We’d never heard of Ninh Binh but it was highly recommended by our AirBnB hosts in Hue so we decided to check it out. While not well known to foreigners, Ninh Binh is a very popular vacation spot for Vietnamese, a classic un-destination about 100 km south of Hanoi. Ninh Binh has a phenomenal karst landscape and great attractions in a relaxed non-touristic environment. We only stayed three nights but could easily and happily have spent a week or longer.
From the Ninh Binh railway station we went straight to the Mountain Side Homestay (US$24), about a 15 minute taxi ride away. It’s located in a semi-rural neighbourhood of homestays and is quite new with a lily pond surrounded by motel-like bungalows and a covered outdoor breakfast area. We recommend Mountain Side but don’t think you’ll go too far wrong whichever one you choose. Generous hosts, free loaner bicycles, inexpensive scooter rentals, good homemade food plus helpful advice and booking assistance.
We were next to a large elementary school and enjoyed watching scooters full of children arriving for the morning drop-off. A teacher invited us in whereupon we were mobbed by a class of very excited five-year-olds. Every morning features a 5 am district-wide wake-up with loudspeakers playing patriotic music and encouraging comrades to exercise. Or so I understand. A remnant of their communist past, I suppose, and, if forced to choose, far preferable to the interminable caterwauling of a call-to-prayer.
Ninh Binh is famous for its dramatic karst formations; limestone and gypsum landscapes riddled with caves, sinkholes and underground rivers. After settling in, we borrowed two bikes and headed off to Trang An for a boat tour of its caves and streams. Trang An is an impressive operation with hundreds of boats and teams of staff keeping the waterways clean and unclogged. Judging from the many tied-up boats, this must be a busy place on Vietnamese holidays. We were there in November and it was not crowded.
There were four of us in our boat plus our guide who rowed us on a predetermined course — we did Route 1 — with several stops to explore shoreline temples. It’s a lucrative enterprise for local people who are assigned days so everyone has a chance to share the rewards. A magical place, a lot of fun and a remarkable experience to float into the side of a hill, paddle along an underground river and emerge into the sunshine five or ten minutes later. Not to be missed!
We arrived back just after dark, ordered a good dinner — no barbecued mountain goat for us — and headed to bed for an early start on our 15 km scooter ride to the Bai Dinh Pagoda. It’s a recently built 700 hectare site with many large buildings, hundreds of large and small carved Buddhas, a 36 ton bronze bell, a 10 m high, 80 ton bronze Buddha and much more. It’s criticized for being more Disney-commercial than Buddha-spiritual but is an impressive place nonetheless. The trip to Bai Dinh was my first scooter experience and, with my wife balanced precariously on the back, I was glad to arrive in one piece.
We stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch and then headed toward Chùa Và Động Hoa Sơn, following a random road sign that looked interesting. It’s a small local temple, set high on a hill and we heard music that we followed to its source. A ceremony was under way and we never did figure out exactly what it was. Our homestay host told us it was a blessing of some sort but that’s the best he could offer. It felt awkward but no one seemed to mind our presence or object to pictures so we stayed for a while, waited for a suitable gap in the proceedings and took our leave.
Just down the road was another pagoda and cave so we parked the scooter and headed in. We made it around the lake as the sun was setting and departed without visiting the cave. Riding back in the dark didn’t seem like a good idea. Some kids at the entrance insisted on giving us some fresh cucumbers and it was a nice gesture.
Another homestay dinner, this time with a plate of morning glory greens we had specially ordered and then up early for the 4 am sleeper bus to Sapa. We had no idea how to arrange this so, as usual, we relied on our homestay host and everything was perfect. A taxi deposited us on a dark street where we waited for our bus with other travellers. Sleeper buses are remarkable. Imagine three rows of reclined dentist chairs, stacked two high, and you’ll get the picture. Shoes had to be removed at the door so it was nice and clean. And away we went to Sapa, 400 km to the northeast near the Chinese border.