We’ve been using Hanoi as a base for day trips and having returned from Ha Long, we crashed one more night before setting off to Ninh Binh. Located 100km south of Hanoi, the Ninh Binh province is a rural idyll filled with limestone scenery and often referred to as Ha Long Bay on land.
We caught the train from Hanoi and trundled through the city before breaking out into the countryside with wonderfully green fields all around. The train was super easy to catch, comfortable enough and very cheap. The journey took about 2 hours and we hopped in a taxi to take us to our guesthouse for the next couple of nights. With plenty to see, we hired a scooter for the afternoon and hit the road immediately.
It only took 5 minutes to get out of town before we were immersed in farmland and countryside. Dirt tracks intersected the main road, enticing us to off-road and explore.
There were rice paddy fields as far as the eye can see and huge limestone cliffs and mountains in every direction.
We had so much fun wandering down quiet lanes, getting lost and stopping to take photos.
We reached Mua Cave on a very sleepy road between rice paddies that were inundated with baby chicks. They were so cute.
We heard that the cave itself was not particularly impressive but the panoramic views from the peak above were well worth the strenuous 500 step climb up.
With thick fog descending we weren’t sure we’d be able to see much but we persevered and reached the summit wheezing and out of breath. The dizzying views were absolutely wonderful.
From every direction we could see nothing but countryside. Lush and verdant green fields grazed by water buffalo and cows. The nearby Tam Coc River winded it’s way around huge limestone mountains shrouded in mist and fog. It’s a shame that the weather was so grey and dull but it did seem atmospheric. We climbed back down amongst the calls of mountain goats and continued our exploration by bike.
We had a quick look through the uninspiring tourist town of Tam Coc before finding a lovely place for dinner. Chookies had a great outdoor area and lovely vibe. We ate and people watched and I lost about 30 games of uno in a row.
The next day dawned much clearer so we got up and out bright and early to make the most of the gorgeous blue sky. We drove to the UNESCO world heritage site of Trang An grottoes.
We boarded a small row boat with a local lady who took us on an incredible tour along the Sao Khe river for the next three hours. She expertly rowed the boat and took us through three massive caves.
The limestone caves were incredibly long, plunging us into darkness for up to ten minutes at a time as we traversed stalactites. They had incredibly low ceilings that were so claustrophobic at times that we had to bend over completely to avoid scraping our heads. We’d emerge from the darkness into the scorching daylight and continue along until we reached a temple, another cave or other spot of interest.
Interestingly, the Hollywood blockbuster Kong Skull Island was filmed here just a couple of years ago and one of the islands still had some of the props and paraphernalia which really set the scene.
It was so lovely to sit back and enjoy the incredible scenery pass us by as the sun beat down and breathed life into the green fields, beautiful flowers and impressive mountains around us. We had a new found respect for our oars woman after Gary switched with her and had a stint at rowing us around.
She made it look effortless but it takes some serious stamina, especially when rowing into a head wind.
Following the boat ride we hit the road again for our afternoon stop at Chua Bai Dinh.
Completed in 2014, this Buddhist complex is absolutely huge and required a ride in a golf cart to get to main entrance. The cloistered walkways pass 500 stone Buddhist statues before reaching a triple roofed pagoda housing a huge 100 tonne bronze Buddha.
Regardless of religious preference, it’s impossible to not be impressed by the sheer size and grandeur of the building and it’s decoration. Everything was bathed in golden light and it looked majestic. Vietnamese came to pray and pay their respects with offerings including money, Coca Cola and cream puffs – the obvious holy choice. We then got the lift to the top of the nearby 13 storey pagoda which delivered wonderful views across the area.
We’ve absolutely loved our scooter days where we hit the road and discover amazing new things. This type of travelling is when we have felt most independent, stopping when we want, eating when we are hungry and coming back when exhausted. We returned to our guesthouse sun worn and dirty from the road dust but with huge smiles on our faces. Thank you Ninh Binh.