Limestone mountains of all shapes and sizes dot the landscape around Ninh Binh. Even though winter isn’t the best time to visit, due to the rice fields being little more than brown puddles of water, I decided to hop on the back of a motorbike and take a tour around the countryside. The weather was grey but it was a surprisingly enjoyable trip — it seems that nothing can get in the way of Ninh Binh’s beauty.
RIDING THROUGH THE COUNTRYSIDE
My driver (I can’t remember how to pronounce/spell his name) took me along a scenic road towards the Trang An Grottos. We rode past masses of flooded rice fields and oddly shaped hills. The back roads were quiet and I saw a few peaceful looking guesthouses. I’ll return to Ninh Binh one day and I’ll definitely stay out in the countryside next time.
TRANG AN GROTTOS
The driver dropped me off outside the Trang An Grottos ticket office and waited around until I returned two and a half hours later. I bought my ticket (150,000 VND) and waited around for some more tourists to fill up a boat. I eventually joined up with two Americans who regaled me with tales of Thai massage parlours and other travel misadventures. They were pretty entertaining and I was glad for the company — I hadn’t met many other foreigners on my travels around the north of Vietnam.
A middle-aged local woman rowed us slowly down the river. At one point she tried to marry off her daughter to one of the Americans. One of them actually spoke Vietnamese (his family is from Vietnam) so that allowed us to interact with our rower quite a lot — she was a character!
FURTHER READING: Two Weeks in Vietnam: The Ultimate Holiday Itinerary
We eventually came to the grottos, which are small passages through the limestone mountains. They are uncomfortably low and cramped at some points, especially if there are three or four boats trying to navigate through at the same time. We had to duck really low to avoid scraping our heads along the roof — it’s not the best place for someone with a back injury!
We stopped off at a couple of temples during the tour and it was nice to get up and stretch out the legs for a while. The Trang An Grottos boat trip is popular with tourists, especially local ones. It didn’t feel overrun though and there were no scams or hawkers, which nearby Tam Coc is getting a bad reputation for.
MUA CAVE VIEWPOINT
The actual cave part of this attraction is pretty disappointing, but it’s the view from the top of the steep hill that draws the tourist in. It was a surprisingly arduous 10 minute climb to the top. The views from up there more than make up for it though; on one side is the city of Ninh Binh surrounded by flooded rice paddies and on the other are the numerous mountains of Tam Coc. It costs 150,000 VND to visit the cave / viewpoint and it shouldn’t be missed — from what I’ve heard it’s one of the best places to see the scale of this place from above. I visited the cave afterwards and that was the end of my Ninh Binh tour, or so I thought.
It was nearly dark as we rode through the small town of Tam Coc. We continued on to a small cave, which was closed by the time we got there. The woman working there was more than happy to unlock the gate, and for 20,000 VND I had a look around. When I came back out the woman greeted me with a bag full of oranges. My driver and I ate a few and they both insisted I take the rest with me. She also gave me a 600ml water bottle full of super strong local alcohol. She, and everyone else I met in Ninh Binh, were so friendly and honest, which can’t be said of everywhere on the Vietnam tourist trail.
NINH BINH CITY
Ninh Binh isn’t the most appealing of cities but if you only have a day or two in the area it is the logical place to stay. If you have longer, consider staying in Tam Coc or one of the countryside guesthouses. I stayed at Ninh Binh Valley Homestay, which was fairly basic, although the staff were really friendly. One of the women bought out hot tea (free of charge) when I came in from the cold and the guy behind the desk speaks ok English and is able to help with booking tours and buses. I also found a good, cheap nearby restaurant (go through the market past the guesthouse and take the first left). Ninh Binh is only a couple of hours from Hanoi and a lot of people visit on a day tour, which isn’t a bad idea if you’re pressed for time.
Are you planning on doing a tour in Ninh Binh? Let me know in the comments below!