Van Long Nature Reserve – Ninh Binh’s Hidden Waterway

The steadily growing popularity of Van Long Nature Reserve in Vietnam’s Ninh Binh Province is exclusively among foreign tourists. Locals have known about this sanctuary of wildlife for a long time, often choosing it above Tam Coc for their boat trips around the jagged limestone teeth and tranquil waterways of Ninh Binh. The unsaturated nature of Van Long is its biggest draw; boat tours are dirt cheap, unblemished views abound and the aura of the area is more placid than that of (sometimes) tourist-heavy Tam Coc. Here’s everything you need to know about Van Long Nature Reserve.

Sunset in Van Long Nature Reserve

Van Long Nature Reserve

Essentially, an untouched paradise spanning no less than 3,500 hectares. Two decades of tourism in the area since 1998 have not ruined its ecology, with a broad river running around the foothills of the forested mountains that are spread sporadically throughout Van Long. The wide sky that spans Van Long produces some truly magical pictures on clear days and at sunset, which can be seen in the pink and orange hues over distant mountains.

Along with the picture of perfect scenery, Van Long Nature Reserve is home to about 250 different species of animals, including 72 varieties of birds; a dreamland for birdwatchers. Vast swathes of swooping egrets and low-flying stalks make for the most amazing sights in Van Long, while crakes and kingfishers watch on from the rocks and reed branches. 

Primate enthusiasts can get their fair share of joy as well from a Van Long boat trip. The area is known for being one of the last remaining homes of Delacouri langur monkeys, a species in the ‘red book’ of endangered animals in Vietnam, but one that has found sanctuary amid the wooded mountains protected from poachers and predators by Van Long’s river.


Boat day trip in Van Long

Where is Van Long Nature Reserve?

Right in the northern reaches of Ninh Binh, close to the southern border of Ha Nam Province. Just half an hour from Tam Coc and Ninh Binh City, it is also the closest of Ninh Binh’s attractions to Hanoi, taking about 1 hour and 45 minutes to reach from the capital. Its proximity makes it a good choice for a day trip from Hanoi, or it can be seen as part of a longer multi-day expedition to Ninh Binh’s other attractions like Cuc Phuong National Park and the ancient capital city of Hoa Lu.

Solo travellers can travel here by bike, which takes just under 2 hours down the normal route, or just under 3 hours if you decide to take the more scenic Ho Chi Minh Highway, which is a good idea for people who set out early enough. Buses and trains from Hanoi to Ninh Binh are very regular, but a taxi will need to be sorted out for the final leg to Van Long Nature Reserve.

When should I go to Van Long Nature Reserve?

Like Tam Coc, the waterways of Van Long contain stretching green fields of rice that turn gold during harvest time from around late April to early June. While this affords the best views and the most farming activity in Van Long throughout the year, it also brings the most tourists. As much of a problem as this is for Tam Coc, it is less of a problem for Van Long, which still enjoys plenty of space and serenity during high season.

If it’s more solitude you’re after, then maybe a visit during March will be more appropriate, when the lush green rice is out. Many domestic tourists are still reeling from an expensive Vietnamese New Year in February and are less likely to book a holiday during this time, clearing the waters for you to soak up views in the cool temperatures.

The times to avoid are essentially mid-June to late mid-September, the wet season in the North of Vietnam and December to February, the cold and grey season. While increased privacy during these times is a bonus, the fact that you might be struggling to stay upright in the capsizing boat might put a dampener on your relaxing time.

A corner of Van Long Nature Reserve

What is there to do at Van Long Nature Reserve?

Of course, the main draw is the boat tour, a 90-minute round trip that floats under caves and in the shadows of the great karst rocks towering above. At 60,000 VND ($3) a ticket, you really can’t complain. Be sure to give the rower a small tip at the end, as they surely don’t earn a lot from the tickets.

As we mentioned before, bird watching is a great activity for enthusiasts because of the 72 different species on show. Long, slow boat rides are perfect to get wonderful snaps of nesting or flocking rare birds.

The path that runs adjacent to the wetlands is perfect for cycling, walking or jogging and the best times to do this are at sunrise or sunset, when the light colours meld in the sky and their image is reflected on the undisturbed water below.

Bird Watching in Van Long Nature Reserve

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