Where Day 1 of our two day itinerary focused on the region close to Ninh Binh, Day 2 will take you further afield and will require the use of either a motorbike, taxi or private tour organised through your accommodation. If you’ve got thighs like tree trunks I guess you could consider doing it on a bicycle…but you’d not only have to be pretty ambitious but to exhibit distinctly camel-like traits as well!
Ninh Binh itinerary – Day 2
We aren’t massive temple or pagoda fans, but we thought we’d make an exception for Bai Dinh, the largest Buddhist temple in Vietnam!
Covering more than 700 hectares, the sprawling complex of pagodas, lakes, statues, and courtyards could keep you busy all day if that was your thing. In fact, the place is so big that the most popular option under the hot Vietnamese sun is to pay a small fee (VND30,000 each way) for an electric car to take you the 2km between the car park and the front entrance!!
From what I’ve heard, and what we saw, you could ask your driver to drop you off at the northern end of the complex, saving you the fee, but it does seem that standard practice is to take you to the main car park (VND20,000 for motorbike parking) where you can also browse the shops for souvenirs etc. Your driver will also be waiting for you back at the car park so you’ll have to pay for one way at least anyway.
Alternatively, I’m led to believe that there’s a also walking track between the car park and the temple grounds, but that’s not an option we explored.
Otherwise, entry to the temple itself is free!
Inside the complex, linking the entrance to the main temple up the hill, are two corridors on the eastern and western sides, with 500 gorgeous ‘arhat’ statues lining the stone walkway under shimmering gold arches. From what I can gather an ‘arhat’ is essentially a Buddhist saint, and judging by the number of locals touching or stroking the belly/knee/foot of each statue (see the dark bits in the photo below), I’d say there is much good luck to be had!
The temple at the top of the hill is really impressive, and it’s well worth removing your shoes to explore the interior. So many flashing lights surrounding the Buddha it was like being in a disco!
To the side of the temple was the 13-stories tall pagoda known as Bao Thap.
If you’d like to escape the crowds, it’s worth making the short walk up, over and around the hill behind the main temple to the original Bai Dinh temple and caves. The last section is steep, but the caves are worth a look.
Surprisingly, we found that 2 hours wasn’t anywhere near enough to explore everything that Bai Dinh had to offer, forcing us to rush towards the end. Our interest tends to wane quite quickly when it comes to temples, but in this case we kept finding new and interesting things to see, read and experience! I’d recommend allowing at least three hours, if not four if you’re a real temple or Buddhist buff (buffed Buddhist?).
While there is a cafe on the grounds up the top of the hill, other food options in the area are scarce so you may even want to bring your own. Alternatively, you could always ask your driver for a local recommendation in one of the villages and get the authentic Vietnamese experience!
The second half of the itinerary takes you east and then north to the Van Long Nature Reserve where after purchasing your ticket for VND70,000 you’ll spend the next hour and a half being punted along the still, green waters of the nature reserve.
Half way in and you’ll find yourself entering a cave in the side of the mountain. Unfortunately the water level wasn’t high enough to allow us to float all the way through and out the other side. Instead, we turned around and then parked ourselves next to the reeds for around 10 minutes while we watched and listened to a troop of the endangered Delacour’s langur whooping to each other in the distance!
While our attention was fixed on the langur show, the rain began to fall softly, prompting our rower to harvest a couple of lotus leaves and fashion two makeshift, yet surprisingly effective hats! While she was at it she also extracted a pod of lotus seeds and showed us how to peel and eat the fresh seeds hidden inside. Such a surprise, and so delicious, with a subtle nutty flavour.
And with smooth, strong strokes of the oars, we glided our way back between the reeds. Get your timing right and there’s every chance you’ll catch an incredible sunset on your return as well!
A tip is much appreciated by the rowers, and after our experience we were more than happy to tip very generously, particularly considering the care and attention that was given to us throughout the afternoon.
For anyone planning on visiting Ninh Binh, trawling the travel forums for boating experiences will typically yield a range of opinions regarding the pros and cons of Tam Coc, Trang An and Van Long.
For us Van Long was the pick of the bunch. Arriving at around 4:45pm we were astounded at how few other people there were on the water, perhaps encountering only two or three other boats! You won’t get as many caves as either Tam Coc or Trang An, but the serenity and beauty of the marshes, together with the chance to view the incredibly rare Delacour’s langur, of which less than 250 are estimated to remain in the wild, make this one very special experience.
It’s a little bit further to travel, but well worthwhile!
For Day 1, click here – Ninh Binh Day 1
On the way out to Bai Dinh you’ll pass the entrance to Trang An Grottoes. If you’ve only got one day in Ninh Binh then you could easily squeeze Trang An into your itinerary. Check out our ‘Day 1’ itinerary for more information.
For more information about any of these destinations, click through the following links: