Ninh Binh itself has nothing much to offer. But there are a few attractions very close by that I wanted to see. What I was most interested in was Tam Coc which is referred to as Ha Long on land. Ha Long Bay has thousands of karsts that stud the bay, Tam Coc has karsts in the middle of the rice paddies.
I initially decided to rent a bicycle to do this trip, it would be around 9km to Tam Coc, another 4km to Mua Cave and then back. I was not sure if I could make it given I that I haven’t been exercising for over 8 months and I wasn’t really feeling to well but I thought of giving it a shot. Bad idea. 1 km into the ride I realized that there was no way I could bike almost 28km. Another hindrance was that I wasn’t sure I would be back before dark as it was already around 2pm. I went back to the hotel, called for a motorbike taxi and took the easy way instead.
Once at Tam Coc, I took an amazingly peaceful boat ride through a narrow stream surrounded by karsts. Tam Coc is notoriously famous for the extremely persistent vendors trying to force you to buy stuff off them but I saw perhaps 1 or 2 vendors and none of them were pushy. Now, was it because I was there at 3pm and most of the vendors had left for home or because my taxi rider took me to another boat entrance at Tam Coc, I am not sure. All I know is that the ride was fun and I wasn’t hounded by vendors (like in Sapa). The boat ride was scary in places especially when we had to go through caves so low that I had to duck and other times, the cave was so dark that I could see nothing (except when I flashed my torch on the roof of the caves). But this was also my favourite part coz you could turn off the lights and just listen to the water being sloshed around by the oars in complete darkness. (For Harry Potter fans, it reminded me of Dumbledore and Harry when they go looking for Voldemort’s horcrux (the pendant) in the cave!)
After the boat ride, my taxi rider drove me around the town and took me through some really quite streets that I don’t think I would have found by myself. The roads were so blissfully empty and that I could enjoy the view without anyone honking or talking or screaming around me. That ride is one of my favourites so far!
Then there was the climb to the Thai Vi temple which was 800m high. The steps got really narrow and steep closer to the top which was pretty terrifying but luckily, I had done the Sapa trek which was way worse than this climb so I know I could do it. But I had to employ serious “walking meditation” to get through the climb and the descent. The view while climbing was worth it I’d say.
All in all, a really amazing half day tour. And m so glad I did took a motorbike taxi as I got back to the hotel only around 5pm! There was no way I would have reached the hotel before nightfall and trust me, riding a bicycle in Vietnam after dark is not fun!
Bai Ding Pagoda
This is considered to be the largest complex of Buddhist temples in Vietnam. It is situated about 27kms from the center of Ninh Binh. Part of the complex is newly built and part is the old temple, I don’t know which one was which. The complex itself is pretty impressive. There is a long corridor ( I think I read somewhere that its 3400m) and it is lined on one side with Arhat statues (Arhat is someone who has attained nirvana).
It was a pretty interesting to see the local tourists offer quick prayers to ALL the statues. I followed someone who did this for around 10-15 times and then gave up, may be they did as well at some point? The corridor eventually leads to a temple which houses a gigantic Buddha statue.
Even though the complex is impressive it has a hollow feeling to it as it is not in function. You won’t see any monks there, only vietnamese tourists along with a few foreign tourists. But the bike ride, like the day before, was a highlight.
Hoa Lu Temples
After the pagoda it was time for Hoa Lu temples. Hoa Lu, at one point was the capital of Vietnam. Most of the citadel is now in ruins except the 2 temples. The temples themselves were nothing fancy, and frankly, I was a bit disappointed. May be it was one of those sights where a guide was needed to really appreciate it.
All in all, I think I could have done all these in one day (if I’d had better information from the hotel). I ended up doing these on 2 separate days renting a bike (with a rider) for 2 days which was unnecessary. Oh well.