Exploring the entire limestone landscape of the region requires making a large motorcycle loop incorporating Trang An (with their boat trips among the ancient temples), Hoa Lu ancient city and the rarely visited Van Long wetlands, known for endangered langurs.
Motorbike loop: Ninh Binh – Trang An-Van Long- Ninh Binh
The scooter we rented very cheaply from the restaurant owner in Ninh Binh turned out to be his private, very slow and faulty vehicle. Neither us, nor the petrol station staff was able to open the seat to tank up the petrol – we lost quite some time to return to the restaurant and have it done for us.
We started the loop driving towards Trang An. Once in the area, we spotted a cycling tour and we followed them into a small dirt path between ponds and karst rocks. There, we found a whole pack of buffaloes completely immersed in water.
Trang An boat trip
Shortly after that, we reached the Trang An boat pier. Originally, we weren’t planning to do a boat trip: the place was too crowded and too expensive. I wanted to go to Hoa Lu- Vietnam’s first capital city -and then to the more tranquil Van Long wetlands.
However, I felt tempted to enter the Visitor’s Centre located on an island. There, I watched in awe stunning promotional video and instantly decided we cannot miss that. The ticket price was lower than for Tam Coc boat trip. I liked that we could choose one of three different routes and had no time limitation for completing the route -the rower would wait as long as necessary.
We went for the most versatile route (number 2), including 4 caves and 3 temples. The tourists seemed to appear in batches so we waited until the crowds dispersed and got on the boat when only one or two other boats were on the water. We shared the boat with two Vietnamese girls and a (female) rower. It looked like a hard job to row so all four of us helped her using makeshift oars available. It was actually quite a workout to row for 2.5 hours so we could understand how physically demanding this job was.
We were almost on our own for the first half of the trip. The river was crystal clear, with green carpet growing from below. The karst rocks were peppering the green landscape. Every time we reached a pagoda, we would get off and explore on foot.
We started with Thanh Cao Son pagoda where the Vietnamese children were feeding the fish. The second pagoda we visited, Den Suoi Tien, was much grander, located on a large, open peninsula. Not much in terms of explanation was available but we understood from the boards that this area had been chosen by one of the emperors as a hiding place and a great defense area due to its inaccessibility.
But the real highlight of the tour was rowing through the caves. The ceiling was very low, we often had to lie down flat to pass through some sections. More importantly, some of the caves were just impossibly long. I wouldn’t recommend it to a claustrophobic person but for me it was a real adventure. Once all five of us were rowing continuously through the cave for at least 15 minutes to get to the other side!
After passing through the Hang Dai Dai cave, we started seeing many more boats, probably because it was a fragment of the river common for all three routes. One of the highlights was Vu Lam royal step: a whole set of temples facing a platform immersed in water and surrounded with karst rocks. There were even musicians performing live traditional Vietnamese music on an tiny islet on the water.
We visited the pagodas and walked along a row of turtle statues towards a new and rather dubious attraction: a set of Kong movie. It was a cluster of huts with Vietnamese people dressed like movie’s characters inside. Most of the people were having selfies with them. We were then picked up by boat and taken back to the starting point.
Van Long – the land of delacour langurs
Due to our morning delay and also because we didn’t plan the boat tour, we sadly had to skip the nearby ruins of the ancient capital, Hoa Lu.
My priority was going to another, hardly visited place. Reportedly, it had really beautiful landscape, but I was hoping to spot there critically endangered delacour langurs.
It was a long drive to Van Long Nature Reserve, especially that our scooter’s maximum speed was 40 km/h. We were the only people around and had to wait for the rower (again female) to turn up. The ticket was much cheaper than for Tam Coc or Trang An.
Van Long was very tranquil but in my opinion, Trang An was far more picturesque. It would have been a disappointing ride since we couldn’t spot almost any birds if not for my request to search for the monkeys. The lady spotted them high in the rocks- we’d never have done it without her. She also shouted to make them move and become more visible – probably not the best thing to do with the wildlife. They were beautiful creatures with long tails, black fur and white ‘pants’.
It was getting really late by the time we finished. We had to return to Ninh Binh in the darkness through the main highway which wasn’t a pleasant experience.
More to see around Ninh Binh
Altogether, we really loved Ninh Binh area and would be quite happy to stay at least one day longer (but ideally more like 2-3 days) to fully enjoy it. The area is ideal for cycling leisurely around and there are still a few more places to visit. Among them, enormous Bai Dinh pagoda complex and Cuc Phuong National Park where for a small entrance fee you can have access to a few hours long trails through the ancient forest.
How to get to Ninh Binh?
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.
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