In our most recent Vietnam travel article we mentioned Mai Chau as our substitute for the hustle and bustle of Sapa.
You may recall that <GASP!!> we didn’t include Halong Bay in our itinerary either! Again, much umming and aahing, but as soon as we started reading up on Ninh Binh the decision was a no brainer.
Of course it isn’t the same, yet it’s easy to see how it’s often described as the ‘Inland Halong’. The limestone karsts that have developed in the area around Ninh Binh (pronounced Ning Bing) soar out of the flat, lush rice paddies, creating not only a jagged skyline, but a series of lakes and tunnels through the mountains that you can traverse by flat-bottomed boat! Cool huh?! The other bonus is that it’s located only a shortish drive/bus/train from Hanoi and will conveniently link you through to mid and southern Vietnam.
We spent two full days in Ninh Binh and found that to be just right, although an extra day would be nice, particularly during the summer when the scorching heat may limit how much you can cram into a day.
There’s plenty of accommodation in and around Ninh Binh. Try and stay outside Ninh Binh city itself if you can, as the countryside is incredible in its diversity. We stayed at Nguyen Shack, which was conveniently situated inbetween both Tam Coc and Trang An grottoes (stay tuned for a more detailed review of Nguyen Shack). Here are a few photos, to give you an idea of the rustic, yet utterly relaxing surroundings…
Ninh Binh itinerary – Day 1
After a hearty bowl of pho for breakfast, we thoroughly recommend exploring Hang Mua (Mua Cave) and more importantly, the lookout at the top of the 400+ steps, right next door to Nguyen Shack.
The last time I checked the entry fee was VND100,000 (~AUD$6) with car parking an extra VND10,000.
There’s a bizarre little resort style garden at the base of the mountain, complete with life size Tripitaka, Pigsy, Sandy and Monkey of the fantastic 70s TV series Monkey Magic (!!), as well as the slightly disappointing Hang Mua. The garden has seen better days, but it does look like there may be some redevelopment on the horizon.
You can’t miss the bright white steps that take you to the top of the mountain. It’s only a short climb, but it’s really steep and in the hot, humid conditions under a scorching sun you are going to sweat bucket loads!! Make sure you take plenty of water.
As you inch your way up the steep limestone escarpment, the valley below starts to unfurl its beauty. To your rear, like a patchwork quilt, the rice paddies stretch towards the horizon, dirt roads criss-crossing back and forth.
And then you reach the ridgeline where on the other side you are met with some gorgeous views down into the valley where the Ngô Đồng river snakes its way between the cliffs (those that decide to do the Tam Coc tour will find themselves boating down that very same river!).
A short time later you’ll find yourself greeted by the dragon at the top of the mountain, a statue of Quan Jin (Goddess of Compassion) and stunning views back towards Ninh Binh!
The conditions were too overcast during our stay for it to be worthwhile, but if clear skies had been forecast then I definitely would have climbed these steps a couple of hours before dawn, in order to see the sunrise. I imagine it would be pretty spectacular!
After returning to Nguyen Shack for lunch and to say hello to their pet pig, we recommend making use of the complimentary bicycles to explore the local area, ultimately making your way through the nearby village and up the main road to the departure point for the Trang An Grottoes boat ride. Remember to store your bike in the shed on the other side of the road for a small fee.
Tickets for the two hour boat ride are available from the clearly marked ticket office, and will cost you around VND150,000 per person.
After walking through the turnstile you’ll be allocated and directed to the next available boat. If it’s just the two of you then be aware that you’ll probably get paired up with another couple or a larger group.
At this point you can kick back on the bamboo slats and start soaking up the atmosphere as your rower (sometimes with hands, sometimes with feet!), propels you silently along the tranquil waterways of Trang An.
Early on you’ll make a stop at one of the temples that grace the water’s edge (toilet facilities are available), and not long after you’ll find yourself entering one of the numerous caves (grottoes) that link the large lakes.
The thunder had been rolling all day, and as we approached the final stretch of water the wind picked up dramatically, signalling the inevitable and impending tropical downpour!!
As Murphy would have it, and despite picking up oars ourselves to speed our return under the exhortations of our rower, we were only metres from the dock when it started to bucket down, making for one slippery dash across the courtyard to the safety of the sheltered walkway (where in better conditions we could have spent our time browsing the numerous souvenirs and snacks on offer).
Not fast enough to escape a drenching though, and one of those experiences that will never be forgotten, for all the best reasons!
Unusually, the rain continued for the next half hour or so forcing us to wait it out in the shelter of the bike shed. While it never stopped completely, there came a time that we were happy enough pedalling out into the drizzle and making our way back to Nguyen Shack where hot showers and cocktails awaited!
For Day 2, click here – Ninh Binh Day 2
As mentioned previously, the other popular boating option in the region is Tam Coc. The starting point for Tam Coc is to the south of Nguyen Shack and can easily be reached by bicycle as well. We didn’t try this one, but by all accounts it sounds like it’s also a lot of fun, albeit perhaps busier than Trang An, with some stories of pressure to buy souvenirs/food/water at the midway point. There are a lot of accommodation, food and drink options towards Tam Coc, so this could also be a great place to base yourself in the area.
The other option near Tam Coc is the Bich Dong Pagoda. Similarly, we didn’t explore this pagoda on the side of the mountain, but it does sound like the temples and caves are interesting, with fantastic views from the top as well!
For more information about any of these destinations, click through the following links:
- Nguyen Shack
- General information – Travelfish
- Hang Mua (Mua Caves)
- Trang An Grottoes
- Tam Coc
- Bich Dong Pagoda