Arrival at Ninh Binh
Next stop was Hanoi. I could have taken a bus from Phong Nha to Hanoi but what about the breathtaking and almost surreal pictures of Trang An? I had to squeeze it in my itinerary. It is a world heritage site and was a reason enough for me to make this end moment adjustment. Taking out a day for Ninh Binh meant I would get only two days in Hanoi.
Trang An Scenic Landscape complex is a nexus of foggy lakes and water streams surrounded by limestone karsts and dotted with paddy fields. The spectacular landscape is also called the Halong bay on earth. The tranquility of this place is only disturbed by boats ruffling its waters.
It was 4:30 am, chilly and drizzling. The bus had dropped me near the Railway station and my hotel was 1.7 miles away. I had read about it in other forums. The buses from Phong Nha go to Hanoi with a stop at Ninh Binh. Most of these bus operators drop tourists at the Railway Station. It is best to ask your hotel to arrange for a cab. I had not arranged for the cab. I was hoping the bus would drop me at my hotel as it was on its way.
I took a stroll in the morning at 4:30 am. Still dark, shrouded with fog and drizzle, I kept walking next to Van river under the scattered light of street lamps. I had read about not walking alone on the streets of Vietnam, but the empty roads of Ninh Binh did not really intimidate me. Also, I don’t remember getting tricked by people or taxi drivers in Vietnam. The bike rentals have fixed prices (only in Hoi an and Phong Nha, I felt that rent prices were exaggerated). Baitulong Bay trip was well managed by the tour agency, however, I felt that I could have negotiated it better had I not booked it in advance.
The breakfast at my hotel was amazing and one of the best that I had in Vietnam. I hired a bike from the hotel and started for Trang an.
The sight of conical hats and the lush green paddy will greet you in this laid-back town of Ninh Binh. Roads were empty, and the sides were brimming with parked bicycles and bikes of people working in their fields.
Trang An Scenic landscape complex or Tam Coc?
I chose the Trang An landscape complex. You can choose either because both are pretty much the same. The 2 to 3 hours boat ride takes you on water streams meandering through karsts and low ceiling caves, which looked impossible to penetrate, with the ceiling almost touching our heads. Shadow of the surroundings so impeccably painted on the water that it seemed impossible to distinguish between the shadow and the real. There are temple complexes hidden in the jigsaw of cliffs and lakes. The ancient temples were built by Tang dynasty in the 12th century. I was awestruck to spot these beautiful temples in such an inaccessible place. This place was chosen because of its inaccessible and difficult terrain which would discourage enemies from attacking.
The ride was like a meditation; you will tend to be quiet and just let the view soak in. The downside is too many tourists, so the best thing is to cover the complex as a first thing in the morning.
Places to visit in Ninh Binh
There are a couple of things to see and experience in Ninh Binh
- Hoa Lo temples
- Mua Caves
- Bich Dinh Pagoda
- Bai Dung
I had one day so I could not explore Mua Caves. I read great things about Mua caves and it can be the first hike in the morning. If you are staying for two days and one night, you can easily cover all these places.
After Trang An, I started for Bich Dinh pagoda. I lost my way and drove in a residential area. Every house in that street had a pond filled with blossoming lotus flowers. There were boats swinging rhythmically in the small stream adjacent to the street. I parked my bike and just sat there.
Next was Hoa Lo temples and ruins. These temples are dedicated to the first and second imperial dynasties of Vietnam who unified Vietnam. It would be difficult to understand the significance without knowing the cultural and religious beliefs of Vietnamese people. In olden days, people used to build temples for great kings and they worship them even today.
It was already 3:30 pm and I had planned to take a train to Hanoi. The train takes only two hours and is ten times cheaper than taking a taxi or a bus. I paid 22k Dongs whereas a bus ticket cost 100K Dongs.
If you are planning to take the train, it is better to book online from the official Vietnamese Railways website, though tickets are easily available at the counter too. Beware of other websites which show the charges in USD and are super expensive. The one that I found had train tickets starting from 15 USD.
It would have been nice to just stay there for a day and explore the place and food. A lot of tourists stay near the Tam Coc area. I found that a lot of buses directly take you to the Tom Cac area, so if you are planning to stay, you can check with the bus operator before booking your tickets.
The best part about Vietnam is that you can just hire a motorbike and be on your own. It’s that kind of sweet freedom that you have to taste at least once.
My train reached Hanoi 3 minutes before its scheduled arrival time of 5:27 pm. A bustling railway station, lots of people and innumerable bikes welcomed me in Hanoi.
Check pics at https://www.instagram.com/smokeytales.in/
Read more about Vietnam here: https://smokeytales.in/blog/category/international/places-to-visit-in-vietnam/