I thought that I had seen the most beautiful place in Vietnam when we visited Bai Tu Long Bay. That is, until I saw Ninh Binh.
On our final full day in Vietnam, we went on a day trip to this province in the Red River Delta of North Vietnam. Ninh Binh is known as ‘Halong Bay on land’ for its similar massive limestone karsts topped with dense greenery, but the monoliths sit on land rather than water. It is not as well known to travellers as its cousin to the northeast, but its scenery is just as striking, if not more so. We were indeed awestruck by the landscape, and had a chance to spend a short day exploring it.
Situated about 100 kilometres south of Hanoi, it took us two hours to drive to Ninh Binh province with our guide from Urban Adventures. Mr. Chuckles and I were the only two people signed up, so enjoyed yet another private tour, this time with a local guide named San.
Exploring an ancient citadel
Our first stop upon arrival was Hoa Lu, the capital of Vietnam during the Dinh and Dinh Le Dynasties from 968 to 1009. Its citadel once covered over 300 hectares of land, but only a portion of it now remains. We visited the segments of the Dinh and Le temples that were restored in the 17th century, over the foundations of the palaces that previously stood there in the 11th and 12th centuries.
Cycling amongst the karsts
Next, we went on the most scenic bike ride I have ever been on, cycling on a leisurely 12 kilometre route along quiet paths surrounded by towering karsts. I didn’t think that any photos I took would fully capture the experience, so I tried to soak in as much of it as possible in the moment.
We ended our ride at a local family’s home and sat down with the patriarch Mr. Nan, an elderly army veteran, for a cup of tea. His son prepared us a hearty home cooked lunch with so much food that we could only finish a small portion.
Rowing through Trang An
Our final activity of the day was a trip to Trang An, which is part of a 10,000 hectare complex comprised of three areas: the Trang An - Tam Coc – Bich Dong ecological site, the Hoa Lu imperial capital, and the Hoa Lu primitive forests. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014, Trang An is a wonder to see. The best way to experience it is via rowboat, and we had the opportunity to go on a two hour ride along the river to see more karsts and caves.
If any of these scenes look familiar to you, it is because Trang An was the filming location for the 2017 movie Kong: Skull Island.
The atmosphere of Trang An can only be described as majestic. Again, photos cannot capture how beautiful this area was in person. I am glad we had the chance to see Ninh Binh, if only for this brief day trip. A longer visit will certainly need to be considered on my future travels to Vietnam.
Saying goodbye to Hanoi
After our delightful boat ride, we drove back to Hanoi and spent our final evening in the city. For dinner we tried bun cha, an original dish of Hanoi, consisting of fried spring rolls and grilled fatty pork over white rice noodles and fresh herbs with a side of dipping sauce. Yum! Unfortunately this is another traditional Vietnamese dish that is very difficult to find back home in Toronto, so we will have to just live with this in our memories or somehow learn to prepare it ourselves.
This post is being written as we wait at the airport for our flight back to Canada. We are sad to say goodbye to Vietnam after an incredible couple weeks filled with fun and so much good food! I’m sure I’ll have more reflections to write about once we are back at home, but for now we are gearing ourselves up for our long return trip. See you on the other side. 👋