Ninh Bình is a small city in the Red River Delta, about 100km from Hanoi. Ever since we started charting out our Vietnam itinerary, Ninh Binh was on our mind. Buses from Hanoi leave every hour that drop you either in the main city near the Phat Diem Cathedral or at The Long Hotel near the Tam Coc boating site. For $6 these buses are comfortable and efficient. On the way they even stop at an egg shell craft shop for you to pick up any knick-knacks of interest.
Ninh Binh is popularly known as Ha Long on land. Majestic limestone karsts surround this quaint little country side town. The people are friendly and the food humble. New Year’s Eve was approaching and we decided to spend the turning of the year in a quiet little home stay surrounded by rice fields and limestone karsts and away from all the hustle bustle of the city.
By the time our bus dropped us in the small town, it was time for lunch at the famous Father’s Cooking, while we waited for our hosts from the homestay to pick us up. Copious amounts of hot ginger tea and some Ban Xios later we could finally feel our fingers again. Now, let me add here, by this time we had made peace with the constant bad weather that had been following us since Ha Long Bay. Incessant showers, strong cold winds and mostly cloudy skies. Ninh Binh was no different. We hadn’t seen the sun in over two days!
Only problem was, we were not prepared for this.
Our hosts, Lan and her family drew out a small map of how to navigate the landscape around. For the next three days we were going to cover the Trang An Grottoes, Hao Lu Ancient city, Bich Dong Pagoda, Bai Dinh Pagoda and the Hang Mua caves. There was a lot to see for a not-so-touristy place.
Bich Dong, we found out was just right around the corner. The Bich Dong Pagoda is a 3-tiered pagoda built atop a small mountain. The first level, Ha pagoda consists of a Buddhist shrine. The second one, Trung is a little bit of a climb and in a cave. Thuong, the top most tier can be reached by climbing further up. The climb was all worth it. Spectacular panoramic views of the valley below, lush greenery around and a meditative tranquility. We were so taken by the beauty, we decided to spend some time near the shrine before climbing down.
… And that is when we spotted another set of makeshift stairs going up the mountain on the opposite side. A few skips and jumps later we were over looking a cute little village, nestled between the limestone mountains. Armed with our sense of adventure and whatever little day light, we walked around in the village, stopping several times to take in the scenery.
Just like any countryside, Ninh Binh calls it a day pretty early. By 6PM most shops are shut and you’d find a handful of eateries open. We had been invited to dine with our hosts. This was by far the most honest and most authentic food we were to have. We sat around a round table with hot soup boiling in the centre while we passed around various greens, meats, dipping sauce and noodles. 2018 was ending on a pretty great note!
The last day of the year 2018, and we decided to get a bike to the Trang An Grottoes. About 8kms away from our homestay, Tràng An was a scenic area renowned for its boat cave tours. On June 23, 2014, at the 38th session of the World Heritage Committee in Doha, the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are 3 different routes one can take while at Trang An. After much reading, we decided to take the one with the 9 caves and 3 pagodas. (There was also a route with a kilometer long cave and honestly at the end of the boat tour I did contemplate that route :))
I was excited! A max of 4 people could sit on the boat which was to be rowed by a very sweet Vietnamese lady who had nothing but a smile for the entire 3 hours that we were on the boat. Occasionally we chipped in with our pretend rowing (not sure how much we were able to assist her though) while she skillfully navigated us through the low caves, beautiful serene waters and lotus vegetation. We exchanged smiles and a few words about our countries and stories about her son. This place was heaven ….
It was on our boat lady’s recommendation that we biked our way further north into the ancient city of Hoa Lu. Hoa Lư used to be the economic and political center of Dai Co Viet, a kingdom that extended from what is now northern Vietnam to the center during the 10th and 11th centuries. The city was founded by Dinh Tien Hoang, the first Emperor of Vietnam and it remained the capital until 968 A.D. What remains of the city now are ruins of what used to be a thriving capital.
Since we’d spent most of our morning without any physical activity we decided to head towards Hang Múa caves. It is a hard trek up with many of its steps in uneven limestone but totally worth the climb, 500 steps but what beautiful views! Impressive panoramic landscapes of Tam Coc, Trang An & Ninh Binh city when you reach the top point of Mua mountains. We were lucky enough to catch just a bit of the sun while we relaxed atop the mountain .
For me, the decision to tour Ninh Binh was one of the best we took …
Words cannot describe how beautiful the town is. And I was glad we were spending our New Years cooped up next to a fire with our hosts while we drank some Vietnamese local beer.
I guess this is what New Years in the 30s feel like