I was hoping to go south seeking warmer climates and different scenery, but Amy and Mike recommended me to stop in Ninh Binh for a couple of days to explore the area as it supposed to be pretty. They were right.
The city itself is like 3 hours south of Hanoi by minivan, with not much in it and not many foreigners. They come usually on a day-long trip so they don’t usually stay overnight. You can tell because there’s nothing for tourists in the way of restaurants, bars and other tourist oriented establishments. And that’s good, because you get to experience the Vietnamese style. On the other hand, once it gets dark there’s absolutely nothing to see or to do. Zero, Nada, Kaput!
Like the eatery I found on my rented motorbike. I was going around and I saw this dodgy-looking eatery that was full of local people, so I decided I had to tray that. If it’s full of locals it has to be good.I was welcomed by big smiles and fascination looks as I think they must not get many foreigners there. The food was really good and I kept coming back for the rest of my two days, as good food plus beer for 42000 dong ($2), what can possibly go wrong? I even took Santuu and Ella, a finnish couple I met at my hostel there so they could enjoy it and come again if they wanted as they were staying in Ninh Binh for longer. :)
There are a definitely a few interesting things you can visit in Ninh Binh.
The city of Hoa Lu, the ancient capital, was the capital of the old Vietnam back in the day. There you can see a few temples and other random ruins. It’s interesting to note that it’s full of Chinese tourists. Dunno why. Interesting for a couple of hours, better if you get a guide who explains the history to you.
But if you are interested in landscape and nature, you definitely have to visit Tam Coc and Mua Cave.
Tam Coc is this river across mountains (same style as in Guilin) where you can hire a boat and you get taken around this river while you look at the fantastic scenery and go through a few caves, one of them is 120 metres long. The fascinating thing apart from the scenery is that these guys row their boats with their feet. Yes, feet, not arms, so it makes for a nice photo moment.
Not just photo moment, it’s just mesmerizing to look at them how they do it, as they are really really skilled. Totally recommended.
If you have a look at wikitravel and/or the Lonely Planet Guide, they warn you about people trying to hard sell you things on your return trip (on the boat) and getting really aggressive and rude if you don’t buy anything. Not my experience though. True, there are people there who try to sell you stuff, but if you refuse politely all is good. All you need to do is give them a small tip at the end of the trip and that’s it.
There’s this other place called Trang Ang Which is basically like Tam Coc but less crowded and apparently nicer. I didn’t have time to see it but just saying in case anyone wants to pay a visit as they say it’s less crowded than Tam Coc and you get to see the same kind of scenery.
Mua Cave is this cave at the bottom of one of these mountains. A bit difficult to find actually, so you’ll need a scooter or a bicycle and, armed with the map, ask locals for directions. The cave itself is not really great, to be honest. Just a hole at the bottom of the mountain which lets you get literally to the other side. It’s just like 60 metres at most.
But the interesting things for me were the pond at the bottom where I could take some amazing pictures (lucky me) and the stairs to the top of the mountain. I arrived late in the afternoon when it was getting closer to the sunset and the pond, with its lighting and crystal clear water it seemed fantastic. Just check the photos! :-) (more on flickr)
The stairs have around 500 steps that take you to a kind of sanctuary on the top of the mountain. There you have an amazing view of Tam Coc (the river on one side) and rice fields (on the other side). Really really nice! (Big warning, there are mosquitoes of the tiger variety, and this was Vietnam’s winter, so be warned if you go in the summer.
Apart from these, there are a few other spots you can see close to Tam Coc, like a small pagoda and temples in a cave on a mountain, not much, but you can climb to the top (with someone who will take you up there for a small fee) where you can get a pretty good view of the area. Difficult and dangerous (really) but worth the visit, as you get a nice view of the area (which must look amazing if you get it on a clear day)
There’s also a set of temples around 25 km away from the city. That’s the Bai Dinh temple area. It’s interesting because it’s got a pagoda in construction. And they seem to be building this huge complex to visit it, including a road through some tunnels across nearby mountains. But you’ll definitely need a scooter to visit it.
Before you say anything, have a look at the history of the Swastika
In summary, I liked it. I thought it was pretty and interesting to see, plus the city is mostly interesting as it doesn’t have almost any tourists, so you are seeing a real Vietnamese city!