Ninh Binh - An Escape From The City

Sunday, 1 October 2017
Hello from Vietnam!

This is going to be the first in our (Will and I) little travel series for South East Asia. So we arrived in Hanoi on Saturday 9th September and began our volunteering and exploring (Hanoi city guide coming in a few weeks). So whether you’re here for advice on Vietnam and Ninh Binh or if you’re here to just have a nosey at some holiday snaps, enjoy!

Last week we had 2 consecutive days off so decided it would be the perfect opportunity to escape the craziness that we're calling home at the moment A.K.A Hanoi.
We woke up super early and headed to Ga Hanoi, where we would take the train to Ninh Binh.  The train was an experience in itself, it pulled in at the station and as the carriages started to wizz pass, we saw lovely looking sleeper carriages, then ones with padded reclining chairs... and then our carriage. We peered through the window to see ridged wooden benches that looked very uncomfortable and very little space due to the number of people lying across a whole bench that's supposed to sit 3. None the less we finally find seats together, through the kindness of the locals who made room. So, this brings us to our first tip:

1 - For longer journeys it's worth paying a little extra for the 'soft seat' option, as you get a lot more for your money!

 Nevertheless it was true to say we had a more authentic experience. 

(Trains don't run very often in Hanoi! You can book a ticket at the station or a useful website is

The journey took 2 hours 15 minutes and after getting of the train we were greeted by a friendly taxi driver who spoke little English but managed the words "Will,". He drove us to our home-stay in a town called Tam Coc a small town in Ninh Binh province which was the perfect location for everything we wanted to do. We couldn't recommend our homestay more - the family was so lovely and helpful and the location was brilliant! They also made us amazing food and let us hire a motorbike off them for a good price (100k vnd). See details here. This leads us to our second point:

2 - Don't stay in Ninh Binh!

Although it may seem tempting as this is where the train gets in, the town itself doesn't have much of interest and it makes more sense to stay closer to the things you'll want to see!

(Tam Coc Smile Homestay)

First off we did the Tam Coc cave tour, which sets off from the centre of the town and goes for about 2 hours across a small lake, through marshland, under caves and into some stunning scenery for which Vietnam is most famous. We paid 390k vnd (£13/$17) for a boat and a driver/tour guide, which is the only way of doing the tour and seemed a reasonable price. The boats were basically tin boxes that had wooden benches, they were...authentic shall we say. So we got into our boat and were rowed by a lovely Vietnamese lady who had basic English so could lightly explain things and give us facts along the way. One of the most intriguing things about this river tour was the fact that the women lean back and relax, paddling the boat with their feet (personally I think it’s hard enough to paddle with your hands let alone your feet but they looked perfectly happy!). The only thing I would say about this particular trip is that is completely set up for tourists only. This means that you will be pressured at some point to buy something you don't want or to overly tip your guide.

3 - Don't feel pressured to tip the amount they ask for! 

Just like buying things from markets you will be ripped off if not careful. They may also try to guilt trip you 'i have worked so hard for you, I really need the money etc) but we were informed by locals that they do receive a decent wage for their work and they do not rely on our tips.

4 - Hire a motorbike 

We hired motorbikes from our homestay but it would've been just as easy to hire them in town. 120k vnd is a good price and they may charge more for filling it up with fuel. If you have the option I would recommend filling up the bike yourself as otherwise you will be most likely overcharged and given more fuel than you will need. We had only learned to drive a motorbike the week before and had practiced for just a few hours, but in Ninh Binh we never felt unsafe driving at all. The roads are very quiet and cars/bikes never drive much more than 30-40km/h. I'ts worth it for the freedom of going where you want, when you want, especially as there aren't many public transport options in the area.

5 - Do the dragon steps! 

Later on in the evening, just before sunset we hopped on the bike and headed to ‘the dragon steps’(Mua Caves) about 5km from our homestay. It consists of 500 steps taking you up to a dragon sculpture, but more importantly giving you the most incredible views of the mountainous green landscape, rivaling those of Halong Bay. It costs only 100k vnd per person to climb the steps which is pretty much just a maintenance fee. I have to say this for me is probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve done all of the trip. During the ascent I felt like I was going to me 500 steps in 30 degree heat is not easy! But as we got closer to the top and the views started to appear I felt so proud of my self and god it was so worth it. The views were breathtaking. The pictures really don’t do them justice but they give you and idea of what was before our eyes. After spending a good 20 minutes taking pictures and enjoying the view we headed back down and back home for a good nights sleep.

The next morning we woke, well rested and raring to go. Fuelled by the incredible breakfast we were given at the homestay (I’m talking fruit, pancakes, baguettes, omelette...there was no holding back), we began the day by getting on the bike and driving to Hoa Lu - an ancient capital of Vietnam. This was about 12km away from Tam Coc and was a beautiful drive. When we arrived we were met with a calm serene area of green. The ancient capital was free to get in and just 20k vnd per person to look around the temples there. I would definitely say visit here, as it was beautiful, well kept and very calming to just walk around the manicured gardens and temples.

After going here we carried on driving to reach Bai Dinh pagoda. You could spend hours here if you wished as there are so many different pagodas in all shapes and sizes to see, but we just spent about 30 minutes wondering around the site.

At the end of the day we visited another Pagoda called Bich Dong, which had an exciting but eery feel to it. Due to rain the entrance pathway to the pagoda had flooded slightly, but don't let that stop you - just wade your way through!

If we could've stayed longer we would have done, as there were many more sights to see! Our friends went to Cuc Phuong National Park, which is great for walking, although a little further from other sights. Other noteworthy sights to be seen are: Trang An grottoes (cave boat trip), which is highly rated, although similar to the boat trip from Tam Coc; Van Long nature reserve and an endangered primate rescue centre (for those animal lovers out there!)

Oh and one more thing...
If you're coming from Hanoi, you may be used to cloudy, muggy heat and little sunshine, but Ninh Binh is quite the opposite and you will burn very easily!

6 - Wear sun cream! :) 

We hope this is useful to someone out there! Hanoi city guide coming soon...


Melissa & Will

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