The overnight bus to Ninh Binh was a bit of a shocker as I came down with a cold, further agitated from arriving at my destination at five in the morning. I got off the bus with one other person, everyone else carried onto Hanoi. We were greeted by a lone lady, advertising her guesthouse. With no map of Ninh Binh or anyway of finding out where I was I agreed to check out her place. Open for just ten days, it was to make Ninh Binh even more special, with family meals, more advice then I could handle, and all in all a wonderful atmosphere to the place.
I spent the first day watching films and attempting to beat the cold that was trying desperately to put a hold on my trip to Vietnam. I ventured out a couple of times to eat food. Ninh Binh has no tourist infrastructure (outside of three guesthouses) so ordering food was an enjoyable mystery of pointing at a word on the board and seeing what would arrive. Of course it’s not quite as random as in other places of the world as you can pretty much guarantee whatever you order will either be rice, noodles or soup.
The second day I got on a bicycle and cycled out to Trang An. I was informed that Tom Coc had been invaded by tourist groups from Hanoi and as a result was now a hive for hawkers and general hassle. Trang An was supposed to be a more relaxing place to enjoy the spectacular scenery. My guest house owners were of course correct. It was splendid. The reaction I had when I first set eyes on the limestone peeks that emerge from the rice fields was to quite literally slam on the breaks on my bike and look in amazement. The nine kilometer lake that weaves its way through twelve caves just capped it all off. I joined a young family on a boat for the three hour trip. It was breathtaking and a real wow moment on my trip. Not just in terms of the scenery though, watching some of the women rowers, rowing with their feet was one of the stranger skills I have witnessed.
After three hours sat on a wooden seat I was ready to hit shore. My pain however was healed slightly by the last ten or so minutes as we entered the home straight along with another three boats. Two of them were in the process of a macho Vietnamese exchange, seemingly racing to the finish post. The other boat was filled with the women who burst into local songs. Before I knew it everyone was singing. I could join in with the Vietnam chorus on one of the songs but other than that I was left to clap along. The songs just added to the majestic beauty of the place.
From Trang An I cycled to Hoa Lu. An old capital of Vietnam there is not a lot left. I went to one temple which was unremarkable but did have five hundred steps to climb to a view point at the top of one of the limestone peeks. Unfortunately the view was a little blocked by trees. Instead I veered off the path and opted to climb on up to the higher of the two. It was a bit of a climb, but well worth it when I finally got an unobstructed panoramic view of all the different peeks. Climbing back down was a little trickier with the continuous concern of not wanting to fall as the rocks are stupidly sharp.
The following day I headed south and went to another viewpoint. Again the climb was well worth it and the view beautiful. Although Ninh Binh is off the Western tourist radar it is not to the Vietnamese tourists. One of the reasons they come is for a pagoda, which I currently cannot remember or find the name of. From a non Buddhist perspective it wasn’t particularly interesting however being surrounded by hordes of Vietnamese tourists was highly entertaining as many handed me food and wanted to practice their English.
I loved my three days in Ninh Binh, it is quite simply criminal that it is not visited by more people. It’s by far the stand out of my time so far in Vietnam. The scenery is unique, and awe inspiring. In Laos I came across a couple of places off the tourist radar, Kong Lor Cave and Tat Lo waterfall for example and it is kind of understandable as they are a bit out of the way. However Ninh Binh is slap bang on the route to Hanoi. How a gem like this can exist in such a well trodden country as Vietnam is anyone’s guess. One thing is for sure, it should be on every persons itinerary. It’s incredible.