Known for the limestone Karst typical to the northern landscape of Vietnam, Ninh Binh is a small town just south of Hanoi, where we stayed for two days. Our first impressions were not great, arriving at 3 o’clock in the morning, 4km from our hostel. This didn’t change much as the town is uninspiring and featureless. The real grab of the place is the surrounding area, and day trips to not so little places of natural beauty.
Trang An & Tam Coc
These two sights are the main pull for visitors here. Gargantuan limestone rocks fill the landscape, with a mini forest of shrubbery growing on them and complicated waterways at their base. The finished look is dramatic to the point of being almost unreal. Drift through what feels like an ancient land, and marvel at what nature can do. Beautiful sights, however, come at a price. Tam Coc is the larger of the two sights and the most obvious one to visit. The boats dock at a small tuck in the water, where road access and a small tourist village have been built for the purpose. We arrived on our bike, clipped past the charged parking, and got to the boats. It costs around 250 dong, if not more, for the boat charge and the ‘entrance fee’. Outraged, we got on our bike and sped off for other things in the area than might be cheaper and prettier. Tam Coc is a perfectly good place to do your boat trip, just be prepared to bend the budget.
Alternatively, there’s Trang An. By this point we knew it was going to cost us, and had experienced the famed brittleness of the northern Vietnamese. Having paid all the parking, entrance fees, toilet fees, and ticket price, we were finally on our way. Trang An is stunning. It’s like you’ve just stepped into a scene on National Geographic or a painting. The valley like shape of the rocks creates a pocket of tranquility, where wind, noise and civilisation are far far away. The water is clear and full of fish, and on either side are little plants, making floating fields. The row boat took us along the waterways, and then through the rock. The caves are low and dark, but all the more fun for that. On the other side, you can reach lagoons dotted with temples. (Don’t be fooled though, the ride isn’t without all signs of life. The boat takes you to a pricey ‘lunch’, so bring snacks, and you might even be pestered for a tip, not so politely either.) I can’t forget the magic of that place, despite a few ruffled feathers. For Ninh Binh, Trang An & Tam Coc are the thing to do.
Bich Dong Pagoda
Further along the road to Tam Coc, is Bich Dong. Small and unassuming from the front, it’s a beautiful little stop. Across a slip of water, under an archway and along a dirt path and you find yourself in the temple grounds. From here, there are two pathways up the hill. One leads you into the depths of the temple, buried in the cave, through a dark passagway, that took lots of coaxing to get me into. The other takes you over a low hill, that dips between two larger rocks. Trying to breathe through the sweat mound that I was, melting like a candle over a bottle, I looked over the top of the hill down into pure paradise. The sun was on its way down and the light was golden, showing a secret nook of water. At the bottom, a goat farmer gave us a nod and let us roam around. After a bit he took us into a cave and showed us around it’s bits and bobs. It was sad climbing back up the hill, but that sight isn’t something I won’t be forgetting any time soon. See Trang An or Tam Coc, but make time for Bich Dong. It’s one of the many little gems in the area, making Ninh Binh worth the time.
On the Road
Not quite the epic tale by Kerouac, our time on the road was still brilliant. With our vague map, we had five or six things marked out to see, but like Tam Coc, they didn’t seem worth our trouble. Some things, like the Mua caves, we just couldn’t find. Instead we drove through a few back streets and got on the road. Our drives through the open countryside, dotted with limestone cliffs and spread with farmland was idyllic. I’ve lost my fear of going more than 5mph on a bike and we sped through the empty roads, exhilarated.