Hanoi had character, Ha Long Bay was a dream, but Ninh Binh — no tour, no six course meals, no one responsible for me but me; the part of the trip that made me feel most joyful and alive— Ninh Binh was an adventure.
Ninh Binh is a province South of Hanoi. It’s a tourist destination but not nearly as high-profile as Ha Long Bay or SaPa (where I’d love to go but didn’t have the time) and sometimes called the “inland Ha Long Bay” or “Ha Long Bay among the rice paddies” because it has the same dramatic limestone karst formations, jutting up amidst rice fields. It’s so pretty, you wonder why it isn’t filled with tourists like the similarly landscaped Yangshou in Guangxi, China. It’s so pretty, you’d better bring an extra camera battery. It’s so pretty, you’ll forget about the second-degree burn on your leg.
Well, that happened earlier.
I took a early evening bus from Hanoi to Ninh Binh and although everything I’d read online said it was a three hour bus, we were there in an hour and forty five minutes. Maybe it was an improved road, a lack of traffic out of the city on a Sunday evening, or the relentlessly fast driving. Or all three. We jumped free of the Hanoi traffic and sped the whole way south, with the bus attendant regularly opening the door and shouting at anyone walking or standing at the side of the highway.
“NINH BINH! NINH BINH!”
The sun set, people got on and off, mostly off, and then I was the only person on the bus. We turned of the highway and halted in front of a dark station.
“NINH BINH! NINH BINH!”
This time he was talking to me. As I collected my bag, he looked at me again.
“What’s my name?”
I was totally confused, so I just stared at him. He repeated his sentence, louder.
“What’s MY NAME?”
He nodded. I nodded. I got off the bus.
You can stay in the city of Ninh Binh, the capital of the province, or, as I did, you can choose the more picturesque village of Tam Coc, just a six kilometer motorbike taxi away.
I got on the motorbike and handed the driver, an older gent, my hostel address. He put it in front of his headlight and squinted for a long time. Finally he handed me a helmet, and we were off.
Six kilometers later we were stopped on a dark street in front of a clearly abandoned building that the driver was gesturing at hopefully.
I handed him the address again. He squinted again. I pointed to the phone number and he got out his Nokia, and we commenced to perform a sort of phone comedy routine in which he struggled to see the phone keys and the phone number together in the light of his headlamp, I tried to call for him but didn’t know the unlock code for the phone, he unlocked it, I tried to dial, the number dialed did not work, we repeated the process, all the while basically communicating with gestures and grunts. Throughout this affair we were starting and stopping along this dark road in the village of Tam Coc, and I kept getting off to hold things in front of the headlight for the driver.
At some point, my calf brushed the uninsulated exhaust pipe of the motorcycle.
After more calls and questioning of locals we finally found my hostel, parted ways, and I began to eat dinner while pressing a cold beer to my burn. It hurt, actually it hurt quite a bit, but I was trying to ignore it— and I kept trying until the next day when a three-inch diameter blister bust open while I was hiking up a karst formation.
But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
The sunrise in Tam Coc was beautiful and shortly after, I was greeted by a farmer and his team of water buffalo progressing along the perimeter of a rice paddy. The coffee was so strong I had no choice but to douse it in the condensed milk which is ever-present in Vietnam. I spent the morning pouring over maps and then, with bike and GoPro, I was off to explore Ninh Binh.
Ninh Binh is beautiful. Oh, did I say that already? Ninh Binh is stunning. I’d arrived after dark, so everything rolled out before me like a surprise. Limestone burst from the paddies, soaring above me, forested and rugged. Rivers flowed around and through and under. Some rice paddies were yellow, some green, some flooded with muddy water.
I first biked to the Trang An boat ride, which is reason to go in itself. A bamboo boat takes you on a circular route through caves and karsts, stopping at temples and skirting couples taking wedding photos. I was on a boat with two lovely Vietnamese couples, who gradually warmed up their long forgotten schooldays’ English and enjoyed asking–
–every time we passed a boat with a white person in it.
Then, to Hoa Lu, the capital of Vietnam until 1010, a six kilometer ride away.
Next Hang Mua, where a staircase ascends to the top of a karst peak, giving you a view of the rice paddies and the city of Ninh Binh and the boats on the Tam Coc river far below.
This is where I noticed that my burn had broken open and bloody pus was dripping down my leg. Well, this is waiting to get infected.
I descended the staircase and biked into the village, stopping at the fist shop I saw that looked like it might have bandages.
“Sim chao. Um…”
I pointed to my leg. Suddenly there was a crowd of Vietnamese women around me shaking their heads. I pointed at the exhaust pipe of a nearby motorcycle. They all nodded and then shook their heads again.
Farther on, I stopped at a proper pharmacy and the scene repeated itself. The pharmacist took one look and nodded sagely.
I nodded. All the women shook their heads.
“VIETNAM. VERY COMMON. MO-TO-BIKE.”
Inside on a stool, the pharmacist rinsed the burn with saline solution and dabbed on antibiotic ointment. Meanwhile, an older woman who was singularly talented in mime stood behind me to watch. She’d tap my shoulder urgently and then point at my leg with this comically exaggerated expression of silent horror on her face, then tap my shoulder and point at the pharmacist, giving me an encouraging grin while nodding like a bobble head doll. Then back to the leg. Then the pharmacist.
The pharmacist was explaining to some onlookers. She finished taping a bandage over my burn and I was on my way again.
Next up: Bich Dong, a temple carved into the limestone. A steep rough path above the temple takes you up to another beautiful view at the top of the karst.
I took a snack break at the top. Then, tired, full of grapefruit and Vietnamese whoopee pies, freshly stocked with burn ointment and gauze, I biked back to my hostel and packed for a early evening return to Hanoi.
If you have a free day in Northern Vietnam, by all means go to Ninh Binh. Not only is it absolutely fuddling gorgeous, but there’s a freedom, a sense of independence and adventure, to be found in a day spent cycling in the countryside. That feeling, that’s what I seek when I travel. It’s what I hunger for when I stay home.
I found this post really helpful for info on sights and distances.
It’s quite easy to take a bus from Giat Bat in Hanoi to Ninh Binh (they leave frequently; buy your ticket inside at the window). Once in Tam Coc, bicycle or motorcycle rental is available. You can go as a day trip, but I think it’s better to plan an overnight stay so you have enough time to see the main sights… and enjoy the sunrise.