forest.

Welcome to Ninh Binh, a cinematic sweep of countryside found a two to three-hour drive south of Hanoi and the set location for next year’s summer blockbuster, Kong: Skull Island, a Jordan Vogyt-Roberts film starring Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston. It’s an area known locally as Vietnam’s 'Inland Halong Bay’. It boasts the same melting limestone mountains and the same velvety greenery, except here, the open sea has been replaced by rivers, streams, lakes and canals – there are far fewer tourists.

The uncrowded alternative to Halong Bay that you probably haven't heard of
Photo by titanevn
I’d arrived in Hanoi a few days earlier, checking into the new Apricot Hotel, a 1920s heritage building newly-refitted with colossal chandeliers, a contemporary art collection and a rooftop swimming pool overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, spending my days touring museums and being measured up by tailors, and my evenings feasting on lobster dinners and drinking champagne in French colonial-era villas. 

As part of a bespoke luxury tour organised by new Vietnamese operator Journeys to the East, my next stop was Halong Bay – or the more romantically-titled Bay of the Descending Dragon – a dreamy destination that figures on many a bucket list. Arriving by seaplane it was impossible not to be bowled over by the spectacular scenery, a natural maze of jagged peacock-green peaks dipping and rising in an ocean of pale jade for as far as the eye could see. An overnight cruise on a luxury junk – all charming teak cabins, blissfully empty decks and specially-tailored menus – coasted just far enough away from the flotillas of day-trippers to enable a full appreciation of the splendour and romance of the scenery. But there was little doubt that the secret of Halong Bay’s mystical beauty is well and truly out.

Much less known are Ninh Binh’s attributes, from its other-worldly limestone towers and filmic landscape, to its empty protected national parks, long twisting rivers, phenomenal caves, imperial history and remote Catholic cathedral. As I embarked on a sampan ride around the Van Long Nature Reserve, where the week before Hollywood A-listers had been throwing themselves around in the undergrowth, the only other souls I saw were a shy-looking hawker girl in a conical bamboo hat and a cheerful fisherwoman, who immediately paddled over to show off her bag of wriggly soft-shell crabs. The solitude and the untouched nature of the place felt like a gift . 

The uncrowded alternative to Halong Bay that you probably haven't heard of 1
Photo by Tuấn Mai
The thundering Thuong Mountain range, which once helped to protect this ancient  province from invaders, turned out to be like Swiss cheese inside, hollowed out with yawning caves, glassy subterranean rivers and inky unmoving pools. One of the most impressive; Dong Thien Ha (Galaxy Caves), a 700-metre long underground corridor, was where I saw calcium formations shaped like jellyfish mirrored upon jet-black water, and where I posed for a picture in a beam of light bursting through a fissure in the rock, and ducked in the darkness as a blizzard of bats took flight around my head.  

My lodgings here were at  the Tam Coc Garden Hotel, a charming flower-covered hideaway ringed by rice-paddies and lotus ponds and comprising just 16 bungalows (decked out with wispy netted beds, sunken living rooms and blue-glazed tubs).  From here I cycled two miles along deserted roads and crunchy country paths to Bich Dong, where a cluster of Buddhist cave temples, dating back to the 15th century, are populated by a handful of noiseless novice monks. The whole place radiated a soul-soothing sense of timelessness. 

Later, I returned to the water for one last adventure – a journey down the tranquil Ngo Dong River at sunset, with the layer-cake mountains silhouetted against a peachy sky and sleepy buffalo huddled on the banks. Out of nowhere, the soft mellow sound of a flute cut through the warm crepuscular air growing richer and richer as we passed through a bearded curtain of banyan tree roots. Seemingly hypnotised by the sound, our little convoy of sampans glided onwards slipping into the blackness of one last cave before our Pied Piper was revealed on the other side, resplendent in green silk perched on the back on a tiny bamboo boat with his wooden flute to his lips. Like the rest of my journey around this magical region, it was a moment fit for the silver screen; epic, poetic and unforgettable.    

With Hollywood status awaiting, Ninh Binh may not stay this way forever. Get there while it lasts.
The Telegraph

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