After a few days exploring Hanoi and Halong Bay, it was time to continue our north-to-south journey through Vietnam. We were planning on visiting the area known as “Halong Bay inland”, but instead of joining a day tour from Hanoi, we wanted to do it independently. So we headed to the Giap Bat bus station and got on the first public bus to Ninh Binh. The ride took less than 3 hours and cost around $5. When we arrived, we grabbed our backpacks, ignored the hustling taxi drivers, and started walking toward what looked like the center. The town was not touristy at all, and it took us a while to find a hotel; finding a restaurant wasn’t easy either, everything seemed to close at sunset. But for some reason I liked this town, it felt so much more authentic than Hanoi.
In the morning, we hired the son of the hotel owner (Xuan Hoa Hotel, most helpful man we found in all of Vietnam!) to drive us around. First, we wanted to go to Trang An Grottoes, a short 15 min ride from Ninh Binh. We arrived right after they opened and the place was almost deserted. After buying our tickets (VND 150,000, ~$7 per person), we were asked to wait for more visitors to fill our boat. You usually need 4-6 people, but when a girl showed up alone, we were allowed to get going with 3. We jumped on the small metal boat and met our rower, a very petite but strong young lady. Soon we were cruising through the tall limestone formations, topped by green trees and bushes. The water was extremely clear and we could see plants and fish. Every few minutes, we would get to a cave, and our rower would maneuver the boat graciously under the narrow ceiling. The caves, 12 in total, were not particularly interesting. Nor were the “fake” temples built on the shore, where we could get off the boat for a bit. The landscape was the absolute protagonist here, its picturesque mix of water, dark cliffs and lush vegetation.
We relaxed and took in the atmosphere, crossing other boats every now and then, enjoying the singing of Vietnamese women and observing the distinctive foot-rowing technique. After a 2 hour itinerary, we returned to a crazy busy dock. They were getting hundreds of boats ready and launching them one after the other; it looked like a Disneyland ride. They’re going to ruin this place, so go as soon as possible. Our second stop was Hoa Lu, Vietnam’s 10th century capital. Its setting was nice, but not much remains there, and we were saturated with temples and more interested in nature… So we walked around a bit and didn’t even get into the complex. We started driving south, and stopped at a restaurant to try the local specialty: goat. It was a bit chewy, but very tasty, especially when rolled in leaves and soaked in sauce. We passed several rice farming villages, where locals were drying the crop in any open surface, including all the roads.
Then we arrived at the second big destination for the day: Mua Cave. The name is a bit deceiving, because, yes, there is a cave, but that’s not what you come here for. You come for the fantastic views from the top of the hill. After getting our entrance tickets (VDN 50,000, ~$2), we walked through the gardens and ponds, and started climbing up the steep steps. It was harder than it looked, especially because it was extremely hot, and we regretted not having water. But as soon as we started seeing the gorgeous landscape, we got excited and forgot about the pain. We were literally above Tam Coc, and there were Halong-like karsts, water streams and rice paddies for as far as our eyes could see. We sat at the top for about an hour, enjoying the panorama and taking tons of pictures. It was so great to not be on a schedule!
Around 2pm we arrived at Tam Coc, and all the day tours from Hanoi were already gone. Before starting our boat ride, we sat down in a café and drank two glasses of sugar cane juice each. This drink would be one of my fondest memories of Vietnam. You could get it in every corner of every town for VND 10,000, ~$0.5, and it would be freshly pressed in front of you and quench your thirst. We bought our tickets (VND 195,000, ~$9 per person) and got on the small boat with our rower. Once again, we were quickly surrounded by limestone peaks, and this time, green rice paddies. The scenery was serene, as we passed the 3 caves, paddlings of ducks, and not a single other boat.
We reached the end of the route in about 45 min and turned around. Even on the same way back, we were fascinated by the views, always discovering new formations and compositions. It was such a great experience! We had heard that the river is usually crowded with boats hustling you to buy food, drinks for your rower, or pictures they take of you. Fortunately, probably because it was already late, we only saw one of such boats, at the turnaround, and were able to turn it down easily.
Many travelers wonder whether to visit Tam Coc or Trang An. International tourism operators seem to prefer Tam Coc, and I have to say that for some intangible reason, I thought it was more beautiful. Vietnamese tourists favor Trang An, and they claim objective reasons like longer ride for a lower price, larger number of caves,… Honestly, there is no reason to choose if you do it on your own; I would definitely recommend seeing both, and Mua Cave, in one day. Plus Ninh Binh is on the main railroad “The Reunification Line”, so you can easily continue from there without backtracking to Hanoi. That’s what we did, and after a long and rewarding day, we took a sleeper train to Hue.
PS: Buying train tickets in Vietnam is a bit of a pain, and the best option is to do it directly at the station, though you might risk it being full in peak season. Vietnamese Railways has an official online reservation website (www.dsvn.vn), but even if you use Google Translate to navigate it, it doesn’t seem to accept international credit cards. There are a bunch of website that look like the real thing (e.g. www.vietnam-railway.com), but they’re not, and their prices are about 2x.