Ninh Binh is a small town about 100km south of Hanoi, which is surrounded by a number of lesser known interesting sites. Hoa Lu was the first capital of the independent Vietnam, under the Dinh dynasty and the early Le Dynasty (968-1009). There are two sanctuaries, each of them devoted to the emperors of one of these two dynasties. They are set into a landscape of limestone mountains reminiscent of some the better known sites of South China. In Tam Coc, you can take a boat tour on a river which tunnels several times into the same type of mountains. The river is actually used by local villagers to access their rice fields. The nearby Ken Ga canal provides the opportunity to observe river life in the North, and contrast it with what you can see in the Mekong Delta. The whole area was an important center of catholicism, and you will be surprised to see churches among the rice fields. Phat Diem has a vast cathedral which has a unique Sino-Vietnamese architecture.