Nicknamed ‘dry Halong Bay’, Ninh Binh is famous for its picturesque boat rides amidst fairy tale mountains. Crystal clear waters reflect the karst landscape. Rich vegetation in 50 shades of green surrounds the narrow channel. ‘Watch your head’ screams the boatman as you disappear into yet another grotto. But it’s not just the boat rides that make Ninh Binh unforgettable, it’s the bike rides in between.
Stay at Tam Coc
Ninh Binh is only a 2 hour bus trip from Hanoi. The town itself has no charm. Unless you’re planning to commit suicide, head for the countryside. We booked a hotel near the Tam Coc jetty. Hundreds of rowing boats are patiently awaiting mass tourism. This is Ninh Binh’s most popular boat trip, but also the most expensive: 195k/person. The boatmen (and women) are notoriously pushy, asking for tips and drinks. There are much better options, less expensive and less touristic. So don’t head for the boats, head for the bikes.
Welcome to cycling heaven
Don’t even think of renting a scooter, get a bicycle instead (1$/day). Ninh Binh is cycling Nirvana. As soon as we get out of ‘town’ we can spot plenty of tiny roads on the small dams between the ponds. Goats are running ahead of us. Quaking ducks rush into a pool as we pass by. Surreal.
Right after a little temple is a smaller and cheaper version of Tam Coc (100k instead 195k/person). The rowing boat only goes through 2 caves, but the journey feels totally un-touristic. We’re the only boat on the water. At the improvised cafe, I get a little treat of the bong. The tobacco (yes, the legal gear) is strong and hits me hard in the face. The villagers burst into laughter as tears shoot out of my eyes.
Smack my Bich Dong
The Bich Dong pagoda is another popular stop. The pagoda itself is built inside the mountain, very unique and mystic. Keep climbing the irregular steps for a great view. Entrance is free. Don’t let them charge you to park your bike. Instead, leave it at one of the food stalls and have a coffee on the way back. Count 30 min for the visit.
Keep driving west. The country side is a living museum. A whole village is engaged in a miraculous catch of fish. Half of the villagers are pulling huge nets, the other half trying to catch the slippery carp. One man points at the pond: ’In summer, this is a rice field’
Vuon Chim Thung Nham - Nature theme park
We pass more boat trip opportunities, before reaching the little visited Vuon Chim Thung Nham park. The whole set-up feels a bit resort-ish, but offers a lot of work-out for 100k. 400 steps lead to a Buddha cave with gothic stalactites. There’s an endless duckwalk through another grotto with psychedelic lighting. Next door is a scary boat trip between soaring bats. You can relax in a luscious orchard (ever seen star food on trees?). Beware, the 1000 year old tree is hardly 2 meters high and should be renamed the 1000 year old bonsai.
Day 2 - Magic in the East
Another day, another journey. Today we are heading east, to Trang An. Internet reception is excellent, so we can just follow Google Maps. Push the ‘walking’ icon so the machine sends you through winding backroads and pastoral landscapes. After a few miles we pass the Mua Cave. The real attraction here is to climb hundreds of steps for a scenic view of the karst landscape. We think the ticket is too steep (100k/person) and pass.
Trang An - Ninh Binh’s best boat ride
We keep following Google Maps. You can’t miss the Trang An eco park. We try to park our bikes against the fence but security guards start whistling like crazy. We are forced to dig out 10k for the ‘bike’ park. Trang An is the manicured version of Tam Coc. A well oiled tourist machine smoothly guides us into a 4 person boat. For 150k, we don’t get 3 but 9 caves. Purists might spot that some were blown out of the rocks with dynamite, but don’t let this spoil the fun. It’s a lovely 2 hour journey. Here and there, newly added ‘old’ temples boost the mystic feel. You can skip them. Just climb up the last one, at the halfway point, before heading back to the visitor centre. Trang An is super value and super pro. The rower won’t beg for a tip. Or emotionally blackmail you to buy handicrafts.
Continue to the former capital Hao Lu
We pass through some of the most beautiful corners of Ninh Binh. Once we reach the Hao Lu bridge, we’re forced to leave our bikes. ‘Only walk’ the locals scream, while hordes of scooters and big ass jeeps squeeze themselves through the restored gate. There isn’t much left of the ancient capital apart from 2 temples. One sits in the corner and charges 20k entrance fee. The other is free. Just walk diagonally over the square. It’s a lovely setting with a pond, different courtyards and a wooden temple dedicated to the emperor Dinh Tien Hoang.
Leave on time
It’s 20 km back to Tam Coc (in bike language: 1 hour) and it’s quickly getting dark. We drive like crazy but we can’t escape Murphy’s Law. Bing-bang! My wife’s chain gets stuck. I turn the bike upside down and try to pull the chain, but the dirty bugger doesn’t move. ‘Maybe, we should walk’ my wife sighs. ‘Hell No!’ I go all in. My honour as handyman is at stake! When I finally manage to put the chain back on, my hands are as black as the sky. Now what? My wife has the brilliant idea of squeezing our smart phones into the bike’s baskets. Even with our improvised front lights, it’s a dangerous ride back. The main road is under construction. Now and then, we avoid a head-on collision with concrete blocks lying all over. Other cyclists and scooters appear out of the dark.