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1 Day in Ninh Binh, Vietnam

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Article author: michael
michael
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This is the 1st part in my Vietnam & Thailand 2019 series.

You can view my Vietnam overview page, as well as my Thailand overview page with links for all the cities I stopped at.


Day 5

Ninh Binh Tour

On day 5, I had a Ninh Binh tour booked, leaving from Hanoi. I really enjoyed the Perfume Pagoda tour I did the previous day, as it was quite relaxing, and I got to see a lot of the countryside via the long boat rides to and from the pagoda.

This tour on the other hand was faster paced, and the energy level required was amped up quite a bit, and I was really looking forward that. Turns out, the views on this tour were also quite spectacular, and this ended up being one of the highlights of my time in Vietnam.

We left early morning from Hanoi, and had about a 2 hour drive to our first stop. As usual, the tour guide got to work keeping us entertained - this one with all of the languages he spoke! He spoke Vietnamese (well, of course!), English, French, and Spanish, a bit of Mandarin, and I think some German if I recall correctly. It was quite impressive!

Hua Lu

The first stop on the tour was Hua Lu, which is one of the ancient capitals of Vietnam. It was the capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries, before it was moved to Hanoi in 1010.

After a relaxing ride, we arrived at the ancient citadel. Quite a captivating entry don’t you think?

Hua Lu

There’s a wide walkway/bridge that leads to the main gates, and offers great views of the surrounding karst mountains.

Hua Lu

Hua Lu

The ancient capital of Hoa Lư was located in a flat valley between small but steep limestone mountains that created virtually impenetrable barriers to human traffic. Even today, many of the mountains are accessible only to the mountain goats that roam the area.

The 10th century rulers of Đại Cồ Việt took advantage of this topography in order to design enclosures that would be especially difficult to attack. In order to block the gaps between the limestone mountains, they ordered the construction of earthen walls reinforced and anchored in the soft earth by wooden stakes.
Wikipedia

After passing through the gates, there’s a large courtyard flanked by a pond on one side, and a large field containing a small pagoda on the other side. You can also see more of the karst mountains in the background of the 2nd pic below.

Hua Lu

Hua Lu

After passing through the courtyard, you pass through another gate that leads to the temples, which are dedicated to the emperors of the Dinh and Le dynasties.

Hua Lu

Dinh Tien Hoang temple

The 1st temple I came to was the Dinh Tien temple, or at least that’s what I’ve gathered based on the dragons you can see flanking the pedestal in the 2nd pic below.

Dinh Tien Hoang temple

Dinh Tien Hoang temple

Le Dai Hanh temple

The Le Dai Hanh temple, from what I understand, is to the right of the Dinh Tien Hoang Temple, but I wasn’t able to get decent shots both due to a lack of wide-angle ability of my mobile phone, and the fact that there were a lot of people around.

The following pic of the temple, taken from the north-vietnam.com site, shows how the pedestal and decor flanking the pedestal differ:

Le Dai Hanh temple

We actually didn’t spend a whole heck of a lot of time here, so I didn’t have time to get better pics, absorb the details of the temples, and might be getting some of the details mixed up. So for that I apologize!

Next up however, was the Mua Cave, which offered some spectacular views of Ninh Binh!

Mua Cave & Viewpoint

Mua Cave

When we arrived at the cave, it looked like we had arrived at some sort of resort. There were decorations, nicely manicured areas, what I believe were some dinning spots, and I believe some actual hotel rooms.

Mua Cave

We had to walk past all of that, pass a really nice looking pond …

Mua Cave

… and then we arrived at the base of the mountain. There were a lot of stairs to climb, and it was quite hot, but I didn’t come all this way to just sit around! 🤪

The are two mountains you can climb, one which leads to the cave (which I didn’t go into due to time constraints), and the other which leads to the viewpoint. But really though, both give gorgeous views.

Mua Cave

If I recall correctly, there were close to 500 steps to climb between the two mountains, and it was quite hot, but I was up for the challenge.

Mua Cave

We started our ascent, and along the way there were a number of landings where you could stop and take a break, and also take in the views, and get some nice pics.

Mua Cave

I climbed some more, and then snapped this pic of the other mountain, with the pagoda at the top.

Mua Cave

More incredible views on the way up. The skies weren’t clear, which is unfortunately a common theme in some of Vietnam (cough Hanoi cough), but it was still gorgeous.

Mua Cave

Mua Cave


See also:
Da Nang, Vietnam

After climbing to the top … or rather, not exactly the top. You can barely make out the dragon in the pic below, which is the top point of this side of the mountains. But I can’t recall why I didn’t get all the way up … I think it was just to crowded and I decided to just make my way to the other mountain top.

Mua Cave

So I started making my way to the other side, and you can see in the following two pics some of the 400+ steps to climb. The two following pics are looking back at the side I had just climbed.

Mua Cave

Mua Cave

Once you start getting close to the top of this side of the mountains, the steps weren’t in great shape. You had to be careful where you stepped to make sure you didn’t slip and fall.

Mua Cave

But the views! I know I sound like a broken record, but the views were so worth the 10 lbs in sweat I lost!

Mua Cave

Breaking for lunch

After everyone was done climbing and exploring the Mua cave/mountains, we left the site and headed in to the more central Tam Coc area for a buffet lunch at a restaurant I don’t recall the name of. Despite being what I assume is a purely “Westerner-focused” Vietnamese lunch buffet, the food was quite good and I feel it was still quite authentic, even if not entirely.

Biking around Tam Coc

If you book a tour in Ninh Binh, as I did, then you’ll likely see most of them include bike rides around Tam Coc.

I’m not sure what I was expecting exactly, but I think I was expecting a bit more of a “tour” of the area by bike, but it was more of “here’s some old bike’s, we’ll ride around the mountains a bit and then head back to the starting point”. It was actually nice and somewhat relaxing, don’t get me wrong, but I think I was expecting a bit more.

Tam Coc Bike Ride

The bikes were old, and the seats were not really comfortable. They were quite squeaky too! 😂

Tam Coc Bike Ride

We rode around some of the karst mountains which was nice, but some of the path had construction machines and was quite dirty.

Tam Coc Bike Ride

I don’t recall exactly how long the bike ride was, but it had to have been less than 30 minutes total. But I mean, when you book all day tours, there’s only so much you can do and see!

Tam Coc River Boat Ride

When we returned from the bike ride, we headed right across the street for the Tam Coc boat ride. The particular river we were in during this tour was the Ngo Dong river, where we passed Hang Ca, Hang Hai, and Hang Ba caves.

Boat ride

The boat ride was really relaxing, and the Ngo Dong river offered nice views along the way.

Some of the boat paddlers rowed with the hands, but most actually used their feet! It was really interesting and funny to see. First time I’ve ever seen people paddling this way.

Boat ride

The boat ride was somewhere between an hour and a half and two hours, so we covered some good distance.

Boat ride

Boat ride

After a while, we came to one of the caves we’d pass through. I’ve no idea which one it was, but you could almost touch the ceiling of the cave as we passed through. That said, it was also really dark, so my pictures came out mostly blurry.

Boat ride

After passing through the caves, we stopped for a bit where there were a bunch of locals selling drinks, fruits, and other snacks. I wonder if these locals have to pay a fee to the tour companies to be able to sell their goods here? I don’t think they make a lot of money, so hopefully not.

Boat ride

That “rest stop” lasted about 10 minutes or so, and then we headed back to the shore.

Boat ride

Boat ride

And that was basically it for the Ninh Binh tour!

Tour Verdict

I really really enjoyed this tour, and I think it was well worth the money.

I think the only things I would have changed were to have a bit more time at the Mua Cave, and a slightly different bike tour, but I doubt time would allow.

All in all I think it was a great tour, and if you like tours that are pre-planned and you don’t have to worry about anything, then I think this is a great option.

That said, it should be easy enough to book two days in Ninh Binh on your own, and just do the individual activities yourself at your own pace, thus avoiding any need to rush through some of the sites if you wanted.

Ta Hien Beer Street

Once I got back to my hostel, my hostel buddy that I had Indian food with the night before was hanging around and wanted to head out for drinks. So we headed to Ta Hien Beer Street, which is a street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi that is lined with bars and restaurants.

Ta Hien Beer Street

It’s crazy packed there with tourists and locals, but a strange thing happened a bit later in the evening. We were sitting outside drinking, when all of a sudden everyone was ushered inside the bars and restaurants. I had no idea what was going on, but we went inside and waited, with the doors closed and all the lights turned off, and the music stopped as well.

Turned out the police were driving by, and I guess they don’t allow the bars to remain open after a certain time. Possibly midnight or later, I’m not really sure. So we waited for a bit, until the police were gone, and then the partying resumed indoors!

Ta Hien Beer Street is a great place to hang out and have some drinks, and I highly recommend it if you’re in Hanoi. It’s a good place to just chill, people watch, and meet locals and other tourists alike.

We stayed out until about 2am, at which point my hostel buddy was hammered, and I had to drag him back to the hostel to get some sleep! 😂


The next day I was staying local, just doing some catch-up sight-seeing. You can find that post here.

Until next time,
michael 😀

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