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Ninh Binh Travel Blog

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Following on from the excellence of Halong Bay, we've turned our attentions inland to the town of Ninh Binh.  Known as Halong Bay on land, the terrain features more craggy limestone edifices rising vertically from a sea of not blue this time, but lush green rice-paddies and browny-green rivers.  To liken it to Halong Bay is almost to cheapen the place a little, to suggest it is maybe not worth seeing both.  But this area is spectacular and beautiful and should be famous in its own right.  To be completely fair, I think I almost prefer it to Halong, maybe because of the way we went about seeing it: on our own and by bike!

We headed off early in the morning, not on some tour bus, but by motorcycle taxi to Hanoi's major bus station.  From here we wandered into the main terminal, instantly found the desk that sold tickets to Ninh Binh, bought some, found the next bus (they run almost constantly) and got on.  All so so easy, and so so much cheaper!  Plus traveling by real public transport is much more fun.  Seeing the hustle and bustle of the bus station with its traders.  It all seems so much more real, probably because it is.  The trip to Ninh Binh was two and a half hours, the first half an hour of which is spent trying to get out of the bus station.  With around twenty buses all aiming to leave at the same time it becomes a bit of a traffic jam, each bus inching along at a ridiculously snail-like pace.  Mainly they are trying to leave full and yet on the scheduled time!  The way they get around this is to start moving when they mean to, but travel so slowly that people can still get on and the bus departs full.  Ingenious I thought.  Getting to Ninh Binh and the hotel was no problem, and in the afternoon we rented a couple of bikes, got given a very crude map and headed off for the tourist trap that is Tam Coc.

Tam Coc is a lazy winding river that weaves itself around and through the limestone hills.  At one end of the its limestone walled valley lies a big tourist complex of restaurants, docks and many a retail opportunity with a few hotels lining the long (five km!) driveway that links this site to the all important Highway 1A that snakes its way along the plains on its lengthy journey from one end of the country to the other.  Boarding a small rowing boat we were rowed down a very pretty (if slightly artificially so, the river weeds had obviously been mown to about eight inches below the water surface for a ten metre wide stream, and left to grow a little longer to either side, perhaps to give the impression of banks.) little valley for a couple of km.  It was relaxing and peaceful, and possibly even tranquil if you forgot the forty or so other boats also making the same trip at the same time.  At points it was like the Isis on a November morning.  We even got a retail opportunity from a fleet of boats at the turning around points, and from one of the rowers and his carefully stashed box of embroidered tablecloths.  The rowers were also adept at using their feet to propel the boats, which is pretty cool, but again, I bet everyone has that photo.  It was beautiful, it was stunning scenery, it just had all the pros and cons of all Vietnam tourist destinations.  Afterward we headed to a small Pagoda, which unfortunately was still under construction and not that nice anyway.  The ten minute cycle ride to get there though was gorgeously beautiful, perhaps better than Tam Coc itself, but a little less vertical.

The best places to visit in any country are those places given just a paragraph in the guidebook.  Small enough to be of no major importance and therefore no major tours and tourists, but yet beautiful or nice enough to be worth seeing and to get something out of.  Mua cave is one of those attractions.  The road to it could barely take a car, let alone a coach.  But the quiet country backlanes in this area were perfect for cycling (and somewhat bumpy motorbiking) and so made our way to the cave.  Which was rubbish!  What was significantly less rubbish was the set of 500 steps leading up the side of the hill next to the cave, up fairly precipitiously to a concrete dragon and small shelter pavillion type thing at the top.  From which we had some of the most amazing views we've had this trip.  Down one side the Tam Coc river with its continous fleet of rowing boats wound slowly up and downstream a hundred metres below us, whilst to the other, the remaining, more isolated limestone buttresses poked themselves out of the pancake flat rice paddies before giving way to the somewhat endless flatness of paddies, rivers, towns and industrial bits and pieces.  Fantastic view and true to form, Alex did have to drag me off the top of this one.  I loved it.

Cycling back we continued along the back-roads through tiny villages with lots of little kids waving at us and shouting hello, many dogs, a few herds of cattle to avoid, the odd water buffalo grazing sedately in the paddies and a small army of ducks marching down the lane.  We arrived just after sunset but just before dark, perfect timing, and an excellent afternoon.

The following morning we got back on the bikes and headed towards Hoa Lu, an ancient Vietnamese capital (for about thirty or forty years, just over a millenia ago).  Or rather the site of an ancient Vietnamese Capital, complete with concrete Pagodas, gardens and tombs.  I don't know whether this enhanced the visit to see what this capital may once have looked like, or whether it was slightly sullied by the fact that here was an ancient historical sight, built in the last twenty years.  And in many cases still being built, particularly the road in, which also led to the Trang An Grottoes, which will be marketed as the new Tam Coc, just without all the vendors.  Good luck with that I say.  Anyway, here were some lovely construction sites/sights, that I'm sure will be worth a visit someday in the past or future.  The road itself, where not adjacent to building sites or covered in big piles of dirt, was actually extremely beautiful and good fun to ride.  I wouldn't want anyone to think that this whole area doesn't have amazing scenery.  Really, really good stuff.  We overheard a tourist group being offered the chance to ride the back roads to Tam Coc, for five dollars.  We got to feel pretty good that we'd paid about 60p for our bikes for each day, but then horrified that nobody took up this chance.  You people don't know what your missing.  This is a beautiful part of the country, and was well worth spending a little more time there than just a standard tour from the inside of an air conditioned bus.
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Ninh Binh
photo by: Reephboy