Fresh off the boat from Halong Bay, Jess and I headed back to Hanoi for our first real evening in the city. With no time to lose, we had another tour booked for the next day to make the most of our time in Northern Vietnam. Naturally, it would be one of the other highly touted spots that has gained quite a reputation in the region – Ninh Binh.
Renowned for its outstanding natural beauty, this region of the world has plenty of jaw-dropping locations. Ninh Binh is one of those must-see experiences amongst travellers, so it was time to jump on the bandwagon.
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Table of Contents
But Before That
We arrived back in the city earlier than expected, giving us a bit more time to play with. Our bus happened to drop us off close to an attraction we thought we had to leave behind, the iconic train street.
It was once the most popular attraction in the city. Scores of cafes and stores lined each side of the narrow tracks that tourists at one point could freely walk along. All the while, faithful old Thomas the Tank would chug along past them only inches away.
Heartbreakingly, new regulations have been put in place this year which effectively ban tourists from walking along the tracks. Of course, it was the fault of a dumb ignorant tourist who just had to ruin the fun. Apparently, there was an incident involving a guy who ignored all the warning sirens and barriers and was inevitably hit by the train as it passed. So, thanks to that one dumbass, the fun has been ruined for everyone else.
We hoped that news articles just exaggerated the reality of the ban, but they weren’t. There were barriers in place with guards standing directly behind them. As soon as any stubborn visitor strayed passed the line, the guards wasted no time in telling them to fuck right off.
Always Find a Loophole
Though the train tracks were indeed closed off, we could still see several tourists sitting amongst the numerous cafes that lined either side of the track…but how did they get there? That became our next mission.
As we tried to loop around the track, a very eager (and likely quite drunk) vendor waved us in and pointed to a sign labelled “Railway café”.
“Come come, you see track my friend, this way.” If I’ve ever learned anything on my travels, always follow a strange drunk dude down a dark alley, what could possibly go wrong? Turns out, it was exactly what we were looking for!
He led us through a tiny kitchen and to a balcony that gave a perfect overview of the tracks. We’d beaten the system! With a Saigon beer and a warm sunny day, it was a perfect reintroduction to the city.
A New Day, A New Adventure
For our next tour, we’d be exploring yet another one of Northern Vietnam’s greatest natural monuments, Ninh Binh. It happened to share a lot of similarities with our previous Halong Bay adventure, as they were also a collection of limestone cliffs but with a drastically different landscape amongst them. In the words of our guide, it would be “same same, but different”.
We took a hasty taxi ride through the early morning traffic and boarded yet another luxury limousine bus before heading into the countryside. This time around, we’d have a ridiculously eager tour guide. She had the amount of unrelenting positivity you’d find in a kindergarten teacher. She was the type of person who was determined to bring everyone to the same level of happiness as her. It was quite infectious.
Exploring Ancient Capitals
Much like Halong Bay, there were several sites worth visiting in the area collectively known as Ninh Binh, it was just a question of what you wanted to see. A common first stop for many, and one we really wanted, was Hao Lu, the ancient capital of the first Vietnamese Dynasty.
We’d also had an added bonus. Rather than getting dropped off the bus with our mishmash tour group, we’d be cycling there! We grabbed a set of rinky-dink bicycles that could have easily come from the 1950s and made our way along the roadside towards the old capital.
We arrived at the worst time too. There was a myriad of school groups visiting at the same time. Thankfully they were making their way out, and for some reason, I seemed to grab their attention. Eager students would pass by and shout hello to gauge a reaction. Little did they expect I’d eagerly answer back! Finally, I got to feel like a celebrity once again.
The Problem with Tour Groups
Let’s get this straight, I hate being in tour groups. Of course, they’re a necessary part of travelling. You might have a family, or might be in the latter stage of your life looking for some ease and comfort. Other times, you simply can’t delve into the Sahara Desert or the Amazon all by your lonesome. But if I had a choice in the matter, I would never take one.
The idea of being dragged around from point to point like a toddler with a bunch of people I don’t know (some of which are bound to be a fucking headache) whilst being dropped off at conveniently located gift shops and the whole “are you guys ready? Let me hear you say YEAH!” atmosphere turns my stomach.
This time around though, taking a tour was a necessary evil. We just didn’t have the time to figure out transport options and how to get from A to B all the way to Z in a short amount of time. In this case, it was the most convenient option and allowed us to see everything we needed to around Ninh Binh.
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Hao Lu was thankfully the only point which felt like one of those annoying experiences. Armed with a handheld speaker and ear-mounted microphone, we were taken to different spots for a bunch of impromptu lectures. It really ruins the experience when you’re surrounded by other groups doing the same.
Barging my way through crowds of unappreciative onlookers as I overheard Western accents declaring “I don’t care what they tell me to do, I’ll go in there anyway” confirmed that my hatred of these kinds of experiences was valid.
Magical Bike Ride
We eventually broke away from the crowds once we remounted our trusty bikes and headed deeper into the valleys. We finally escaped into the serenity we had hoped for as we gently glided past empty rice paddies and majestic limestone cliffs. Along the way, we encountered gleeful locals with glowing gazes as they welcomed us to the beauty of their homeland.
All Aboard the Dream Come True
Back on the bus and we were shuffled to what was to be the highlight of the trip and the main reason for being there. Though there were plenty of places to revel in the majesty of Ninh Binh, though there were two places where you could get out onto the water – Tam Coc or Trang An.
Figuring out the best option was pretty tricky. Online reviews claimed that both were either the best or that they were too touristy. In the end, we settled on Trang An, as it was the longer route and included more caves to explore. I’m pretty certain we made the right call!
Yet again, however, we couldn’t quite escape the group. We were assigned 4 people in each boat, meaning we’d have to share. However, with a bit of quick thinking, we barged our way to the front of the boat to ensure we could at least have the view all to ourselves.
We were also forced to wear neon life jackets, something that really drives me insane. Of course, I get it’s a matter of liability. Nobody wants to get sued because some dumb ass tourist got injured because of their own stupidity. That being said, in water that looked no more than a few feet deep, did I really need a lifejacket? If I’m willing to risk drowning and am a competent swimmer, can’t I at least keep it off for a few photos? But I digress.
Exploring a Lost World
We had thankfully left the dock ahead of the crowd, which gifted us with a serene landscape which was practically empty other than a single sampan guiding the way. We slowly glided along the near crystal clear blue waters as we delved deeper into the valleys and buried ourselves amongst the limestone cliffs.
The majesty of Ninh Binh could not be put into words. The primaeval landscapes and the utter serenity as we slightly glided along with nothing but the gentle rhythms of the paddles working their way through the water was gleeful.
It also gave me an opportunity to tick yet another major item off my bucket list. I had always dreamed of making my way down the Mekong River whilst writing in my humble little diary behind a pair of aviator sunglasses and a Vietnam War vintage headband. Though we weren’t travelling along the Mekong (far from it in fact) and it wasn’t quite what I had envisioned, it was close enough to earn that all-important tick.
Disneyland Come to Life
Much like Halong Bay, Ninh Binh had a multitude of cave systems. However, these were on a whole new level. These caves burrowed deep through the limestone cliffs for hundreds of meters at a time, barely being wide enough to allow a boat to pass. The paddlers (or the guide, whatever they would call themselves) had to skillfully squirm their way around tight corners and traverse cavern rooves that literally had to be ducked under to avoid a severe concussion.
For some reason, it reminded me of a Disneyland ride. It was almost like Pirates of the Caribbean, where you’re escorted through the narrow passages with small lights guiding the way. It didn’t seem real, it felt like it had been purpose-built. But this truly was nature at its finest, pure exhilarating excitement and beauty all rolled into one.
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There Is Just One Thing…
As fascinating as the 2-hour trip was, there was one thing that bothered me. Along the way, there was a multitude of temples and pagodas set up along the river’s edge (we never found out what they were for.) We could see other boats had pulled so visitors had a moment to explore them. For some reason, our boats passed every single one.
With the heartbroken gaze of a child passing the McDonald’s his parents assured that they might visit on their way home, we were forced to slowly glide past each one without stopping.
If I had to guess, it was probably out of the interest of time. It would have been hard to fit in all the Ninh Binh-related sites in one day otherwise. Still, it was a shame.
The Dragon’s View
There was one more site on our itinerary, one that was equally beautiful and well worth the effort to get to. It was Mua Cave, though don’t let the name fool you, there was no cavern to explore this time round.
The pair of peaks overlooked the entire landscape to an extraordinary extent, even providing a view all the way back to Hanoi. A set of steep stairs led to each peak, though there was only time to explore one – left or right.
The latter had a pagoda atop it, while the other was the highest peak and had a very iconic feature that I was very eager to explore. We chose the left.
Once we got there, it didn’t disappoint. On one side, you could see the enormous extent of the province. The view opposite was utterly jaw-dropping in every way possible. It looked back over the valleys of Trang An, exactly where we had just explored by boat but from a whole new perspective. It gave you a bird’s eye view of the beauty like you were a God overlooking the wonderous creation you had just made. Though Halong Bay was certainly gorgeous in its own right, this was the image which screamed Vietnam.
Beware of the Dragon
Atop the second peak was quite an unusual but extraordinary mantlepiece. A Chinese dragon stretched across the ridge of the peak for an extraordinary distance and called for some stunning photos with the natural backdrop.
The problem was, everyone else had the same idea, and there certainly wasn’t any room for a crowd. The dragon stood across a jagged cliff edge which was fucking lethal. On either side of the figure, you had at most 2 feet of space and no flat ground. You had to traverse the sharp rocks and deep gullies while also having to pass other tourists who were just as desperate for the photo as I was. To say I shit myself a few times would be a horrific understatement, but it would have been worth it.
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Thank you so much for reading Hanoi: Discovering a Lost World and learning about the wonders of Ninh Binh! Check out these other helpful articles!