Ninh Binh – falling in love with Trang An
It was pretty hard to leave the Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park. I loved to be there. But there were still so many other corner of Vietnam to discover… I left to Ninh Binh. One thing here to clarify: Ninh Binh is the name of the city but also the region. So if you read about Ninh Binh being fantastic, they mean the region for sure. Travelers heading here usually end up in one of two little villages: Tam Coc or Trang An. Both are about 10 km away from Ninh Binh City and both are getting more and more popular. Tam Coc has many restaurants along the main road, money exchange, post office, many travel agencies, grocery stores, countless hostels and homestays and even some night life. As a bonus the tourist buses also stop here. In Trang An… well, there’s nothing. Some lovely homestays and resorts along a dirt road, beside the river, blent in the landscape. And none of the buses come this way.
Most probably because of its accessibility and its early popularity Tam Coc is better known and more crowded. But I was heading to Trang An. (Why would I chose something that is simple and easy?) The sleeper bus dropped me at 4 am in Ninh Binh, but this time I expected it. I had to get to Trang An from here. It was dark, cold and raining. The taxis waiting at the bus stop poached the few travelers who got off the bus, but I didn’t plan to pay many-hundred thousand dongs for this project. I met another traveller heading in the same direction and we found a looser taxi driver, we pretended to have found a cheap Grab (the asian Uber), so the taxi dropped his price as well. Maybe I’m getting better in haggling? The taxi dropped me about 800 m from my accommodation, so I continued walking. This turned out to be a super stupid idea, as there were no street lights, the rain got heavier, and I only had a vague idea where I’m walking in the dark. The barking of the dogs I woke up with walking alone was not really reassuring either. But after getting lost only twice, I found my way and walked into the pitch dark reception area of my place. I sat down, finally covered from the rain and waited for the staff to wake up. By the lights of dawn I could see more and more of the surrounding, the beauty of the misty mountains, I could check in early and they even let me in my room. I crashed for a couple of hours, had some extra sleep to make up for the night bus ride.
It was still cold and rainy when I woke up. I made my peace with having a rest day and with not using the pretty swimming pool that my accommodation had. But about noon the rain stopped and the mist got thiner, so I decided to explore the are on foot.
I also figured, that this is the best time to do the iconic Trang An boat trip in the UNESCO World Heritage Trang An site, hoping for having less tourists due to the lack of sun. And I was right.
The boat trip is well organized, the whole process of getting into the place is smooth, they even have English brochures. get your ticket at the ticket office, select the route you like out of the three options, walk to the boats, tell them which route you want and the staff will group people based on their wish. This is how I got into the same boat with a young Vietnamese couple and with a Danish head of a ministerial department to explore route 3. As promised, we visited a couple of temples, went through some lovely caves and also the shooting location of the movie Skull Island. The boat tour is three hours long and it is truly amazing. With the remaining mist it was mystical and beautiful. We had a lovely chat in the boat, I got amazed, took photos, got more amazed and lil bit more amazed. Such a fantastic place. The limestone monoliths are beautiful, it looks like a landscape constructed by an artist dropping the mountains into the river.
While enjoying the boat trip I had a great time with Lisa Lotte, the Danish mom, who visited Vietnam for work, and left Hanoi only for a day trip to see a bit different, than meeting rooms and hotel rooms. It was great to talk to a mom enjoying her time as a traveller: she had many questions on solo-traveling, but we talked about the challenges of the modern lifestyle, about motherhood, the beauty and sometimes pain of parenting, the concept of freedom and the career-challenges of the 21st century.
It was such a great day and I truly fell in love with this place.
The following days I was riding a bike together with the German Isabelle and paddled around the area. As other travelers suggested, it is super easy to ride a bicycle here, as the place is “flat as a pancake”. Okay, this was maybe true on the first bike-day, but maybe nobody imagined us heading toward the Bia Dinh Pagoda that is pretty far away, and cycling about 80-90 km is two days. Of course we used a city bike, no option to switch gear and having no lights. But it was a fantastic time, no complaints.
I loved exploring the rice fields, climb up to the Hang Mua Lookout enjoying the view, cycle through Tam Coc and have a peak into the locals paddling with their feet through the Pam Coc boat trip, visiting the small hidden pagodas, watching the sunset, or just watching the locals working on the rice fields. I tried to find my way on the narrow dirt paths between the rice fields passing by the cows, frowning on the smoked(?) mummified goats along the road, enjoying the dripping Vietnamese coffee in small coffee shops and was simply happy for being here.
I moved from my first accommodation. I don’t really fancy being surrounded by smashed bloody mosquitos on the dirty-white wall while I’m sleeping, neither having a broken aircon/fan, finding stick insects in the sink in the morning fighting for their lives, the sheets not being changes between guests and the floor last being wiped a century ago. My new accommodation was beside a tiny lake, was super clean and had an amazing vibe. They had small bamboo jetties on the lake with unbeatable view to the mountains.
The biggest pagoda of Vietnam – some say: of Southeast Asia – is also within reach. We also cycled here. It is worth the ride just because of the wonderful landscape, but to be honest, I think I would take a scooter next time to easily access the area and roam around. But if you are not in a hurry, bicycle is fine as well. This pagoda is the textbook case of attractions being free for visitors. There’s no entrance fee here. But they blocked all roads heading to the Pagoda, closed all gates left open only one, that leads you to a parking lot rather far away from the pagoda complex. Obviously you have to pay for parking – even if you only have bicycles. Price depends on how angry you get with the process. After the long and tiring bike ride Isabelle was on the edge of throwing a tantrum, so we managed to pay a small sum. From the parking you can easily walk to the pagoda, bu only if you find the walking way. This place is also a UNESCO World Heritage place, but don’t expect finding much English signs. Whoever we asked, they showed the way to the small electric cars, that you can use to access the pagoda, for a small price, but they keep the secret location of the walking path. Pretty frustrating experience. I find this whole thing absurd. I’d be happy to pay a fair entrance fee, but this “it’s free, but pay for services you don’t need” approach is just ridiculous. The pagoda has some lovely corners, but to be honest, this is not the cherry on the top during my visit to the area. So in case you miss it, don’t worry much.
The area of Ninh Binh is just so charming, I can imagine spending a week here, resting and watching the mountains while being in a hammock on one of the jetties. And having rainy/foggy weather is not a disaster either, the place is simply beautiful. But I had other places to visit on my list and it seemed I’ll have a short weather window, so I too soon I was heading to Cat Ba island.
- Bus ticket Phong Nha – Ninh Binh: 200.000 – 220.000 VND (8,6-9,5 USD)
- Trang An boat ticket: 200.000 VND (8,6 USD)
- Tam Coc boat ticket per boat: 150.000 VND (6,6 USD)
- Tam Coc ticket for the boast trip per person: 120.000 VND (5,2 USD)
- Mua cave and lookout entrance fee: 100.000 VND (4,4 USD)
- Mua cave parking fee: free inside the gates
- Binh Dinh Pagoda entrance fee: free
- Binh Dinh Pagoda parking: 10.000 VND for two bicycles (0,4 USD)
- Bia Dinh Pagoda: free
- Bia Dinh Pagoda parking: 5.000 VND for two bicycles (0,2 USD)
- Bia Dinh Pagoda – electric car ticket from parking lot to pagoda, one way: 30.000 VND (1,3 USD)