After almost 2 years of living and travelling in Vietnam, we had never paid a visit to the famous province of Ninh Binh yet. Here’s our experience.
Our Da Nang-Hue-Ninh Binh sleeper train drops us off at Ninh Binh train station in the early afternoon. We have to reach Ninh Binh Nature Homestay, that will be our base for the next 2 days. Ninh Binh city itself hasn’t much to offer, some modest old hotels welcome tourists who want to visit Tam Coc, the main attraction in the area. As always, we prefer lower budget options, staying with locals in guesthouses and homestays. Plus, since we would need to travel several kilometers to visit around anyway, there’s no point to stay in town.
NINH BINH NATURE HOMESTAY
We agree for a 250.000VND taxi ride to cover the 20ish km that separate us from our destination. When we reach Nature Homestay, we are welcomed with a big smile from Minh and his family. Minh’s dream to run his own homestay became reality last year, when he had 2 bungalows built right next to his own home. He’s just started but he wishes to enlarge his business in the future. As for now he’s doing a great job: the bungalows look fresh and new, spacious, clean and filled with modern furniture.
Unlike most Vietnamese houses, the bed has a soft mattress and the shower’s water pressure is strong. We will spend two peaceful nights here. Minh is a very caring and helpful host, suggesting us where and when to go and visit around. He will provide us a reliable motorbike to ride around the area.
Another perk of Nature Homestay’s location is its proximity to Van Long Natural Reserve, home to various species of fish, birds and butterflies, where we head to have a relaxing walk among locals. It is also possible to hire a boat and enjoy a ride on the lake.
AROUND NINH BINH
We go to bed early to get ready for tomorrow, we have many attractions to see. Unfortunately the typhoon caused severe flooding all around, and one of the most evocative part of Ninh Binh, the Tam Coc grottoes, are closed due to high water levels that prevent any access to the caves.
Our disappointment is big, we had been dreaming so long to be here; still we don’t get discouraged, we want to make the most of our stay. As we see some locals who have lost their seasonal harvests, their livestock, their houses, and in worst cases also their relatives and friends, but still find the strength to carry on and fight this hellish condition, we certainly will not complain for what’s a whim compared to their situation. We try to look on the bright side, and actually witnessing all this water everywhere, people using boats where streets are submerged, ground floors and living rooms that look more like ponds, and locals nevertheless still smiling, this altogether is a unique experience.
On our motorbike, we drive along the main streets, the only ones that stand raised above the surface. We try to orient ourselves on Google Maps, but most of the times we should take a turn we find canals and rivers instead of roads! The first point of interest we spot is Bai Dinh Temple, with its tall pagoda recognizable from distance. Then we reach Hoa Lu, ancient capital of Vietnam during the 10th and 11th centuries, which features a complex of buddhist temples and historic relics, surrounded by beautiful limestone mountains. The water is slowly retiring back into the rivers, but the main square is still flooded, creating a surreal view.
Carrying on southwards (our Nature Homestay is located some northwest of Ninh Binh), we arrive at Trang An caves, considered the second best place where to take a boat ride among the characteristic limestone formation, after Tam Coc. By no surprise, Trang An is closed as well, as touts try to sell alternative trips along the “new” routes created by the flood. We decline for now, we’d rather do it later in Tam Coc. It’s still early in the morning and with no tour buses coming from Hanoi (3 hours away), no tourists, very few cars and bikes around, there’s a lavishing feeling of calm and silence.
HANG MUA PEAK
We continue our trip looking for Hang Mua Peak, the spectacular high point from where the most iconic photos of Tam Coc are captured. We can see it from the main road, it’ll be quite a challenge to reach tough: as we leave the highway we get into a sort of labyrinth where bushes are replaced by water. After a fair half hour of zig-zagging we arrive some 500m from the gate, so close but yet so far. Here water is literally everywhere, a huge lake has formed.
As I said before, locals haven’t stopped smiling and fighting the flood, and here they’re actually making a small profit back from it, providing boat transfers across the flooded streets, creating improvised parking for tourist’s bikes. A hilarious moment is when our boatman stops by a small house in the middle of the waters, which is actually the ticket office that 2 women reached somehow, and so we get our tickets for Hang Mua issued while seating on the boat! The willpower of Vietnamese people is truly amazing.
As a matter of fact our boatman tried to rip us off (we paid 200k agreeing for a return trip, and when we got back he was asking 100k more, but some other women kept our parts and shouted at him to take us back as we paid before, so he eventually did). Entrance ticket to Hang Mua is 100.000VND per person, hopefully you won’t need to negotiate for a boat ride to get there!
Hang Mua is a steep mountain with a cave at its base (of course flooded) and a breathtaking view from its peak that can be reached via a 450-step stairs. Although flood water stole the scene to the limestone formation, it was still worth to make the effort and enjoy the view.
After the boat ride back to our bike, we head to Tam Coc village where we stop for lunch (it’s 2pm already). Our original plan was to get to Tam Coc in the afternoon and enjoy the boat ride at sunset. As you can imagine by now, plenty of touts are offering “discounted” rides along “same beautiful places”. The official Tam Coc pier is closed and some of them redirect you further on. With all that water around, it’s not easy for us to understand which would be the best option. We take some time to explore the area and ride by bike all the way to Bich Dong Pagoda, another attraction of Ninh Binh province. The access here is again obstructed by the flood and we don’t feel like repeating the bike parking, boat hiring and climbing up process one more time. We dive in some adventurous fording whit our bike half plunged in the water, as some hollows along the roads look more like rivers rather than streets! Finally we agree that we can’t miss a boat ride among these awesome limestone rocks, even though it may not be the marvelous scenery we were dreaming about.
There are a couple of improvised piers where we see some other foreigners. We pay 200.000VND to a lady who provides us a boat, without knowing that the boatman will later ask us a tip for his service, stopping in the middle of the river if we didn’t pay. Rip-offs like this are always on in this kind of situation. Of course we try not to give it much care, we just want to enjoy the ride as its best. The view is rewarding, the limestone mountains are uniquely charming. Our feelings are mixed as we see so much beauty in front of us but we also witness many flooded houses on the way, and we are probably sailing just above some fields were months of harvest have gone wasted. Obviously the memories we keep are the good ones, and we also prefer to show you good pictures rather than bad sights, but we won’t forget the gravity of what we saw. At one point the boatman stops in a bay where we can enjoy the beauty and silence all for ourselves, just before he takes out some souvenirs and tries to sell us some, then asks for a tip when we don’t buy any. We give him 100k, at the end of the day it’s small money for us and he may have lost his crops, or livestock, or he’s just there to take advantage of the situation, we will never know.
As we head back home with these questions in our mind, we share some thoughts about how mother nature can be beautiful, majestic, powerful and unstoppable at the same time. Let’s not omit that it’s not all consequence of nature only, as the government in Hanoi gives orders whether to open or not some dams up in the inner mountains: and of course to prevent rainwater to flood the Capital, these rural provinces are the n.1 expendables on the list, unconcerned of its inhabitants.
We return to our bungalow when it’s already dark, luckily for us and for Minh, his village is fairly repaired from the most risky and flooded areas. We talk for some time about what we did and saw, he explains us that typhoons hit several times every year, and by now it is almost considered normal to deal with it, although admitting that this was probably the worse in the last 30 years (talk about our timing to visit!).
Hẹn gặp lại Ninh Binh, see you again!
- Nature Homestay Ninh Binh: brand new bungalows in a quiet location, comfy bed and shower, sweet Vietnamese hosting family, breakfast, motorbike and bicycles available, check for deals here
- Sleeper train, Da Nang-Hue-Ninh Binh: about 14 hours from Da Nang, 11 from Hue. Berths from 550.000VND, book in advance here;
- Train Hanoi-Ninh Binh: 3 hours, seats from 80.000VND.
- Taxi ride from Ninh Binh train station to Nature Homestay: 250.000VND;
- Hang Mua, peak+cave entrance: 100.000VND/person;
- Tam Coc, grottoes: 100.000VND/person, boat not included.