After two years filled with numerous relocations and the unexpected challenges brought about by a global pandemic, my chapter in Vietnam was drawing to a close. Having traversed perilous roads, belted out tunes in bustling wet markets, and even embraced nights under the stars on the beach, a final extraordinary adventure awaited: Ninh Binh.
Often overshadowed by tourist magnets like Ha Long Bay, Ninh Binh, in every aspect, emerged as a marvel and a hidden gem. Though I only had three days to spare for this exploration of Northern Vietnam’s enchanting corner, I discovered that with careful planning, an overnight visit from Hanoi could unveil the wonders of Ninh Binh.
Embarking on a Train Journey to Tranquility
An item on my Asian bucket list was to experience a train journey, not necessarily knowing the destination but craving the rhythmic clatter of tracks beneath me while gazing at rice fields racing by. The voyage from Hanoi to Ninh Binh seemed like the perfect opportunity to realize this dream.
Setting off from Hanoi Station at 6 AM aboard the Reunification Express, our smooth 2-hour, $12 trip offered picturesque views of the countryside. Armed with snacks, I embraced the journey’s spontaneity, a reminder that Vietnam operates by its own rules.
Upon arrival, I eschewed conventional transportation options and walked from the train station until I found a makeshift motorbike rental. Negotiating a price, I set off on my two-wheeled adventure, embracing the road less traveled.
Time Travel to the Ancient Capital
The next move depends on interests and time constraints. Opting for an immediate journey to Hoa Lư, a 30-minute drive in the opposite direction of Tam Coc, the ancient capital of Vietnam revealed itself as a gateway into the country’s lesser-known past.
Entering the city through imposing gates and crossing a stone bridge, Hoa Lư provided a serene experience. Ancient throne rooms and koi ponds showcased enduring craftsmanship that transcended time.
Choosing Where to Lay Your Head
While Ninh Binh encompasses both the region and the city, Tam Coc emerged as the ideal accommodation choice, a few kilometers away but immersed in the heart of the countryside. Tam Coc offered proximity to rice paddies, limestone cliffs, rivers, and all the attractions Ninh Binh had to offer.
Accommodations in Tam Coc blended affordability and luxury, often featuring captivating swimming pools overlooking lush landscapes. My initial night, marred by a lobster-sized cockroach, prompted a swift change, highlighting the wisdom that cheap isn’t always synonymous with quality.
As new accommodations constantly opened, my 70cc steed and I ventured until we discovered a respectable homestay, unlisted on booking sites. Welcomed with open arms, I became the first patron in their new beds, treated to an outlandishly large feast at their dinner table.
Trang An or Tam Coc Boat Ride?
Ninh Binh’s captivating boat rides, winding through limestone cliffs and rice paddies, were a highlight. Choosing between Tam Coc and Trang An presented a delightful dilemma, each offering unique routes and attractions.
Opting for a boat ride through Trang An’s intricate karst limestone formations, pausing at ancient temples nestled within cliffs, added a mystique to the experience. Tam Coc, on the other hand, showcased its charm during the rice season, with vibrant yellow fields creating a mesmerizing backdrop.
For those seeking exclusivity, a private boat ride proved a worthy investment, ensuring privacy and personalized experiences capturing the beauty of Trang An without distractions.
Bird Watching from a Boat
A visit to Thung Nham Bird Park emerged as a hidden gem in Ninh Binh. This sprawling sanctuary, also known as Thung Chim, boasted diverse bird species, lush vegetation, tranquil waterways, caves, grottoes, and ancient temples.
As the temperature cooled, a boat ride in Thung Nham Bird Park provided a peaceful end to the day. Gliding over the mirror-like surface, the sampan effortlessly approached nesting grounds, offering a glimpse of thousands of birds without disrupting the fragile ecosystem.
A Spiritual Sojourn at Pagodas
Bich Dong Pagoda, carved into the mountainside, stood as an often-overlooked treasure complementing the grandiosity of Bai Dinh. Crossing a narrow stone bridge over a lotus pond, the pagoda’s simplicity contrasted with its captivating surroundings.
The three tiers of the pagoda, adorned with carvings, statues, and multi-layered roofs, required a climb of around 200 steps. The serene setting, whether reflecting lotus flowers or calm water, provided a cultural and historical immersion.
A Panoramic Vista of Ninh Binh at Mua Cave
For the adventurous, ascending the 500 steep steps to Mua Cave promised a breathtaking panorama of Ninh Binh’s karst landscapes. The panoramic view, featuring a majestic dragon sculpture against the backdrop of karst peaks and rice fields, justified the climb.
Opening at 6 AM, a visit to Mua Cave at this early hour offered not only solitude but also a mystical mist weaving through the cliffs. Bikers, beware of locals insisting on parking; ample parking exists around 500 meters up the road for a nominal fee.
Cycling Through the Rice Paddies
Cycling through Ninh Binh’s rice paddies emerged as a personal favorite. Embracing the rhythmic beauty of rural life as the sun set behind the cliffs, the idyllic villages and narrow pathways offered glimpses into traditional Vietnamese life.
Widely available for rent, bicycles provided an immersive experience, allowing connection with the heart of Ninh Binh and the simplicity and beauty of rural Vietnam.
Always Remember the Food
The culinary journey in Ninh Binh was a highlight, with regional specialties showcasing Vietnam’s proud culinary traditions.
Bun Cha, a symphony of grilled pork patties, herbs, vermicelli noodles, and a dipping sauce, stood out among the myriad dishes. Vietnamese Egg Coffee, an anxiety-inducing coffee topped with a velvety layer of custard, added another layer of indulgence to the culinary exploration.
For the adventurous palate, whole roasted mountain goats from roadside stalls provided a unique tasting experience, offering a chance to savor the flavors of local cuisine off the bone.
In essence, my unforgettable overnight trip to Ninh Binh from Hanoi unveiled a tapestry of experiences, blending cultural immersion, natural beauty, and culinary delights, making it a fitting finale to my time in Vietnam.