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  • Writer's pictureSaptadeepa Bandopadhyay

Ninh Binh: Of Landscapes, Temples and the Ancient Kingdom of Hua Lu

Ninh Binh (Pronounced as 'Ning Bing') is a province in Northern Vietnam at a distance of 90 km from the capital city of Hanoi. This beautiful province is naturally rich by its unique biodiverse landscape which has been inhabited beyond Neolithic times i.e. 30000 years ago.

It once served as the first capital of Vietnam and its difficult terrains have protected the rulers from invaders. There is enough evidence of a human civilization that flourished and adapted to changing geographies as the limestone karsts emerged from underwaters when the sea receded and formed the landscape, that is today known as the Halong Bay of the Land.

Ninh Binh also preserves Vietnamese architecture as old as the 11th Century through its many temples.

Ninh Binh: The Halong Bay of the Land
Ninh Binh: The Halong Bay of the Land

Ninh Binh was the last stop of our 15-day trip around Vietnam and we had no agenda in mind when we were heading here from Hanoi. We met a few solo female travelers in the Limousine that dropped us at Ninh Binh, who had some 'must-see places in Ninh Binh' on their bucket lists and suggested not to miss them. We had been on the road for 13 days and were prioritizing rest over these must-see places.

Bird's Eye View of the landscapes of Ninh Binh, North Vietnam
Bird's Eye View of the landscapes of Ninh Binh, North Vietnam

When we arrived in Ninh Binh, it was dark outside and we were dropped close to our homestay in Tam Coc Village. We stepped out only to grab some dinner after we had dropped our bags at the homestay. Tam Coc was a stark contrast to Hanoi, from where we had arrived. The roads were scantily lit, a few tourists were strolling around, and there was music, barbeques and drinks available. The place exuded a slothful footloose vibe. We pacified our tired souls with some shrimp spring rolls, a bowl of rice and a glass of juice to accompany them. I also stopped for dessert at another resto-bar! When we sneaked into our homestay, most of the restaurants had closed, the streets were darker than before and our homestay owner was fast asleep!

The December night was rather chilly, my left body was hurting from all the falls I had endured on this trip at the most unexpected of places, so I do not recollect when I passed out, after putting on the room heater.

The next morning we woke up pretty late and stepped out way beyond breakfast time but fortunately, before our homestay folks didn't doubt if we were dead.

Homestays that have popped up all around Tam Coc and Ninh Binh are good affordable options to stay with the local families. This way we could get a closer look into the lives of the locals. Unlike the bigger cities, Ninh Binh offered spacious accommodations. Our bookings also included breakfast. We looked through their menu and ordered some pancakes, coffee and toast that was accompanied by a glass of fresh juices as well. The front yard of our homestay had seating for the guests that extended to a kitchen garden with trees of pomelo and mango at the entryway.

Kitchen Garden at a Ninh Binh Homestay
Kitchen Garden at a Ninh Binh Homestay

The landlady had been multi-tasking through the morning. Southeast Asian women run their multitude of errands so smoothly, navigating through the breakfast orders of their guests while also attending to the kids, one of whom she tucked by her side to manage the baby's tantrum. She arranged a bike when we requested one to explore Ninh Binh.


Cruising through Trang An

We headed to Trang An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famously known as the Halong Bay of the Land for its unique Biodiversity. The drive to reach Trang An was scenic through the roads passing by the villages and the farmlands. Though it was a dry season and the fields were not very green, the rural Vietnam countryside scenes between the towering karst mountains were mesmerizing at first sight! Fields with grazing buffaloes alongside the shallow canals where ducks swam and hens clucking around small cottages were the common scenes throughout. Cycling in these rural scenes is the favorite activity of travelers exploring Ninh Binh.

Trang An: UNESCO World Heritage Biodiverse Site
Trang An: UNESCO World Heritage Biodiverse Site

We parked our vehicle at the Trang An Landscape Complex and bought our tickets from the counter. The Trang An complex is well set up with all the required information for tourists. The ticket comes with a pamphlet that explains the three routes you could opt for your boat ride. We opted for Route No. 3 which had the maximum number of limestone caves that the boat would sail through.

A happy moment with our rower in Trang An
A happy moment with our rower in Trang An

Tiny paddle boats are docked at the starting point which allows up to 4 passengers in each boat along with a rower who rows the boat. Since the region uses only manually operated paddle boats, it has helped to preserve the ecology while providing employment opportunities to the locals. We shared our ride with two Korean tourists. As we cruised through the Red River, I felt nothing less than a Jurassic Park adventure (of course there were no dinosaurs, but this place is even more ancient). The Red River transverses its way amidst the scattered karst landscapes of the limestone mountains. Pink water lilies float in the still waters and tall grasses blanket the route.


Our little paddle boat sailed through three long caves underneath the Karst mountains, the longest route is 1.5 km in length. We were perplexed by the Trang An Landscapes. The boat took brief halts for us to step out and visit the ancient shrines of different dynasties that lay through our route. We didn't want to drop our gaze so that we shouldn't miss a breathtaking view. We had spent around three hours exploring Trang An and it would be one of the most cherished experiences of my travel.


We were hungry when we came back but thankfully, the cafeteria in the Trang An complex had Pho on their menu. We ordered one to taste, but it turned out to be so delicious, that none of us wanted to share it, and we had to order another one. We gulped down the soupy broth of ginger lemongrass and herbs while slurping on the noodles. It was delicious!

Arch at the entance of Trang An Complex
Arch at the entance of Trang An Complex

It was beyond 3 PM when we finally left Trang An and headed to our next and last destination of the day.


Bai Dinh Buddhist Pagoda

We reached Bai Dinh Pagoda Spiritual and Cultural Complex by driving through the Trang An Natural Reserves. Bai Dinh was originally an ancient pagoda built in the 11th Century as part of Hua Lu ancient capital of Vietnam. However, the temple complex has been expanded between 2003 and 2010 across 500 ha. We started exploring the ancient complex and further climbed toward the newer structures. This place holds the record of the largest Buddhist temple complex in Southeast Asia. The beautifully constructed temples, over 500 statues of Buddha, a large bell tower and a tall watch tower-like pagoda, together form the complex. A giant statue of the Maitreya Buddha was the end of the temple complex tour but we were exhausted by the time we reached there. We must have climbed over 300 steps all through the premises. All buildings were lit by the evening and the place looked extravagant, but our exhausted bodies had enough of it. We stayed until dark and then lost our way to the exit. It was a bit of a hiatus to get to the parking.


The place looked a bit commercial to us, and we wished we had avoided it. Though Vietnamese architecture reflects here in all grandeur, it is only a modern development. It is worth visiting if you have enough time, you are on a pilgrimage or you are an admirer of modern architecture.


The drive back to Tam Coc felt pretty long on the dark roads. The roads around Trang An complex are not well-lit by night, thus one needs to drive with caution as there are hardly any traffic signals at the crossroads.


We spent the rest of the evening at a barbeque place that was serving everything hot grilled from their live barbeque set up in the front of their restaurant. Many other restaurants had a similar setup. We relaxed here for some time before we called it a day!


The next morning we had only half a day to explore a bit more around Ninh Binh before our train to Hanoi and our return journey to India. After a scrumptious breakfast, we headed out on a random ride around the village roads, refilled fuel in our vehicle, and decided to check out the Hang Mua Caves.


Hang Mua Cave

Hang Mua cave is not a cave but a limestone mountain, which offers a panoramic view of Ninh Binh and the Hua Lu ancient capital. The place is best to be explored at sunset, but we were here on a no-sun day so the time hardly mattered. The 500-step climb to the top gets steeper as we proceed upwards. The place is quite popular and might get crowded and noisy at the top. Since we had very little time in hand, we targeted to get back within an hour. Thankfully we made it to the top and witnessed the most spectacular bird's eye view of the surrounding green fields, villages, and even the people rowing their boats in the Red River. The scenery from above was worth that steep climb. At the extreme top is a carved dragon which can be scaled if one is enthusiastic about it and 'A' went up to the very top but I skipped it as the climb became steeper and my limbs felt wobbly. Did I ever mention in my blogs that I have a phobia of heights?




We had a very filling Vegan lunch at a cafe in Tam Coc and returned the scooter to our homestay owner before we picked up our bags and headed to the Ninh Binh train station.

Vegan Food in Tam Coc's Vegan Cafes
Vegan Food in Tam Coc's Vegan Cafes
 

Things you can do in Ninh Binh -

If Ninh Binh is on your Vietnam Itinerary or you wish to experience rural Vietnam here, there are a lot of things you could do in Ninh Binh.

Listing down a few more interesting things to do around Ninh Binh / Tam Coc -

  1. Paddle Boat sailing in Tam Coc River: Starting point of this activity is in the center of Tam Coc Village, which thus is very easily accessible. The experience is similar to Trang An Complex.

  2. Visit the Bich Dong Pagoda: This is an 18th Century Pagoda situated in a very scenic location adjoining a karst mountain and a stone bridge over a pond full of Pink Water Lillies. You would have seen the image of this pagoda's entrance when searching Ninh Binh on the internet.

  3. Explore Hua Lu Ancient Capital: Hua Lu happens to be one of the ancient capitals of Vietnam. Though most of the structures are in ruins today, it is worth checking out the history and the old citadel of Hua Lu Kingdom.

  4. Bicycle/Motorcycle tour of Ninh Binh Villages: Embrace the slow village living of Ninh Binh by taking a bicycle tour or going on some random rides on a hired motorcycle.

  5. Trek in the Cuc Phuong National Park: This tour would take up half a day trekking through the oldest forests of Vietnam followed by a local lunch inside the park. This place is about an hour from Ninh Binh.

  6. Boating in the Van Long Wetlands: This is a very scenic boating tour shadowing a limestone mountain and a perfect destination for birdwatching.

Kids of Tam Coc Homestay
Little Kids of our Homestay, Final Goodbyes

5 Kommentare


Deepali
Deepali
03. Mai

Incredible. It looks like you had a wonderful experience. There are many things to do in Ninh Binh to enjoy.

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akanksha pandey
akanksha pandey
19. Apr.

"Great read! I found this article really informative and engaging. It's always fascinating to learn more about Ninh Binh Looking forward to more content like this in the future!"

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Rashmi
Rashmi
03. Apr.

Amazing. Seems a great experience that you had. There are many things to do in Ninh Binh to enjoy the place to its fullest.

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Shubhika Arora
Shubhika Arora
18. März

Your exploration of the local villages and indulgence in vegan cuisine added such depth to your experience. Thank you for sharing your adventures and inspiring others to discover the beauty of Ninh Binh.

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Saptadeepa Bandopadhyay
Saptadeepa Bandopadhyay
23. März
Antwort an

Ninh Binh is truly a gem of a place!! Thanks for reading!! The availability of well crafted vegan recipes around Vietnam was a surprise for me!

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ABOUT
Me

Hi, I am Saptadeepa, an Indian travel  enthusiast.

My curiosity to explore the unexplored, has led me to some offbeat destinations across India and a few neighbouring South East Asian countries.


Seeking Happiness Diaries is a travel inspired lifestyle blog where I share my adventures, stories, experiences and life lessons  through my journeys.

In leisure, I finds solace in reading books or writing about travel and life experiences on this blog.

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