After docking on land in Ha Long Bay I booked myself on a bus to the next splendid destination 2 hours south of Halong Bay, which is Ninh Binh, a town close to very picturesque mountains.
Ninh Bình city is a small city in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam. Tràng An is a scenic area near Ninh Bình, Vietnam renowned for its boat cave tours. In June 2014 the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I’ve never made it to Ninh Binh city itself. Tourists come here mainly to see the wonderful nature and its surroundings. I stayed outside the city at Hoang Giang Homestay, a stunning villa hosted by a very amazing man whose hospitality just cannot be topped by any one.
After my stays in a tiny hostel room in Hanoi and a small cabin on a ferry I was happy enough to finally have a spacious family room just for myself for the next 3 nights.
My host picked me up from Tam Coc, which is an awesome town along the southern edge of the mountains. If I am ever to return to the Ninh Binh area again, I will definitely stay in Tam Coc. The village has bars, restaurants and it’s basically where action happens.
In Tam Coc there’s boats leaving for trips between the mountains on a river. I booked myself into such a trip and I don’t regret it. The landscape around Ninh Binh is just awe-inspiring and you can see it from below as well as from above from tops of mountains. It is by far my favourite place in Vietnam. I wasn’t very lucky with the weather though, as it was raining most of the time.
Anyway, there’s so many places you can see around the area, it’s just stunning. The first thing I can recommend is the Hoa Lu, an ancient capital dating back to the 10th century, packed with temple and fortress ruins. Upon arrival in front of the main gate you might be greeted with ladies selling hats. My seller was very persistent and for 1$ I got myself one.
At the end of the group trip on day 1 we cycled among the rice fields and along a mountainside in the Bich-Dong area near Tam Coc. It was still very picturesque despite the clouds, rain and mud on the road. I can only imagine the true beauty and wonder of that landscape on a sunny day during the dry saison.
A definite highlight of your trip will be the Hang Mua view point. You get there by climbing a staircase on the eastern side of the mountain range. Just walk up and enjoy a view that you’ll never forget. I got there on a bike, as it was only about 15 min. away from my accommodation. The Hang Mua view point overlooks the surroundings in two directions, one over the river where I took the boat trip the day before, and one in the opposite direction towards the horizon. The place offers a perfect opportunity for some incredible photos.
You can even take some risk and try to climb up the rocks further to touch the statue of a dragon. Many people do that but you have to be careful not to slip or cut yourself along sharp edges.
On the other side you can have another perfect photo opportunity with a small tower at the top overlooking the scenery. However, I have to say that place was terribly crowded and people took their time to take the perfect photo with the perfect angle and a perfect pose. You really had to be patient.
At the bottom of the staircase there’s a long walkway with beautifully decorated bars, restaurants, hotels and gardens. It was great to just walk around there and breathe in the stunning scenery.
On my last day around Ninh Binh I hired a motorbike and drove literally around the whole mountain area to explore as much as I could within a few hours. My night coach to the next destination was leaving in the evening, so my time was limited.
I got to a place called Bich Dong pagoda, which is an ancient temple nestled into a mountainside with a very picturesque front gate. It is at the foot of a mountain surrounded by very rich vegetation and also with little paths - a very grandiose natural place which I highly recommend, probably my favourite place in Ninh Binh. You truly feel like an explorer discovering a lost world.
After enjoying the stunning cave temple complex you can walk on a side path that goes past the rock, leading you on the other side behind the mountain into a valley with a lake. An amazing view awaits you there. You descend along the stairs on your walk and find yourself surrounded by nature, with an empty bamboo hat next to the road. You feel like you landed on a movie set of King Kong to Jurassic Park, the vegetation and overall landscape is so primal and rich, though you’re never really far away from the main roads and infrastructure.
I took my time to walk, sit and enjoy the solitude and silence, feeling wonderfully lost in this beautiful valley behind the temple rock. I’ll never forget that.
The last highlight is the Bai Dinh pagoda, a large pilgrimage site featuring an original Buddhist temple and newer pagodas in an open, huge courtyard. And when I say huge, I mean it. You park your motorbike far outside the entrance, then walk through a market place, and then perhaps another 10 minutes before you reach the main pagoda tower, the starting point for your exploration. You can enter the giant pagoda and go to the very top to enjoy a magnificent view of all the temple buildings with the complex area and also the majestic mountain ranges that surround you from every side in the background.
You could spend an entire day there if you had time which I hadn’t. So I made my way along the walls to get an impression of the entire place from the ground. Two local girls approached me at some point with the intention of trying to practice their English, so we walked around together and enjoyed the time and place. They led me around the courtyards and temples and explained stuff to me which I’ve already forgotten. But it was a truly lovely few hours spend in this unique place with two awesome strangers. That’s what travelling is made for. For exploring stunning places and exchanging with interesting international and local people. It fires your creativity and creates connections which can sometimes last for a very long time and create new opportunities. For me it’s a pure feeling of freedom and one of major reasons life is worth living for.