Out of the way, and not packed with excitement and activity. Ninh Binh is quiet, even to the point of being dull, but maybe that’s why it’s a lovely place to visit. This sleepy town is a regular stop for backpackers and day-trippers from Hanoi, to enjoy a brief respite from the bustle of Vietnam’s cities.
I got to spend a few days here with my family, which allowed me to experience the full effect of Ninh Binh’s calming ambience. The province received some attention for being a film location in Kong: Skull Island, and intrigued me enough to visit the area.
The iconic limestone mountains
As our minivan took us off the main highway onto gravelly dirt roads, the massive limestone monoliths that greeted me were a humbling sight to behold. The movie didn’t do these geological beauties any justice. For the entirety of my stay in Ninh Binh, the view of these towering, immovable protrusions never ceased to fascinate.
Being born and raised Singaporean, stepping out of a vehicle and finding the outside air to be cold never fails to stir my soul. Deeply happy to be enjoying cold weather, I’m also amazed that such temperatures even exist. Ninh Binh’s crisp December clime had already won my heart.
Loving a simpler lifestyle
Having settled into our spartan but comfortable accommodations, I suddenly realised how quiet it was. Away from the urban sprawl, you can hear the gentle breeze coasting through the vegetation and lapping the river outside. In this way, Ninh Binh welcomes you with an indelible sense of calm.
Our meals were simple, from goat dishes to noodle soup, but packed with vegetables and a quintessentially fresh and light Vietnamese flavour. Prepared by resident cooks and served by amiable staff, their sense of ease was infectious.
Exploring on land and water
Because the area isn’t densely populated, cycling trips are a smooth and efficient way to explore Ninh Binh’s undulating terrain. Coasting past expanses of beige, unearthed soil, in preparation for development projects, and adjacent hills, we soon found ourselves at Trang An Boat Tour. Offering hours flanked by wondrous scenery, a fleet of sampans wait to bring passengers through the verdant routes.
Then, you enter the gaping mouth of the Mua caves, and incredible, claustrophobia-inducing meandering ensues. We sometimes had to sink lower in our small sampan to avoid the limestone stalactites that hung from the rock ceiling. All the while, our nonchalant but smiling rower steered and paddled us safely through, occasionally encouraging us to break out the extra paddles and try some rowing of our own.
If you’ve got the energy, the Mua caves also feature 500 steps of a stone staircase with stunning panoramas at the top. The climb is no easy feat, but the sensation of being atop a rock formation is quite satisfying.
Spiritual Revelations at Bái Đính
The next day, we visited the sprawling Bái Đính Temple Spiritual and Cultural Complex, a breathtaking collection of temples, pagodas and statues residing amid maintained gardens and courtyards. I got a glimpse of the monastic lifestyle while walking along the corridors, and viewing the various sanctums containing massive Buddha statues.
There’s a lot of stairs to climb and walking to do, but again, a pervading sense of peace reminded me to stop and enjoy the moments as I moved from one location to the next.
A magical, moonlit final night
Time flies when you’re chilling, and soon we had to return to Hanoi. But the night before we left, we took a long stroll under a radiant moon. The limestone towers were transformed into mysterious, looming obelisks, as the trees and vegetation that adorned them were cast in a pale, ethereal glow.
As we walked, we could hear excitable shouts from an unseen, faraway residence, and see specks of light emanating from homes across the river. We were strangers here, but the Ninh Binh peacefulness had made us comfortable. We felt thankful to these locals who had shared their region with us.
As our minivan brought us back to Hanoi the next day, an unsettling regret as I stared out at the passing Vietnamese delta. If I had the time, I would have made the trip to Phát Diệm Cathedral, whose striking blend of Buddhist and Christian architecture invokes sacred awe. Unfortunately, I found out about it too late. But I was content with what I had experienced and looked forward to experiencing the Ninh Binh calm again someday.
I’ve never been to Halong Bay, having been influenced by its ‘overrated’ status online. But the buzz surrounding Ninh Binh is getting louder, with many calling it “Halong Bay on land”.
It is inevitably becoming a developed Edenic paradise amid commercial intervention. But I’m glad I got to see it while it’s still a true-blue slice of the Vietnamese countryside. Even now, I can still remember that lovely breeze caressing my skin, taking my cares away.
If you’d like to visit Ninh Binh, there are a couple of ways to get there from Hanoi:
These are plenteous in Hanoi, and can be booked online or via your accommodation if you’re staying in Hanoi first. Great if you’re travelling in a group or wish to set your own departure timings. They should also be able to bring you right to your doorstep in Ninh Binh.
There are local buses with cheap fares to take you from Giap Bat station to Ninh Binh’s bus station, but be aware that you might still need a taxi to get into Tam Coc and your accommodations.
A particularly scenic method of getting to Ninh Binh, and quite comfortable as well. Again, take note of the additional transport you’ll need from Ninh Binh’s railway station to your accommodations. Also, the trains have 5-6 fixed timings a day, so take note when planning.