Exploring the Mountains of Ninh Binh
Written by: Mama Bea , 05 Jan 2019
Situated near the Red River delta in North Vietnam, just 95 km and a 2 hr train ride south east of Hanoi lies the incredibly beautiful tropical oasis that is Ninh Binh. Gigantic limestone karsts covered in tropical rainforest tower over flooded rice fields and a network of tranquil flowing waterways. I still cannot believe this place is real! It is almost 2 months since we spent one whole week there as part of our 3 month backpacking trip around SE Asia. One whole week of cycling around rice paddies, cruising through cave formations and climbing mountains, and right now it all just feels like an enchanting and distant dream. We made a small video a while back showing some of our footage from our time there, which you can find here, but I loved this place so much I wanted to write an additional blog post featuring the details of where we stayed and what we got up to.
Where we Stayed
During our time in Ninh Binh we stayed in the Ninh Binh Panorama Homestay. We had our very own little bungalow hut, our hosts provided excellent food and company just a few metres away in the communal hut and we were treated to absolutely incredible views from the hammock on our terrace. The homestay is made up of 5 private huts plus a few smaller bedrooms with shared outdoor space and 1 larger hut which serves as a restaurant and where the hosts prepare food. We ate lunch and dinner here everyday during our stay. They even invited us to their Anniversary celebrations where we had the opportunity to eat dinner with their large family. It was such a lovely gesture and a great way to sample more of the local food and traditions, and Roscoe obviously loved all the extra attention. The homestay is situated about 1 km from the main road down a dirt track and is cosily nestled into the mountainous backdrop, it honestly felt like living in a different world. I found the homestay through a search on Booking.com and although it was one of the most expensive places we stayed during our entire trip, it was also one of the most incredible.
Just when I thought our homestay couldn't get any better, they also offered free bicycle hire included with the hut. The bikes were rather old and rickety and often required significant effort to stabilise, but they came with baby seats attached to the back and the lack of cars on the small roads made cycling the perfect way to get around. We used these bikes everyday to get everywhere during our stay in Ninh Binh. I particularly loved using them on our zero plans days where we would just set off with a bag full of snacks and a couple of dummies attached to my old shoelaces and see where the day took us. We spent hours cycling around flooded rice paddies, really taking in that tranquil mountain air. There really was no better place to be. Apart from the day I almost lost my bike to a very hungry swamp of course, that afternoon was slightly less than optimal. I should have probably guessed that venturing off map down narrow tracks barely big enough for our bike wheels, all with a broken bike seat, was never going to end well. Several impertinent cows plus a baby who was, at the time, fascinated by said cows, certainly added to the turbulent journey. It resulted in me stood knee-deep in a swamp slowly watching my bike start to sink, whilst clutching a torn map and a mooing baby. Not my greatest moment. However that day also ended up producing one of the most spectacular sunsets we have ever experienced, which eased the earlier tribulations somewhat.
2. Trang An
The countryside surrounding the town of Ninh Binh is sometimes known as 'Halong Bay inland' and it's not hard to see why. There are two possible boat tours in the area, Tam Coc and Trang An. We only really wanted to do one of them, mainly because of our small budget but also because we only wanted the hassle of taking a toddler on a boat tour once (though he actually did much better than we anticipated). We ended up doing Trang An simply because it was slightly closer to our homestay than Tam Coc and it was supposedly much less touristy. After a short 20 minute cycle from our place we made it to Trang An, paid 200,000 dong (6 GBP) each for a ticket and jumped in a boat with 2 other tourists, a bag full of snacks and all fingers crossed that Roscoe didn't attempt to launch himself over the edge every 5 minutes. We rowed around steep limestone karsts peppered with dense greenery, through dark, low cave passages which almost required us to lie down in the boat and past serene temples seemingly floating on the water. The boat pulled up to land 2 or 3 times within the tropical oasis, giving us time to stretch our legs and appreciate the surrounding landscape on foot for a little while. Touristy yes, but without a doubt one of the highlights of our entire trip. We also loved the restaurant near the entrance - great for large servings of spring rolls and Vietnamese coffee after a long morning on the water.
3. Mua Cave and The Lying Dragon Mountain
A 20 minute cycle ride from our homestay in the opposite direction to Trang An brought us to the Mua Caves. Whilst the caves themselves were rather small and underwhelming, the mountain above them was absolutely breathtaking. 500 steps are carved up the mountainside giving amazing views out over Tam Coc and all of Ninh Binh province. I think Roscoe managed about 5 steps before wanting to be carried so the baby carrier was an absolute must for this one. There are a few small shops and restaurants on the road leading up to the mountain where we were able to grab a well-deserved banh mi after climbing back down. However this road is also full of scammers trying to get you to pay for bicycle parking, just cycle past them and straight into the ticket office grounds where you can park your bike for free when you purchase a ticket. I cannot remember exactly how much the ticket for entry into the mountain grounds cost but it wasn't expensive, only a few pounds from what I can remember.
4. Hoa Lu
The ancient capital of Hoa Lu lies around 7km from Ninh Binh, following the same road we took to Trang An. Nestled between the limestone mountains and ricefields this city was the imperial capital of Dai Co Viet in the 10th and 11th centuries. In 1010 the founder of the Ly Dynasty transferred the capital to what is now Hanoi. To be honest I have absolutely no idea why anyone would want to leave these picturesque mountains. Today, although the citadel no longer exists, temples dedicated to several emperors still remain for exploration. It took us around 40 minutes to cycle here from our homestay and we were a hot, sweaty mess when we arrived. We spent a few hours wandering around a couple of the temples and admiring the beautiful mountain views. We did have to weave past quite a few too many tour groups though, which made it a little less relaxing than we would have liked. We stopped off at one of the many roadside restaurants to grab a late lunch on the way home, mostly consisting of Vietnamese spring rolls of course.
I would honestly go back to our little home in Ninh Binh in a heartbeat, I just felt so truly at peace there. Now obviously I don't want to encourage everyone to go, too many tourists would ruin the laid-back tranquility, but irony is I absolutely CANNOT stop shouting about the place. We definitely left a piece of our hearts in the mountains of Ninh Binh province.
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