The Red River is the lifeline of Northern Vietnam. The water spreads far and wide for miles in its lower portions where the land is flat, creating one extremely fertile delta.
The Van Long Nature Reserve is the largest wetland reserve in the Red River Delta! It’s close to Ninh Binh as well as the ultra-popular Tam Coc, which has its own boat ride.
But here’s why the boat ride in the Van Long Nature Reserve is the best!
Quick Overview of the Van Long Nature Reserve
What makes Van Long rare is that it’s both extremely flat and surrounded by high, almost vertical limestone karsts.
Add to that the fact that the water goes underground too, forming cave systems and tunnels under the rocks.
Indeed, it’s quite unique – it’s the only such environment in mainland Southeast Asia.
The experience you get when taking a boat ride in Van Long is similar to Halong Bay – only it’s on land. A lot more quiet and peaceful, shallower and more compact sightseeing adventure.
On top of that, it is a nature reserve due to the diverse ecological system in the area. Bird watchers will rejoice – there are countless bird species living around the waters – heron, swamphen, bittern, geese, ducks, and even eagles.
I have to confess – I know little about birds and yet I feel like I saw a few species for the first time there!
Van Long Nature Reserve is also the only home of the Delacour’s langur – an endangered, small, black and white monkey. They are hard to spot (only ~200 remain!), but I was lucky to see one from afar when the boat-rowing lady pointed it out.
How to get to Van Long?
Van Long is only about 18 km from the nearby city of Ninh Binh. There are no public buses that go between the two, but renting a motorcycle in Vietnam is easy and ubiquitous. Expect to pay around 100.000 VND (4$) to rent a motorcycle for a day.
You can even rent a bicycle for around 25.000 VND (1$) and cycle there. It will take you around 90 minutes, but the terrain is flat and does not present any difficulties.
Most people don’t stay in the uneventful Ninh Binh, instead opting for the tourist hotspot Tam Coc.
The strategy is much the same – rent a motorcycle or a bicycle to cover the 24 km.
Alternatively, you may want to book this tour that will take care of everything for you and also bring you to visit Vietnam’s first capital – Hoa Lu (in a private car moreover!)
Van Long Boat Ride: all you need to know
There is no entrance ticket to enter the area of the wetlands. There’s a straight road that goes parallel to where the water meets the land at the borders of the Nature Reserve.
Look out for the Cement Factory that marks the beginning of the protected area. Yes, that’s right, there’s a cement factory next to a protected nature reserve. Welcome to Vietnam.
Another landmark to look out for is the brand-new, massive Catholic Church called Thánh Đường Giáo Xứ Lãng Vân Ca.
The place you want to reach to buy a ticket for the boat ride is exactly here. The kiosk is to the left of the main road, down a slope. The local boat rowers waiting for tourists will show you the way if you look lost.
One ticket costs 100.000 VND (4$) per person (not per boat).
Van Long Nature Reserve is open for visitors every day between 8 AM and 6 PM.
The Boat Rower
After buying a ticket from the kiosk, you will be assigned a boat rower. I have a slight feeling that they make an order among themselves and the next in line takes whoever books a ticket. That way they don’t fight over customers. It’s all pretty organized at Van Long.
I traveled with two German girls and we got assigned a lovely old lady as a rower. She equipped us each with a Vietnamese hat and we boarded the boat.
Initially, I thought we would at least get to help a bit with the rowing, but alas that was not the case. The old lady rower put her feet on the paddles and I have to say, she surprised me with her strength and tenacity.
We even offered to help, but no – sit back and enjoy the ride it was!
Boats have a capacity of 1 rower and 4 passengers, so if you’re a bigger group, you will need more boats. The price is per person, so it doesn’t really matter.
If you’re totally solo though, then I don’t know – maybe you get a private ride, maybe you have to wait a bit for other people to come and join you. I guess you’ll have to find out yourself.
The Boat Ride
The Van Long boat ride lasts between 45 minutes and 1.5 hours. It all depends on the mood of your rower, how charming you are, and maybe even how deep your pockets are.
My boat ride lasted around 1 hour. The old lady was really nice and took us to many of the picturesque places in the wetlands, including a small cave where we almost didn’t fit even after ducking inside the boat!
She even showed us a monkey on one of the cliffs. Whether it was the Delacour’s langur, I couldn’t tell. She claimed it was. It was from so far, I could barely tell how big it actually was, let alone its color or features.
Her English skills were minimal, but nothing that can’t be solved with some good old Google Translate.
She even showed us the cliffs where parts of the movie Kong: Skull Island were filmed. The movie is about primordial giant beings and so the landscape of Van Long fits it very well.
To tip or not to tip. That is the question.
Seriously though, I’m not a fan of tipping if I’m already paying for a ticket. But then again, I don’t know for sure how much the rowers personally get from the entrance fee.
The German girls and I decided to tip 50.000 VND (2$) together as appreciation for the boat ride.
I’ve heard of people tipping 10.000 VND each and others tipping over 100.000 VND.
I’ve also heard of instances where the boat rower aggressively demands a tip or asks for a bigger one. If this happened to me, I’d be leaving the boat as far as possible, wallet still in my pocket.
Other fellow travelers have also reported being asked to tip while they were still on the boat in order to progress further or to go to more places. That one is absolutely ridiculous but I don’t see what you could do in such a case.
Thankfully, most boat rowers are honest and hard workers. While they will surely expect a tip, they will do so humbly and accept it respectfully. A little tip at the end will help them a lot.
Keep in mind that this kind of behavior happens on all boat rides in Vietnam – on the Mekong Delta, at Trang An, with the worst being at Tam Coc where boat rowers can occasionally be overwhelmingly pushy and rude.
Best time to go for a boat ride at Van Long
You can visit Van Long at any time of the year. However, certain months are better than others.
- May to June: The lotus flowers bloom in pink, which is pretty cool!
- November to April: It’s the dry season. Don’t worry – there’s still plenty of water in the wetlands. Birds come to Van Long between these months to nest in the area.
- Avoid July to October: It’s the rainy season. Avoid North Vietnam if possible. Otherwise, prepare to get wet on short notice.
As for the time of day to go: close to sunset the colors the sun makes are reportedly the best. That means sometime in the late afternoon between 15:00 and 17:00.
This being said, I was there in the morning between 9:00 and 10:30 and it was still pretty nice.
Why choose the Van Long boat ride over Tam Coc and Trang An?
Well, do you really have to choose? They are all in the same region, a mere couple of miles from each other, and each quite impressive.
But say you must only choose one? Should it be Van Long? Why?
I say yes.
For starters, there is no other place that better showcases overtourism in Vietnam than Tam Coc. The sheer number of tourists going there, the day trippers, the local Vietnamese tourists coming in hordes of buses, the backpackers, and the family travelers all add up to a very crowded place.
And the boat rides reflect that – people are nudged more, vendors lurk around every corner, rowers don’t really put their heart into it.
You may even have to queue in line for the next available boat – something that would never happen in Van Long where supply is bigger than demand throughout the day.
Trang An is a little better, but Van Long is where you should go for the most authentic and most peaceful possible experience.
The three boat rides have pretty much the same price. Here’s how I rank them in terms of the other important variables:
Your choice boils down to this maxim: what you lose in length of the route of the Van Long boat ride, you win in having the whole place for yourself, unbothered and at peace.