My Favorite Place in Vietnam: Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh was the most beautiful place I visited in Vietnam.
It took awhile for Vietnam to charm me, but Ninh Binh did the job. After exploring caves and experiencing the mountain scenery of Phong Nha, I wasn't sure what to expect from Ninh Binh. It required an overnight bus (ugh) and we were unceremoniously dropped off outside the city bus station, which was, of course, closed at 4am. The four of us - myself, an Irish guy, and two British girls - stumbled off the bus and blearily tried to orient ourselves in direction of the hostel.
Once at the hostel, Cain passed out on a couch outside, Leah made herself comfortable on the floor, and Charlotte and I shared a love sofa in the common area. I squeezed in a few hours of sleep before the hostel starting coming to life at around 8am. Resigned to the fact that I wasn't going to get any more sleep (and with check-in still six hours away), I ordered breakfast and started writing a few blog posts to pass the time.
So while our morning in Ninh Binh was off to a rough start, we made up for it that evening. We rented motorbikes and followed a map to a viewpoint out of the city. We got lost on the way, but the path became easier to follow us once we found ourselves on dirt roads.
Suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by rice paddies and looming mountians. The viewpoint appeared before us, a cascading series of 500 white steps that were built into the side of a mountain using wooden boards and concrete steps.
15 minutes later, we heaved ourselves up to the top, sitting uncomfortably on volcanic rock. We made it in time for sunset, but the clouds covered the sun. The views were still worth it, and I was greeted with my absolute favorite view of Vietnam. I hadn't seen a view like it in my eight months of travel. The river was nestled between two mountains, the sun glinted off the rice fields, and a boat slipped silently beneath a cavern.
The opposite side showed the sprawling city of Ninh Binh, dotted with rice terraces in between. I literally felt like I was on top of the world and I mean that in every clichéd way possible. If it weren't for the obtrusive volcanic rocks poking my butt as I sat uncomfortably, I could have stayed up there forever.
We carefully made our way back down as Cain counted the steps: 462 in total.
The following day, we got up early to ride our motorbikes to the river where we could catch a boat tour. Shortly after we parked our bikes, it began to pour. With Vietnam in the midst of its rainy season, we had gotten used to waiting out the constant rain storms. We watched as the local women finished sweeping rice grains into massive bags and then quickly moved out of the storm's path. The boat tours were paused and we huddled underneath a shelter as the storm moved past.
We split up for the boat tour since the ticket office was insistent that the four of us couldn't fit in a boat (even though we saw eight locals crowded into one boat!). Not willing to put up a fight, we climbed into the boats, with Cain and I in one boat and Leah and Charlotte in another.
We were surprised to find that the women who row the boats row with their feet, an impressive skill that must require abs of steel. Cain - who insisted on working out everyday despite the heat and avoided carbs of any kind - tried to row with just his hands and still struggled!
With the four of us huddled in our respective boats, the boat journey began.
The tour leads us down the river, under bridges, and beneath caverns. We watch as women plant rice, goats chew on grass, and cattle roam the countryside. The recent rain has draped a layer of mist over the mountains and the sky is a forelorn gray; it adds even more mystery to the scenery.
The limestone mountains grow more majestic as our boat nears them. They dominate the landscape, overtaking the river and the rice paddies beneath them. Mountain goats can be seen standing at perilous heights on several mountains; they are on such high cliffs that we have to squint to see them when our guide points them out. There aren't too many tourists out on the river, probably because of the recent storm, and the only sounds are the flowing of the river and cooing of birds. Nothing disrupts nature here.
Our boat slips beneath the first cavern. We are instantly shrouded in darkness and my heart starts to pound until I can see the sunlight splayed on the water ahead. We pass beneath two more caverns during our journey, ducking slightly on the last one because the stalactites stretch towards the water's surface. It's amazing to think that these caverns and mountains were carved over million of years, the same river passing through today as it did generations before.
It was as relaxing as a tour could be, with the motorbikes and city far from this tiny town. As the boat began heading back to our starting pointing, I knew that Vietnam had me. I was enchanted by its people, its rich culture and history, and its scenery.
Just 1.5 hours south of Hanoi, this tranquil piece of paradise in the middle of rice paddies became my favorite spot in all of Vietnam.
- Where to stay: We stayed at Go Ninh Binh in the city ($5USD/night), which had a really cool set-up and nice rooms. Breakfast was not included, but there was a good selection.
- However, I would recommend staying in a homestay in Tam Coc, which is where the viewpoint and rice paddies are. It's quieter and prettier.
- If you go: A 1.5 hour boat tour costs 200,000dong / $9USD per person. The prices are set, so don't expect to haggle. At the turn around point, boats will approach you asking to buy sodas and flowers. A firm no will suffice.
- If I'm being honest: Go to the viewpoint at dawn or dusk for the best lighting for photos. My photos at the top of the viewpoint were washed out until the sun started setting behind the clouds.