It was the dead of the morning when Liam and I arrived in Ninh Binh. Our bus driver absolutely gunned it down the road from Hue and our 11 hour journey was over in 9, leaving us on the side of a road at 3:30 am with one fellow traveller. We decided to split a taxi fare with him since we were heading the same direction, the taxi driver took half the fare from him and when we arrived at our homestay he demanded the full fare from us. Nothing like finding your way out of a scam to wake you right up. Luckily our luck changed from there on out. Our homestay hosts graciously let us in at a time where no one wants to be awake, and let us sleep in the dorm room until we woke up for the day at no extra cost. Heroes!
Ninh Binh is such a peaceful and beautiful place at any hour
After an amazing omelette for breakfast at our homestay we jumped on push bikes and headed to our first stop for the day, Trang An. An intricate river-way connected through caves, and completely surrounded by limestone pillars. It’s easy to see why this natural beauty is a UNESCO world heritage site! Once you buy a ticket there are three routes you can choose to take, each one is 2.5 hours long. Theres no wrong choice here, it’s all beautiful!
Beautiful views during every minute of our 2.5 hour journey
The second route went through an area where part of King Kong Skull Island was filmed, and since Liam is a Godzilla mega fan, this was obviously the route we chose! Cruising down the gentle waters through low hanging caves added an element of adventure to the trip as we bobbed and weaved our heads to avoid hitting the rocks above.
Mind your head!
The ride is broken up with a few temple stops located in the middle of this wonderland. The temples were all peaceful, and although there were plenty of other boats around us it never felt crowded or too touristy. As you’re on the boat looking at the looming limestone pillars and groups of birds weaving between them, you feel like you’re completely secluded in some far off tropical world. It’s easy to see why this was chosen as a film location for King Kong! An amazing experience start to finish.
Perfect place for a spot of solitude
Back on our push bikes we peddled on another 5km to the ancient city of Hoa Lu. We were cruising on the wide road through mountain tunnels with the wind blowing through our hair, feeling totally free when suddenly I felt the chain on my bike tire slip off. Damn it. We pulled off and I tried my best to keep calm knowing I had no real bike maintenance skills and there was a very real possibility I’d have to walk this bike back 14km. Liam was doing his best to fit the chain back on when a white car pulled over. Two women in their early twenties got out and asked if we were okay. After explaining our situation they said they saw a man washing his car about 300 meters away who might be able to help. We thanked them and headed to the guy washing his car, he only spoke Vietnamese so we were trying our best to convey that we needed help with the bike when the two ladies pulled up behind us again, “we want to make sure that you guys get your bike fixed! We know what it’s like traveling and not knowing the language”. They translated for us and before we knew it a group of four guys swooped in and fixed the chain, even gave it some air and a test ride to make sure it was back in action. We tried paying for the repair but they refused to accept it. What could’ve easily have been a travel nightmare ended up being a breeze; all because of the kindness and help from those girls who went out of their way to make sure we were okay! Its one of those moments that will always be a reminder for me of just how amazing humanity can be when we look out for each other.
A quick pic showing the amazing Vietnamese people who went out of their way to fix our bike, so grateful
The Ancient City of Hoa Lu has mostly been destroyed, what stands in its place are rebuilt models of some of the temples that used to stand there. Impressive pillars with ancient text written on them, dark temples with lacquer painted columns, and a massive courtyard. You feel transported back to before there was a road with speeding scooters flying past nearby and it was just this ancient city and the sprawling wild mountains.
These doorways were definitely not made for Liam
We were recommended by our homestay to go visit the Hang Mua viewpoint around sunset because the weather would provide for an extra beautiful view. Hang Mua is a resort with busloads of tourists coming to visit. In addition to the view point they also have a lily pond with a heart shaped path cutting through it that can be seen from the hike up the mountain. It is lovely and definitely tailor made for instagramming.
500 steep steps up and we made it to the viewpoint, and after biking all day we were feeling every single one of them. The scenes from the top were crazy stunning. Its a fantasy setting, you start to get lost in the moment and can almost hear flutes and wind chimes… Only to get shoved aside by a group of people desperate for their moment to get a thousand pictures of themselves posing on the top. The total magic of the moment lost. It is of course still totally worth a visit, but it would be far better with less people or people who were just happy to snap a quick pic and get on with being in the moment and admiring this beautiful spot with their own eyes.
Could easily have stayed here for a few hours!
In total we biked 38 km our first day which is a lot considering we haven’t really biked much at all this past year! So by the time we got back we were both worn down and ready for a home cooked meal at our homestay. There were about 12 people in total, guests and family, who sat down on the mats to this absolute feast of a dinner. But I can genuinely say all of us who were guests were truly treated like family. We kept getting loaded up on delicious food made by the mom, poured rice wine made by the dad, chatting with the sister and brother, and when the meal was over we all got a sweet hug and a kiss on the cheek goodnight from their adorable 92 year old grandma.
The bowls are tiny but when food keeps getting piled on top of the rice you start to fill up fast
Day two and back on the bikes we peddled out towards our main site for the day, Bich Dong Pagoda. A series of three pagodas built into the side of the limestone mountain. It is a nice site to see, but the real magic of this location lies on the path to the right where tourists don’t typically go. Liam and I decided to follow it as the lady we parked our bikes with told us to check out the view. Wow was it stunning! A completely empty valley except for one small house, a few goats and a lake. Wanting to experience this solitude a bit more we went down to walk around the lake. As we walked past the house the owner came out and followed us to the side of the mountain where there was a small locked gate. For 80p each he told us we could go inside and check out a cave. The guy didn’t speak much English so we couldn’t find out what the cave was like. We’ve paid to enter plenty of underwhelming caves, so we were a bit skeptical but we decided to just go for it since the guy came all the way out! We went in the cave and ended up getting a forty minute tour of this massive cave complex… Completely private and completely in Vietnamese! We didn’t understand a word, but the guy was so enthusiastic we happily followed him, crawling through the narrow tunnels and low hanging pathways as he shone his flashlight on various points of interest. It was such a gamble but ended up being one of the most memorable, if not the most memorable cave experience we’ve had.
The only picture we got from our time caving
After our wild and rugged cave adventure we figured we deserved a few beers. We met up for a drink with our awesome Dutch friends once again in Tam Coc, the neighbouring town where they were staying. We were swapping stories of our time in this new place and we were so enthusiastic about our homestay dinner that they decided to join us! We biked the 14km back along the main highway during rush hour. Total chaos but we came out of the other side as way more confident bikers than when we began!
So excited to get two family dinners here
The second family dinner was just as amazing as the first. We all loved the family and the dishes we ate. Our hosts told us that everything they cook is made from food they grow and chickens they raise. Super sustainable! The dad showed us more of his rice wine collection, and through Google translate we learned that he made a rice wine with a snake in it that he brought back from his time in the military in Laos forty years ago. Now that’s dedication. After our lovely dinner we all grabbed a few beers and headed over to the neighbours house for that asian favourite: karaoke. The mom it turns out, is an avid fan. It was such a fun experience we all sang songs off key, with the exception of Lars and Franceina who sounded straight out of a Disney movie. It was truly the perfect way to wrap up our time with the family and friends who made Ninh Binh completely unforgettable.
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Liam and Lars murder Sweet Caroline…