Located just two hours south of Hanoi, Ninh Binh offers travelers a welcome respite from the hectic pace of Vietnam’s capital city in a slower-paced town which serves as a gateway to stunning natural attractions and postcard fantasies of classic Southeast Asia. Most travelers skip past Ninh Binh in uncomfortable sleeper buses carrying them on the typical tourist trail through Vietnam, traveling north or south between Saigon and Hanoi with stops in Hue and Hoi’An. Ninh Binh, on the other hand, seems to attract a unique brand of travelers seeking new and exciting experiences off the beaten path of a country which is beginning to suffer from excessive and unchecked tourism. Though the town may have little of interest, the surrounding area offers plenty of options for travelers who want to spend a few days discovering the wealth of natural attractions without the choking crowds that you will find in places like HaLong Bay.
The town of Ninh Binh is easily reached by train or bus on the north-south line between Hanoi and Hue. Many travelers elect to make this journey in prepaid “sleeper buses” which ply the route between Hanoi and Saigon. Tickets are sold at hotels, travel agencies, restaurants, and basically any business that you ask. The travel culture of Vietnam has become so convoluted with fake travel agencies and scam artists, it can become very frustrating making travel plans, especially in the big cities. The sleeper buses are one of the worst examples of an unchecked industry staffed by greedy and dishonest people who collect inflated fares while making promises they simply cannot keep. Though the buses look nice in the photos, be aware that most Westerners will find themselves packed into “sleepers” which are uncomfortably short on long-distance rides which usually offer little to no chance of sleep. Also, sleeper buses usually travel at night which allow travelers to save on accommodation, but force them to miss the stunning scenery and picturesque towns and villages that lie between the major tourist destinations.
In my opinion, traveling by train is the best way to experience Vietnam. Running nearly the entire length of the country and passing through most major destinations, these air-conditioned trains are safe, comfortable, and generally inexpensive, making them the ideal way to travel whether you are going north or south. Best of all, the train journeys become an experience in themselves and one of the best ways to experience Vietnamese as the locals do. Traveling over mountains and along the coast, train travelers are able to experience the incredible natural beauty of the country, as well as viewing the many quaint and picturesque towns along the way. It is a great way to meet local Vietnamese people and experience Vietnam beyond the few destinations that every tourist visits.
Travelers arriving in Ninh Binh by train will find several hotels situated near the train station. Other options are available a short distance away, including the Xuan Hoa Hotel which is run by the friendly and informative Mr. Xuan and his family. If you arriving by bus or train, it is likely you will be met by Mr. Xuan and his hotels (next door to each other) make a great base for exploring the area. Mr. Xuan can provide valuable information about the surrounding area and his wife’s cooking is among the best in Vietnam. With a comfortable hotel serving delicious food, fewer tourists, and an array of natural wonders, Ninh Binh was easily the highlight of this year’s trip through Vietnam.
The most popular attraction in the Ninh Binh area is Tam Coc, known as “HaLong Bay on the Rice Paddies.” Tam Coc is named after the low caves through which the Ngo Dong River flows amidst a landscape of rugged rock formations, similar to those found at HaLong Bay. It is an unforgettable location, full of jagged limestone mountains rising from vibrant green rice paddies with the Ngo Dong River cutting its way through a sea of green. Most people experience Tam Coc on a day trip from Hanoi, arriving in mid-morning an approximately two-hour trip on a rowboat, passing through several low-hanging caves with only the sounds of paddles churning the water.
Unfortunately, like many of Vietnam’s natural wonders, Tam Coc is threatened by nearby pollution and a growing tourist industry which seems to operate with little regulation. Many tourists complain of their visit to Tam Coc and our trip was not without its share of frustrations. The outstanding natural beauty is often overshadowed by the sheer number of tourists who are carried in uncomfortable boats under a hot and searing sun by guides who chat on cell phones and make repeated stops in attempts to sell goods, then become angry when tourists do not buy or tip. It is a shame that such a magical place can become spoiled and unpleasant, but that is yet another similarity that exists between Tam Coc and HaLong Bay.
Tam Coc is a must-see destination, but it is best appreciated in the early morning and evening hours when the weather is cooler and there a fewer tourists. Tickets are purchased at a small booth and boats usually carry two passengers, along with a rower who sits at the back. Often, tourists will be accompanied by a second rower, usually an elderly woman determined to sell you goods at the end of the trip. The rowboats cut down on unnecessary noise in this serene and beautiful area and should provide a relaxing and romantic way of experiencing Tam Coc. The trip takes about two hours and passes through three caves: Hang Ca, the first cave, is 127m long; Hang Giua 70m long; and the third, Hang Cuoi, is only 45m. After the third cave, the boat turns to make the return trip, and it is as this point that most tourists are accosted by an army of refreshment-toting vendors in rowboats while the guide refuses to paddle until you purchase something. These manipulative and aggressive tactics are becoming all too commonplace in Vietnam’s tourist areas and, like many people, we were awed by the beauty of Tam Coc, but left frustrated and annoyed by the people working there.
Luckily, as independent travelers, we were able to leave the touts and tourists behind and explore the area on our own. We were eager to view Tam Coc from a different perspective so we rented a motorbike from Mr. Xuan and followed his directions to Mua Cave. It took some time to locate our destination as much of the area surrounding Ninh Binh is covered in rice paddies and dotted with small villages. The roads are generally unmarked and unpaved, but with the help of friendly locals we located our destination, paid the entrance fee, and entered a tranquil setting of bridge-covered ponds and shaded trees. There are caves to explore, but it is the overlook which brings the few tourists here. A flight of 500 stairs carved into stone leads up limestone crags to a mountaintop overlook with a fantastic vista of Tam Coc and the Ngo Dong River below. The climb is best done in the early morning or late afternoon when it is cooler and the light is better for photographing the gorgeous scene. There is no shade on the climb so bring plenty of water, but thankfully, there is a small shaded pavilion at the summit where you can relax and enjoy the views. From the overlook you can look down upon the river and see the tiny boats carrying overheated passengers on the Tam Coc river journey. The view is spectacular and it is likely your only company will be the large dragon statue perched upon the craggy limestone rocks overlooking this unforgettable location.
We soon realized that the natural wonders surrounding Ninh Binh are not limited to Tam Coc, but exist in almost every direction. Dirt paths connect with newly paved roads winding their way amidst an unbelievable range of lush mountains and towering peaks. Away from the main highway, there was little traffic and we were able to explore a wide range of sights, both comfortably and safely on the rented motorbike. With the wind at our face and the open road before us, we set out for hours at a time to explore the wondrous scenery and the picturesque communities just a short ride from town. With the freedom of our own transportation carrying us through some of the most beautiful scenery in Southeast Asia, the days we spent in Ninh Binh were easily my favorite in all of Vietnam.