My last travel blog I covered my trip to the South East coast of Vietnam and before that down in the Southern tip on Phu Quoc Island. I covered beaches and island life, but that’s not for everyone right? So if beaches aren’t your thing and you like the mountainous and lushes green landscapes, then Ninh Binh might take your fancy. (By the way check out those blogs if you haven’t already – links at the bottom of the page).
Located almost 100km South of Hanoi, it’s easily reachable in a couple of hours by car. There were 5 of us in our group and we all were getting to Hanoi airport at different times, but we had pre-booked a private car to take us straight to our Homestay (The car was booked through our Homestay and made things so much easier to organise). We arrived late in the night around midnight due to the ever consistent domestic flight delays. Our driver took us on smaller and thinner roads and we knew were approaching our Homestay. The final road barely fit a 4×4 and abruptly ended where we were greeted by our lovely bamboo huts looking over paddy fields, although we didn’t know that yet, it being pitch black.
The next morning we woke up in the refreshing morning breeze and I opened my bamboo hut to be greeted by eerie, but beautiful mist over the lake. The place we were staying at was called Lotus Field Homestay and just as the name suggests, around the edge of the lake there are pretty pink lotus flowers everywhere. Now, this is not luxury accommodation by any means, but in Ninh Binh that really doesn’t fit with the bill. Ninh Binh is most definitely a place to enjoy nature and living more with nature isn’t necessary, but certainly makes for a more fulfilling experience.
We hired bikes from the homestay, who I must say are some of the friendliest hosts I have ever met anywhere in the world. They even cooked us the most delicious dinners every night we were there. Anyway, sightseeing to do! We headed straight for the old city of Hoa Lu, just 10 minutes ride from our homestay. Still covered in mist, which became a weathered theme for our entire stay in Ninh Binh. A nice contained village-esque place to see the ancient ruins and casually stroll around. There are various temples and parks to walk around, all are quaint and not so busy which I think works just right.
We then decided to head to the main town part of Ninh Binh and grab some lunch, again it wasn’t that far from our Homestay, but we started to realise on those open country roads that we had made a grave mistake with our attire. None of us had decided to bring anything warm to wear, we had even been warned before flying from Ho Chi Minh of the change in temperature. We were in Ninh Binh at the start of January and it was the height of winter there, so temperatures were around 13°C. In the end with all these scenarios you make the most of it and it becomes a part of the travel adventure. We started searching along the main high street for clothes and happened upon a shop where all five us kitted ourselves out with warm gear. Safe to say a funny situation that we all laughed about afterwards. I still have the knock-off Columbia puffer jacket and I took it back to the UK in winter and it did the job.
The next day we had planned an epic journey to Cuc Phuong National Park. We heard the ride into the National Park was beautiful and a must do if you could get there. And that’s where I stress ‘if you could get there’. Let’s just say we got there, just.
The day started out perfect, nice early breakfast again from our homestay and then we set off on our three hire bikes. It reads 55km on the map, so we knew around an hour and half to get there. We had all the roads; highways which are scary, small dirt roads which are fun if you don’t fall off, and finally epic mountain roads which keep climbing and descending. A truly special road trip and that was all in the morning. I took the lead briefly as I had Google Maps on my phone working, went down a small dip in the road and looked back to find no one behind me. I waited a few minutes and still nothing. So, I turned around and half a mile back my friends were stopped on the side of the road looking at one of the bikes. Safe say it sounded like a bee hive had been let off in the engine.
We decided we had to get it to a garage as we had to drive back 60km later in the day and so this was the new priority. Fast forward 4 hours, we didn’t find a garage and just drove the bike gingerly to the National Park and hoped for the best. There the ticket woman was super kind and called up a mechanic who turned up 15 minutes later and pulled the bike apart to find the problem. It all got a bit Top Gear at this point. Again, truly disastrous for our plans, but epic and fun and again just made for another story for us to talk about. So, we never got into the National Park as we had to drive all the way back and we didn’t feel like it was a good idea to be doing big highways with trucks at night.
We did manage to get a quick tour of the Monkey Sanctuary at the entrance of the National Park, which was great fun and fascinating to see so many different monkeys in one place. We learnt a lot as well there, so definitely make a pit stop there if you want to see some primates.
On the third day, after our motorbike shenanigans we didn’t want to risk another long trip somewhere to not be rewarded, so we did the classic Trang An boat tour. You pay a fee, I think we paid 200k VND and you get on a small wooden boat powered by the legs of a smiling woman. Again, so quaint and enjoyable as you float your way along the river and through pitch black caves. Top tip, there are woman in boats waiting at the U-turn back around trying to scam you into buying heavily overpriced items, my personal opinion of this is to say no, as they know exactly what they are doing playing on the tourist, but if you don’t mind then by all means go ahead, just I feel this is not in keeping with anything moral or what I would say is Ninh Binh.
Our final mission was to head to a much closer National Park where we heard there were caves and look out points to explore, so we headed there. Called Thung Nham Bird Park, we got there to find it was quite a new theme park like attraction, the drive down the valley was beautiful and we saw a lot of wildlife. In the end it turned out to be one of the nicest places we visited. We got some nice pics and took in the well groomed gardens and more wild fields.
The last day we decided it was time to chill and relax, grab some good food and rest up, before heading out to our final planned location, we headed to Hang Mua in the early evening at my request to get the photos I wanted, but it ended up being guess what? Yes, you got it, completely overcast and misty, but that still didn’t take away from the mystique of this part of Vietnam. You climb a few hundred steps to reach the peak of the hill, where there is a beautiful stone dragon at the top. If you aren’t afraid of heights and can climb then you can get a great insta-worthy photo not many people will have in their collection.
All in all, Ninh Binh is truly beautiful and it very much encapsulates what you see of Vietnam from many travel guides. Depending on what time of year you go there be prepared for countless tourists in the summer and cold, rainy weather in the winter. But, no matter when you go you will not be disappointed by this enchanting place.