Busses to Ninh Binh leave from Giat Bat, Hanoi’s Southern bus station. You might even catch a bus outside the station as they keep turning into circles until every seat is filled. A ticket should be 60k. The journey takes less than 2 hours. Ninh Binh can also be reached via train. It’s the last station before Hanoi if you’re coming from the South.
From Sapa to Ninh Binh
There are no direct busses. We took the 10 pm night bus from Sapa to Hanoi. We were kicked out of the bus around 4 am. We walked 8 km (1 hour 20 min) to the Giat Bat bus station. You can also take a taxi but it was kinda fun to see the city awakening.
Sleep in Tam Coc
The town of Ninh Binh is totally depressing. The idea is to head for the countryside. In summer, staying at a homestay must be heaven. But we’re here in winter, so we settle for Tam Coc. From Ninh Binh Town, it’s around 9 kilometre or 100k with a meter taxi to get there. From Tam Coc you can reach all the main sites by bicycle.
The Duc Tuan faces the Tam Coc jetty (double room: 20$/night incl. breakfast and bicycles). It’s a hotel with tons of open spaces and terraces. A blessing in summer, a total burden in December. A glacial wind is blowing through the hotel. Our room has an amazing view, but we can’t keep the cold wind out. And heating? Forget it. We seek cover in a back room. Duc Tuan is a fun place. One evening we’re invited to join a wild drinking party. My wife’s asked to taste one of the local dishes - diplomatically described with the French term ‘gibier’ (game). It turns out to be rat.
Right around the corner, the Tam Coc main street offers cheaper accommodation, like backpacker hostel Lang Khanh (0303618073 / email@example.com). The double room at 10$ (13$ with breakfast and bicycles) looks great during the day. Later, we will learn there is something worse than karaoke: Vietnamese karaoke. The persistent smell of burned wood makes me want to scream: ‘Fire! Fire!’. You’ll also notice dollar signs appearing in the owner’s eyes every time she sees you.
In the main street, Restaurant Tuan Tu loudly advertises recommendations in the Guide du Routard of 2013, 2014 and 2015. It’s funny to read the same description, word for word, in all 3 books. Really proves how ‘objective’ and ‘updated’ these guidebooks are. The goat meat (100k) is ‘pas mal’ (not bad). But I ain’t gonna repeat it 3 times.
Xuan Lai (right in front of the jetty) is where the locals eat. “And you can’t fool these guys” says the ever smiling owner Lai. His grilled pork (60k) is described by many backpackers as: ‘Divine. The best in Vietnam’. He also serves half a duck (100k) and vegetarian options. Lai’s English is very good so he can tell you all the secrets of Vietnamese cuisine. Great guy, great food.
Leaving Ninh Binh to Cat Ba Island (Halong Bay)
In Tam Coc you’re pretty much at the mercy of travel agents. There’s one tourist bus leaving at 6u30 am. A ticket should be 310k. This includes: 4 hours bus to the Hai Phong jetty, the high speed boat to Cat Ba and the final bus journey to Cat Ba town. It’s a smooth trip. The return journey Cat Ba-Ninh Binh is much cheaper (230k).