“Ha Long bay on land’ Ninh Binh lands scape is otherworldly, with large round mountains jetting out of farm fields. Ninh Binh, including Trang An and Tam Coc is an absolute paradise, but don’t let vloggers deceive you by saying off the beaten path Ninh Binh is definitely touristy and quite busy despite being mostly farmland. The attractions were amongst the most expensve that I experienced in Vietnam.
I came to Ninh Binh via hue on a 9-hour uncomfortable night bus. I had low expectations, to begin with, so being uncomfortable was no surprise. However, it allowed me to use a no-flush squatty potty for the first time. Though not for the faint of heart (many tourists decided to hold it the whole ride, I decided it was part of the adventure. Unfortunately, the bus came in at 2am. I thought I could just hang out on the sidewalk (you get dropped off behind the translation), but to be honest, I was oily and sweaty ready for a cold shower. Luckily a nearby hotel owner came over to see if anyone wanted a room. I followed him to a cheap hostel across the street for a few hours’ sleep before heading to my accommodation for the next few days.
The following day I finally tried the banana pancakes that were served at every hostel in Vietnam complimentary breakfast. I was disappointed that I hadn’t tried it earlier. These pancakes are a thicker version of a creep doused with condensed milk or chocolate scrape topped with, preferably, the royal banana. Absolutely delicious, 10/10. After breakfast, I paid for a taxi to take me to my hostel. I had planned to bike it initially, but the lady looked at my weight and told me it was not strong. I was disappointed, but I knew I had not ridden a bicycle in 12 years I knew it was probably for the best (This was later confirmed by falling off one before I even started to ride it).
I arrived at my hostel, tucked into the side of a mountain and rice fields, making it feel like a luxury resort. This hostel was lovely; the family had a delicious full-service menu. Upon seeing the pool, I knew the first thing I wanted to do here was going for a swim and take in the beautiful scenery.
After my swim, several people I met at the hostel and I went to Trang An Complex (Di San Trang An) to take a boat ride. Half of us took a taxi while the other half had motorcycles, so they met us there.
The boat tour in Trang An is definitely worthy of your Vietnam bucket list, although it is a bit pricy at 250,000 VND per Boat (if you split it between 3- 4 people its not bad). The scenic views on the ride are breathtaking though the caves/caverns you go through are less impressive. You will stop at many temples and shrines along the boat route, making for a fantastic way to spend an afternoon.
Some shrines in the Trang An Complex are dedicated to Vietnam’s national hero Tran Hung Dao who defeated the Chinese (Chinese Mongolian Empire) In the 13th century. Tran Hung Dao used the area as a base and a refuge from the Chinese. His use of the landscape helped him win battles against the invaders. These temples are gorgeous in their own right and give you a nice break from sitting in the boat since the ride takes 2-3 hours.
Afterward, we returned to the hostel, chilled, and ate by the pool. I got to try the legendary Bun Cha for the first time, and it did not disappoint. The pork meatballs were savory, melting in your mouth, while the sauce they were in was perfect for dipping the rice noodles. This dish is definitely a 10/10.
My whole stay in Ninh Binh was way too hot and muggy. Making it almost impossible to do things. The weather, in addition to needing a motorcycle, made it hard to get places. Yes, they did have free bikes, but things are further apart than you think in Ninh Binh (including Tam Coc and Trang An). If you are not comfortable riding a bike for 10+ miles daily, you will also find yourself taking a taxi. I recommend taking motorcycle lessons before you travel to Vietnam. Yes, some places will teach you, but it’s more like a 15min-1 hour tutorial which is not enough time to get acclimated to a bike. Knowing how to ride a motorcycle will allow you to see more of the country than you can via public transportation.
I spent the evening chilling, talking politics and life with the amazing people at my hostel. I slept late and woke up the next morning expecting to go out and see the area. The heat was so stifling that J, who I had hung out with the day before, and I decided to go out later in the afternoon when the humidity was better. In the meantime, I relaxed poolside till we took a taxi into Tam Coc to ride another infamous boat ride through the rice fields and scenery.
With expectations high after the boat ride the day before, we were excited to see what views this trip would provide. 15min into our ride through the tour, we realized that the rice patties were no longer in use and were now just part of the river. The advertising images were doctored, and the beautiful sentry looked nothing like the advertisement. Additionally, the ride was out-and-back, so you saw the same views twice. You had a short stop in the middle (or the end) where you were forced to buy food and drink for your rowers and yourself. Although the fruit was delicious, it never feels good being forced to do something, especially when no expectations were set beforehand of this happening. This whole ride was very much an overpriced tourist trap (120,000 VND per person + 150,000 VND) and not worth it especially comparing it to Trang An Landscape Complex (Di San Trang An) Boat tour the day before.
J and I stopped at a cafe where she convinced me to try an avocado smoothie for the first time. I was not expecting much, but J was right avocado smoothies are the best. Refreshed, we hailed a taxi and headed to Hang Mua viewpoint.
This is a must mini Hike in Ninh Binh and well worth the 100,000 VND (around, I can’t remember). The views are breathtaking, and there is a lotus field where you can walk amongst the giant lotus across bridges taking photos. I highly recommend going at sunset but get there early if you want to hang out at the very top near the dragon because it gets packed. It was so crowded, in fact, that we tried for 10 minutes to get onto the rocky area. It was pretty dangerous with the amount of people doing the same, so we decided the 3 extra feet up and being near the dragon was not worth it. So we headed back down to get photos in the lotus pond, which was equally beautiful in its own right. Afterward, we had to have the local shop call us a taxi back to our hostel. We spent another fantastic night chilling and talking with other people staying there.
The following day I said goodbye to everyone. I called a taxi to do some sightseeing before my bus back to Hanoi so I could tour Halong bay the next day. Before I left, I hired a cab. I made my way to the Bich Dong pagoda, which was interesting, with part of the Buddhist shrine in a cave. Part of the complex seemed preeminently closed to the public. Overall it was one of the least exciting things I did in Vietnam. With it too hot to carry on to one of the other temples in the area, I called it a day and napped by the pool till I took a private bus taxi to Hanoi.
I plan to return to Ninh Binh one day to truly explore the area’s rice fields, temple, royal complexes, and national parks. This time I would rent a motorcycle and stay in Tam Coc to take in the expansive countryside that makes up Ninh Binh.
All The Places
Trang An Complex – 250,000 VND – số 6 Tràng An, Tân Thành, Hoa Lư, Ninh Bình, Vietnam
Tam Coc Boat Ride – 120,000 VND per person + 150,000 per Boat – Đội 2 văn lâm, Ninh Hải, Hoa Lư, Vietnam
Hang Mua Viewpoint – 100,000 VND – thôn Khê Đầu Hạ, Hoa Lư, Ninh Bình, Vietnam
Bich Dong Pagoda – Free – 6W99+C23, Ninh Hải, Hoa Lư, Ninh Bình 430000, Vietnam
Green Mountian Homestay – $$ – 479 B, Trường Yên, Hoa Lư, Ninh Bình, Vietnam – 10/10 When it comes to accomadations (not to mention the food) but I recomend renting a motorcycle if you stay here. Keep in mind like most hostels and places in Vietnam there is no air conditioning in the communal area. Also the restrooms are outside though the stalls are all enclosed.
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