Leaving our favorite place in Vietnam, Phong Nha National Park, was bittersweet. We left the amazing town behind and took a sleeper bus to a place that is referred to as Halong Bay on land, Ninh Binh. Ninh Binh is known for its rivers that lead down gorgeous valleys of karst mountains and through low caves. Our bus dropped us at 4am, which is one of the two normal drop off times while traveling south to north, in the middle of the small town in the Tam Coc area. The hotel that the bus leaves travelers at has staff awake and working, ready to give taxi rides for inflated prices as there are few other options if you aren’t staying within walking distance. After getting a bit more sleep at our homestay, it was time for us to explore Ninh Binh.
Tam Coc, or Three Caves in English, was the closest attraction to where we stayed, and also the valley that is advertised in most tourist offices throughout the country when Ninh Binh is pictured. Our homestay had a hand drawn map they gave us and we rented a motorbike for 100,000 dong ($4) and drove toward the circle on the map. When we arrived, we stopped in a huge parking lot and a man immediately demanded 15,000 dong to park. Grudgingly we paid the 60 cents and bought our 195,000 dong per person tickets for a boat to take us down the river and into the valley we had heard about.
The tiny boats were lined up, ready for visitors, however hardly anyone was around when we got there at 9am. We jumped in our small boat and a man got in to paddle us down the river for the next hour and a half. We drifted quietly down the river past the town where tired tourists ate their breakfasts and onward into the gigantic karst mountains in the distance. When I looked back I noticed that the guy paddling wasn’t using his arms to paddle, but pushing the oars with his feet!
We visited in January, which we learned is after the rice harvest, so instead of beautiful fields of rice lining the river we saw the nets that usually divide them from the river. Despite the nets lining the river, the massive cliffs that surrounded us were breathtaking and dwarfed our tiny boats. The further we went the larger the mountains seemed to get until we finally came to the first of the three caves on the trip. Facing a mountain in front of us we spied a small crack in the base where the river lead through, and our boat driver paddled us into it.
The scenery was great as we came out of the first short cave and paddled on toward the second. Locals worked in the watery rice fields, pulling weeds and preparing to plant new rice for the upcoming season. The cliffs made them look impossibly small next to their great height. We passed through two more caves before turning to head back and getting bombarded by two boats with women trying to sell us whatever they could.
“Buy coke, water, flower, something for the driver? He’s hot, he’s thirsty, buy him a drink?” The ladies dropped a bottled oolong tea into the boat and held out their hands for payment. After an awkward couple of minutes we finally got away without buying anything since the tickets were already a bit pricey and the people in town had already started to rub us the wrong way. Just before we reached the dock after an hour and a half in the river, our driver said his first English words to us.
“Tip?” He asked, and then repeated a dozen times while rubbing his fingers together.
Now, it would be accurate enough to call me cheap, but I’m also happy to tip when it makes sense. In this case it didn’t. Despite the man paddling us on the river, the boat tickets weren’t cheap, he obviously worked with the ladies in the boats to pressure us to buy something, and was unable to show any point of interest, instead relying on the beauty of the scenery to persuade us to pay him extra. Once we were back on land another man waited for us to come out of the restroom before running up and demanding 3,000 dong, although there was no sign or stand set up.
Bich Dong Pagoda
Just down the road from the dock at Tam Coc, we visited a “free” pagoda, Bich Dong. When we parked our motorbike we were told the fee to park would be the highest we’d paid in the country, 50,000 dong, but of course entry to the site was free. We grudgingly paid and headed across a small bridge and through an archway.
If this is the first temple you’ll visit in southeast Asia then it’s probably impressive enough, however if you’ve seen a few Buddhist temples then this one may not warrant the 50,000 VND to park. We climbed the steps to the small temple which is set in a shallow cave overlooking the town. It may have been the pushiness of the people beforehand or that the temple is just a bit underwhelming, but we didn’t find the place to be too exciting. A short walk through the opening in the hill on the right side of the picture above brought us to a paid bathroom and some people that appeared to be building some accommodation.
A bit disappointed in Ninh Binh to this point despite the amazing scenery, we thought we’d visit a much quieter and further away site, Van Long. Van Long is a nature reserve about 20km from Ninh Binh (Tam Coc) that is known for having a small population of endangered Delacour’s Langurs. We made the trip just before sunset and almost missed the stop since there was no clearly marked ticket office and no people to be seen anywhere. Had we not seen a few small boats from the road and our GPS app not told us to stop, we wouldn’t have found the boats to Van Long at all. A lady motioned for us to go to a nearby unmarked white building to pay.
A man saw us coming and ran into the ticket office to collect the 50,000 dong each ($2.27) for our two hour boat ride into the park. We parked our motorbike beside the sole vehicle in the lot and hopped onto a tiny boat where a nice lady began rowing us toward the park. Van Long had a very different feel compared to Tam Coc, nobody yelling at you to pay for parking, a friendly boat driver, and not another tourist to be seen.
Hundreds of birds flew past as our boat driver cheerfully chatted to a few women working on the side of the river. We told the boat driver that we were interested in seeing the monkeys in the park, and although she didn’t seem to speak any English, she immediately responded to the word, “Monkey”. As we rounded the cliff that separates the park from the outside world, she immediately began scanning the jagged mountains around us. She pointed at a spot high above us and made a sad face, shaking her head and saying, “Monkey”. It seemed as though the monkeys wouldn’t be showing themselves to us that day.
A bit further into the park, the lady stopped paddling and excitedly thrust a finger out toward the mountains. “Monkey!” she shouted, and pointed, with a big grin on her face. Sissy and I struggled to see what she was pointing at, so she rowed closer and pointed again. There, high above us, was a group of Delacour’s Langurs moving across the upper edge of a mountain. Their black bodies looked like they were wearing white shorts, which helped us seen them as the sun was setting on the grey day.
After spending a good fifteen minutes admiring the langurs, we continued on a short way into a low cave, similar to what we had seen in Tam Coc. The cave didn’t seem to lead anywhere, and our boat was turned around after a short distance to head back to the dock. On our way out of the park we came across the first tourists we had seen in the two hours we had been on the water as they headed in. Just before reaching the dock, we handed our boat driver a 50,000 dong tip, and she smiled and thanked us. Overall the scenery wasn’t quite as dramatic as Tam Coc, but the experience was worlds better.
The third boat ride in the area for us was also the most popular, Trang An. While Tam Coc seemed a bit commercialized and unpleasant, Trang An was a site for mass tourism. We paid 15,000 dong each to park our bicycles (it was close enough to skip renting a motorbike that day) and walked to the ticket booth which is part of a giant building on the river. We paid 200,000 VND per person for a ticket and were pointed toward a massive lineup of small boats. After being packed onto a small boat with three other Vietnamese tourists, a lady paddled our boat past the thousand (the boats are numbered and the highest we saw was over 1,100) or so others just like it.
Initially we were a bit turned off by the mass tourism approach and number of people crowding the river, but as we floated on we began passing massive cliffs that were beyond comparison with what we had seen in Ninh Binh so far. Valleys seemed to appear around every turn, looking like we were in a scene from Jurassic Park.
Trang An brings you through eight caves on the two hour boat ride, and after a brief stop at a small temple, we came to our first cave. The caves are low and relatively tight, with lights inside most of them, and unlike Tam Coc or Van Long, they go on for quite a way. Our first cave was 100 meters long, and they got much longer than that as we journeyed on.
After almost an hour, we stopped in a lagoon with towering cliffs all around. Our boat driver motioned for us to get off, and we walked up a steep set of stairs, unsure of where they would lead. Once we reached the top of the stairs we descended the opposite side to find a small temple which didn’t really justify the walk for us. Heading back toward the dock we took in more stunning views, feeling as amazed as we had on the way in.
Arriving back at the start of the journey, we found that we had enjoyed Trang An the most of the places we had visited in Ninh Binh, despite the crowds and mass tourism set up. The scenery was second to none, including Halong Bay, which would be our next stop after Ninh Binh.
Feeling a bit tapped for cash by our Vietnamese budget standards, we almost skipped visiting Mua Cave. Reluctantly we eventually paid the 100,000 dong each (you know you’re on a tight budget when $4.40 each is too much!) and started the ascent up the 500 stairs at the site. We didn’t know exactly what Mua Cave was before visiting, but were told we had to reach the top of the steps to visit a small temple. Up and up we went for a half hour or so, with the views getting better with every step we took.
We detoured down a small path about 2/3rds of the way up, but alas, it didn’t lead to the view we were told we couldn’t miss. Just before reaching the top of the mountain we looked to our left and saw the most amazing view of Tam Coc below.
The view felt like a less intense version of the first time we saw the Grand Canyon, something that was unexpected and completely abnormal. In rice season the pictures look even more amazing, however we were more than happy with the outstanding view we saw. The very top of the mountain has a dragon sculpture and a small covered area which overlooks Ninh Binh and the hundreds of peaks below.
After descending the steep stairs we visited the namesake of the site, the actual Mua Cave. The cave is a wide, short, relatively lackluster formation that opens up on the opposite end to the river in Tam Coc where the boat rides go. We walked down a rough path with a sign saying “Tam Coc Viewpoint” pointing us in the right direction. While the view was nice, it didn’t compare with the amazing views from the top of the mountain.
Ninh Binh ended up making up for its lack of charm and manners through sheer beauty, and by the time we said goodbye, we were actually sad to go. We didn’t experience the same warmth and hospitality that we had elsewhere in the country, but the scenery more than made up for it. Luckily our next and final stop during our month in Vietnam was also the most famous, the beautiful Halong Bay via Cat Ba Island.