Vietnam isn’t a terribly large country, but it’s super long and going from the north to the south takes ages to do. We started in Hanoi and eventually wanted to fly out of Ho Chi Minh city (previously known as Saigon), but it’s over 30 hours on a train to go from one to the other. Besides that, there’s a lot of really cool stuff between them to see that a lot of people skip that we wanted to see. Rather then going straight to Ho Chi Minh city, we decided to make several stops on the way to break the trip up and explore. Ninh Binh was our first stop after leaving Hanoi, and it didn’t disappoint.
Only about 2 1/2 hours outside of Hanoi, Ninh Binh is usually referred to as the ‘Ha Long Bay on Land’, and for good reason as well. The entire area is covered in limestone mountains that look much the same as Ha Long Bays, but rather then being surrounded by blue water, you’re surrounded by green fields and rice terraces. Also, there’s a lot less people there, which is always nice. When people talk about Ninh Binh, they’re usually referring to the overall province, which includes the town of Ninh Binh as well as the little villages surrounding it. The town itself is pretty bleak and there’s nothing there, so most people visiting end up staying in Tam Coc which is about 10 minutes outside of it. Due to bus and train schedules, we ended up staying for 2 nights, but we had almost 3 days as our train to go to Hue didn’t leave until 10pm on our final day there.
There’s a lot to do in the area; however, most of it is based around the outdoors. Tam Coc has lot of accommodation and food options, as well as being situated next to Ngo Dong River. Tam Coc means ‘three caves’ in Vietnamese, and from the village you can get a boat ride down the river to the caves. We’d read a lot of stories online (as well as being warned by our Vietnamese guesthouse owner) that the people giving the rides and tours in Tam Coc can be quite aggressive, often demanding you buy some sort of souvenir from them before they’ll return you to land. Instead, we were directed to Trang An, which is about 25 minutes away by motor bike and apparently not only more relaxed but prettier as well.
The Ninh Binh area is all part of the UNESCO Trang An Landscape complex, and Vietnam’s first mixed natural and cultural property. There are multiple locations all around Ninh Binh to discover – either on a tour or on your own like we did. We headed towards Trang An first thing in the morning, as we were hoping to get there before the buses full of day trippers (both local and foreign) arrived. It’s a fairly
easy drive, and you can’t miss it once you’re there’s a huge car part and a few massive signs. There’s 3 different tour options to choose from – kind of a short, medium, long option – but they’re all the same price and all between 2-3 hours long. Route one (short) takes you to a 3 caves, a few different temples, and the Kong film set. Option 2 (medium) takes you to 4 caves, some temples, and the Kong film set. And option 3 (long) takes you to something like 8 caves, temples, but no film set.
We weren’t terribly interested in the film set, but we also felt like 8 caves was a bit too same same, so we went for option 2 and it was pretty good. You can have up to 4 people per boat; however, they won’t take you with only 2 people, so we ended up going with two other girls. This was fine for the most part, except that they were there to take hundreds of photos and selfies in front of everything, which meant after we’d finished looking at things, we then had to wait around for them. Our guide didn’t speak any English, which meant we couldn’t ask any questions about the area or learn anything about this history, but I don’t know if ours was the anomaly or if that was true for most of the other guides as well.
The entire trip was about 2 hours long, and we did indeed get to see caves and temples along the way. The Kong film set is the last stop before you get off, and neither Rich nor I were big fans of it. It was very commercialized, with local people dressed up as minority tribes in the ‘village’ who were trying to sell you bracelets and other trinkets. You could see that a lot of people were loving it, but it just felt really fake and like it was set up to be a tourist trap (which it probably was, to be fair). Maybe I would have felt different if I’d seen the film and could connect with it, but as it was, we walked through it pretty quickly and sat and waited for the other two at the end of it.
Despite that, we both really enjoyed the boat trip, and it was incredibly beautiful. It was pretty cloudy and gloomy when we started, but we got some blue sky and sunshine towards the end which gives the place and entirely different feel. Worth checking out if you’re in the area (especially as an overnight stop on your way to or from Hanoi), but it would also be another good day trip fro Hanoi if that’s more your thing.
Once we’d finished our boat trip we got back on the bike and headed to the Bai Dinh Pagoda Complex. The complex is SE Asia’s largest Buddha complex, and consists of several temples and over 500 carved Buddha statues. The original, ancient pagoda is built directly into the mountainside and was built more than 1000 years ago. There are about 300 steps to get up to it, but it’s quiet and really worth it. Just down the mountain towards the center of the complex is the new pagoda. It was built in 2003 and set on a 80-hectare site including different highlights such as Jade well, Belltower, the main temple, and the hallway with 500 statues of Arhat. From the car park you can walk to everything – it took us about 20 minutes to walk to the new pagoda and maybe 15 minutes from there to walk to the ancient one – but there is also an electric car you can pay to go on as well. We found it pretty neat, although because it was later in the afternoon there was a big section we didn’t go to because we didn’t want to drive back in the dark. You could easily spend a few hours here walking around and taking in the sights. There are signs at the ancient pagoda asking you not to take pictures and, although there were many people taking pictures, we wanted to respect that request and so we put our camera away.
We had the entire day to kill before our 10 pm train that night, so the next morning we got up and headed over to the Mua Caves to explore. Although famous for and named after the caves, the caves themselves are not very impressive. However there are steps to climb up the mountain that give an incredible view of the surrounding area that definitely make the trip worth it. There’s about 500 steps up, although they’re not too steep, and there are a couple pagodas dotted around during the climb up as well. Once you’re at the top you’ll get a great view of the mountains and rice fields, well as a great view of the golden dragon that sits on top.
Our final stop in Ninh Binh was Bich Dong Pagoda, which in all honestly we added because we didn’t want to sit at the hostel for 3 hours before dinner. But it ended up being worth it! To reach the Pagoda you first cross a stone bridge before going through the gate. There are then 3 pagodas to explore, all accessed by stone steps going up the mountain. It’s not terribly big, but it’s fairly pretty and you get a good view from the top most pagoda. The steps going up are on the left side of the first building, and whilst we were climbing we noticed steps going up on the right side as well. We made our way over there once we were done; however, the gate to get to those steps from inside the pagoda is locked. We noticed that there was a path to the steps from outside of the pagoda though, and we decided to see if we could follow it all the way around. After heading back out of the pagoda, we followed the path around the pond at the front and it eventually led us to the steps – no gate and no lock! What were we meant to do but go up?
It probably took about 5 minutes to climb the steps (these ones are pretty step), and when we got to the top it opened up into a little secluded valley behind the pagoda complex. There was no one around and no signs saying not to enter, so we headed down into the valley for a bit of a wander. It felt like we’d stepped into Narnia – it was quiet and peaceful and there was only one building. We’re not sure what it is or what it’s used for, but we kept going until we ran out of path and then headed back. It was a nice reprieve from all the other people were at the pagoda, and we enjoyed a good 30 minutes of just us and nature. It looked like they were starting some building, and I’m curious to know what they intend to do. If anyone knows, or goes there themselves and finds out, let me know!
We went back to the hostel to return the motorbike and to grab some dinner before we had to make our way to the train station. We were booked onto an overnight sleeper train bound for Hue, which okay for the most part except that it was about 2 inches too short for Rich. He had to bend his legs to make them fit whilst I was able to stretch out and relax for the entire journey. I always thought I was too tall, but clearly some things are made perfectly for me!