Ninh Binh (day one): cycling and scrambling among limestones of Tam Coc

Ninh Binh is the nearest city to Tam Coc and Trang An – the UNESCO protected area renown for incredibly beautiful karst landscapes and the vestiges of the old Vietnamese empire. There is so much you can do there: climbing the stunning viewpoints, cycling among the rocks, ponds and paddies; taking a boat ride through the caves and to the old temples…

The sun setting over a pond in the karst lanscape of Tam Coc in Vietnam

Train from Vinh to Ninh Binh

We decided to take a train (rather than the usual sleeper bus) from Vinh to Ninh Binh. The train ticket for the hard seat class cost roughly the same as the bus ticket. As the distance wasn’t too long and we enjoy travelling by train, we thought we could cope with the wooden seats for 4.5 hours.

The interior of a hard seat train car in Vietnam: wooden benches and screens with videoclips

The train arrived half an hour late. The hard seat compartment consisted of sets of two wooden benches facing each other. I used my fleece as a padding to make the seat more comfy. Some Vietnamese were coping by spreading straw mats on the floor and sleeping under the benches.

The train had everything one would need during a long journey. There were squatting and western style toilets (pretty dirty though), sinks and even boiler with hot water (used by the locals to make instant noodles). Train staff was regularly sweeping the floor and selling both snacks and hot meals from the trolley. A small bottle of water came free with a ticket. There were even flat screens hanging from the overhead racks, showing Vietnamese video clips. The train stops were announced so they were impossible to miss.

We got off at the station and ignored the insistent taxi drivers but simply walked on along the rails in the direction of the bus station. We soon arrived at the tourist area of the town.

Ninh Binh on a budget

Ninh Binh vs. Tam Coc

We deliberately chose to stay in Ninh Binh rather than Tam Coc which is a tiny town meant entirely as a tourist hub, set right among the karst landscape. Ninh Binh is both better connected with other destinations in Vietnam and cheaper than Tam Coc.

Even if you don’t stay or dine in Tam Coc, you could still be exposed to unreasonably high prices when you visit. Whether it was bicycle parking (10k) or toilet fee (5k), we were asked at least double, if not triple of normal Vietnamese prices. We used the tactics working well in Hoi An: we were giving the fee both of us knew was correct and it was usually taken without any complaints. You could also experience nagging for a tip from the rowers.

Ninh Binh accommodation

We stopped at the first hotel we noticed and got a room for 150 000 dong. It was a fair price for what we got: a small en-suite room with a window just one meter away from the neighbouring building. The lady owner could speak decent English and was also renting bicycles and scooters.

Food in Ninh Binh

Our hotel was on the fringes of the backpackers area full of tourist-oriented restaurants, shops and cafes. We dined at one of the two restaurants right next to each other which were competing fiercely for the customers. The tasty dishes came with free herbal tea, bananas and sweet snacks and the portions were enormous. It maybe wasn’t the cheapest food for the Vietnamese standard but good value for money.

A block of puffed rice and a stew served at a restaurant in Ninh Binh

We also found a street food market far away from the touristic area with very low and fair prices.

Vehicle rental

The owner of the restaurant we dined at rented us his scooter for just 70 000 dong, much less than 120 000 at our guesthouse. It was a very old, slow and ran down vehicle but could do the job.

The author riding a bicycle among a flock of domestic ducks on a ditke between two ponds in Tam Coc

We rented bicycles from our guesthouse for just 20 000 dong each. They were far from idea, thoughl: the saddle was rusty, the chain was making a loud noise and the steering wheel hardly moved.

Cycling from Ninh Binh to Tam Coc

On our first day in Ninh Binh, we rented the bikes from the guesthouse and left for Tam Coc. The route from Ninh Binh to Tam Coc is far from pleasant as it leads down a very busy road. Luckily it doesn’t take longer than half an hour to get there. Only once you leave the highway, you can see the karst landscape and start enjoying the ride. We passed by a pier for the boat trips and carried on along the ponds to Bich Dong pagoda.

A  path through the lake full of lotus flowers and a gate to Bich Dong Pagoda set among high vertical limestone rocks in Tam Coc

Bich Dong Pagoda

You have to pay a fee for parking but some of the fees are more reasonable than others. The entrance to the complex leads across a pond and up the mountain. The small, wooden pagodas blend with the surrounding rocks. There is also one cave full of bats with some religious statues inside.

A pink, wooden Bich Dong pagoda hugging the vertical limestone

But the real attraction lies beyond. Despite a board saying it’s not allowed, there is a path leading further up the rocks, towards an unofficial, (hence free) viewpoint.

Climbing to the viewpoint

Taking the path involved scrambling through sharp ended rocks. It was quite a nice view from the rocks where most people stopped. However, when I looked to the left and saw a towering rock with vertical sections, I decided to get even higher up. It was a bit of a technical climb with a precipice on both sides. I heaved myself up and searched for narrow ledges to get the good grip.

People climbing sharp rocks in Tam Coc and the landscape of limestone rocks and ponds around them

It was worth the effort. I was alone at the top of the hill with a 360 degrees view at the karst landscape. It was breathtaking. Coming down was a bit more tricky- I even cut my leg on a rock.

View at Tam Coc from the rock above Bich Dong Pagoda: ponds and karst rocks towering above them

Since it was getting towards the sunset, there were no more people around the temples when we were coming down. It is an ideal time to visit.

Small stone temple at Bich Dong complex

We cycled through some dust roads among the ponds but couldn’t get very far as it was getting late. We didn’t manage to reach Ninh Binh before dark which wasn’t very safe on that busy road – especially that our bikes didn’t have lights. Time your trip well to avoid taking unnecessary risk on the road.

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Ninh Binh?
By train
Ninh Binh is on the main north-south train line. It’s just 2.5h from Hanoi and 4.5h from Vinh. The journey from Hue would take 12.5h and from Ho Chi Minh City a whopping 30h. The train (especially hard-seat) to Hanoi costs even less than a bus.

By bus
Ninh Binh is well connected with the whole north of Vietnam,eg. Hanoi (2.5h), Vinh (3.5-4h), Da Nang (9.5-12h), Hue (8-11h). There are also special, more expensive tourist buses to Hai Phong/Cat Ba (3-4.5h) and Sa Pa (7-8h). Always compare prices of various companies – there’s huge variability and standard is always high.

Ninh Binh to Tam Coc, Trang An, Hoa Lu and Van Long
Note there is NO public transport between Ninh Binh and Tam Coc and other tourist destinations in the area: you’d need to hire a bicycle or a scooter to get there.
If you use a bicycle, you need two days: one for Tam Coc (10km), other for Trang An (7km) and Hoa Lu (10k) as they too far from each other and not well connected. It’s possible to do all 3 on a very long day on a scooter (around 45km). Van Long is 40km away so you’d need a scooter to get there.

Prices [in Vietnamese dong as of September 2018]
180 000 boat trip in Trang An
150 000 small budget en-suite roo
103 000 hard-seat train Vinh- Ninh Binh
70 000 cheapest scooter rental
70 000 petrol for the whole day
60 000 boat hire in Van Long protected area
50 000 big meal in a tourist-oriented budget restaurant
40 000 ticket to Van Long protected area
20 000 bicycle rental
20 000 sugar cane juice
10 000 ready-to-eat pineapple from the market

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