Over a thousand years ago, the stretch of sleepy countryside around Hoa Lu in northerly Ninh Binh province was a lot livelier as the site of the country’s former capital. Reportedly chosen by the Dinh dynasty (AD 968-80) to ensure enough distance between it and its northerly neighbor China, today much of the capital’s former splendor—fortress walls, temples, shrines and more—have been lost to time.
Still, visitors can explore two surviving temples built to honor emperors Dinh Tien Hoang and Le Dai Hanh and the dynasties they represent; the latter includes a small museum housing some artifacts excavated from an old earthen city wall. The Dinh Tien Hoang temple, perhaps the more impressive of the two, got a facelift in the 17th century. Just outside you’ll find the pedestal from his throne, and inside a statue of the emperor depicted with his three sons. A short walk away, some vestiges of the old palace’s foundation, unearthed by the Vietnamese Archaeology Institute in 1998, remain.
To truly soak in the full expanse of the just-over-a-square-mile complex, take the 20-minute walk up Ma Yen mountain via the path near the Hoa Lu ticket booth, it leads to the tombs of the temple’s two namesake emperors and overlooks the region.
The only way to access Hoa Lua is via an organized tour, often from Hanoi, or by taxi from Ninh Binh 10 miles south; the site is not serviced by public transit. Admission to the temples is approximately 12,000VND (about $.50USD) and usually included in day-trip tours.