Sure enough, everyone knows about breathtaking Halong bay, but have you ever heard of its less famous twin sister, Ninh Binh? Black karst peaks as far as the eyes can see, looming over the fluo green light of prolofic ricefields… It seems quite surreal, does’t it? Even if postcards tend to show you a bright happy sunny version of this stupendous area (as postcards generally tend to do), you will find it more often than not lost in a thick rainy fog, gloomy and mysterious to the core. Does it sounds like a place for you?
What to do in Ninh Binh?
« Boating!!! », will most certainly answer you the large crowd of other visitors who’s been there before you. And indeed, copying shamelessly on Halong bay, Ninh Binh offers different sight-seeing floating tours around the area… Except you are not sailing on a junk nor on the sea, but on a wee paddling boat on the submerged rice fields. The charming itineraries even pass through several grottoes on the way! It’s the general opinion that it is truly THE activity not to be missed in Ninh Binh.
Except we will never know that… Because, well, er, the thing is that the massive crowd at the entrances seemed so terrifying that… we never went boating at all! « What? Unthinkable, said the dumbfounded swedish tourist at our hotel that night. What did you do then? »
Well, first, Ninh Binh area is quite large and all the surroundings with their wondrous karts formations are quite interesting to be wandered by. We usually travel on foot, but we turned a bit lazy after our 2500km down the Mekong river… Why not riding a motorbike then? Despite the drizzling weather, we quite enjoyed roaming around at 50km/h (yes they were small motorbikes) while enjoying the dark beauty of the karst scenery. Plus, there are many other things in the area that only wait to be visited!
Pagodas and temples
« Like what? », was asking the old swedish tourist again. Well, for example, you can have a cultural insight of the area by visiting the remains of the ancient capital Hoa Lu. After all, you can’t spend all your time in Vietnam drinking fresh coconuts on a junk or relaxing in Hoi An! Frankly speaking, there is not that many old remains in Hoa Lu except two nice pagodas of the 17th century, built to honor the royal family. Sitting 300 m from each other between impressive karst peaks, they are worth seeing (even if they are not THAT impressive) and best appreciated when visited with a guide who will teach you all about their historical value. The entrance price is not high (20 000 VND) so you don’t loose anything by peeking in, right?
Be careful though: not far from here is a long stairway going up and up and up a peak and it is nearly impossible for anyone to resist its call. You have to know… it’s a trap! The lookout at the top is highly disappointing… On the other side, don’t hesitate to stroll around the two pagodas, for the area is pretty nice. There unfortunately we also had to face a parallel reality of intense misery, going through a kind of hospice where desperate old grandmas with terribly strained faces were trying to sell us pineapples for a miserable price. Quite heartbreaking really…
There are many other pagodas to visit around, if you’re in a pagoda-mood, like the famous Bai Dinh pagoda, « the biggest pagoda of Southeast Asia » built in 2010, or the wonderful Bich Dong pagodas built on the cliff of a massive karst formation. Also called the « jade pagodas », they go through a serie of caves and offer a nice surprise from their highest point.
Indeed from the top of Bich Dong pagodas you will enjoy one of the best views around, showing you everything of this amazing landscape. Seriously, even with the worst weather that Vietnam is able to produce, you will be largely rewarded for your climb. But you can find even better a little bit further up north…
After seeing what Bich Dong was offering lookout-wise, we were determined to find out another way to see the area from above. We jumped back on our scooters and drove north through the green ricefields. It’s now time to warn you a bit about the state of local motorbike rental: be extremely careful of the one you choose! One of ours, for example, was just acting like a possessed animal. This devil scooter wouldn’t stop at all, even when taking the key out, even when cloging the exhaust to stall the engine, even when kicking it from despair or trying to intimidate it with all the crudest french insults of our vocabulary. And by magic, this damn f****** thing would stop completely normally once at the mechanic…
Finally we managed to reach Hang Mua and first we frankly hesitated to even set one toe in. The entrance looks suspiciously like a tourist trap and the ticket price is quite high (100 000 VND/pers). But after letting behind all the ugly concrete ornementations, after NOT entering in the « caves » (rabbit holes?) a the foot of the cliff and after climbing the long dragon stairway up the karst mountain, well we had to admit it was absolutely worth it. What a view!
To be honest, a little bit of sun would certainly have helped the landscape to look even more spectacular… But can’t be lucky anytime hey? Next time, we’ll take you further North in Vietnam to make you discover one of our absolute favourites of our 8 months trip in Asia…
M. & Mme Shoes
Doing a boat tour in Ninh Binh
- Like we wrote up there, there is two main departure points : Trang An and Tam coc. Even if there is more westerners in Tam Coc, Trang An is a real Disneyland ! For more tranquility and peace, you should prefer a little departure point in a more remote place, there is lot of them around.
Moving around Ninh Binh
- If you have a room in Tam Coc or somewhere around, you can hire a bike the distances are totally OK.
- If, like us, you have a room in Ninh Binh, then a scooter is better, that will avoid you the boring road between the city and the karst formations. And more, the scooter will allow you more freedom around the area.
Sleep in Ninh Binh
- We stayed in a hotel in the center of Ninh Binh for budget reason. There is also a lot of hotel next to the train station. Though there is nothing to do in town, so if you have a little bit more budget you shoud prefer an hotel next to the points of interest.