The majority of backpackers who arrive in Hanoi spend no more than a couple of days here. They visit the war museum; check out Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and get trailed around on one of the notorious hostel bar-crawls. All this, in addition to being the starting point for almost all treks to Sapa and tours to Halong Bay, this is the only impression that thousands of backpackers have of Hanoi every year.
What is often missed, however, are the many, lesser-known day trips available to amazing locations, some as little as two hours from Hanoi by motorbike. While we were still living in Hanoi we took a trip to Ninh Binh Province, just a two hour ride from the Capital.
You can visit Ninh Binh on a tour, organised by a local travel agent, or you can make your way there independently by local bus or train. However, if you plan to do as we did and travel by motorbike, make sure you give yourself ample time to get accustomed to Vietnamese traffic. It can be a trial-by-fire kind of experience!
It was the middle of winter, which can be a challenging time in North Vietnam. Low temperatures, daily rain, 70% humidity and cold winds from China combine to chill you to the bone in ways that you just don’t experience in the UK. Add to this the 80km/hour wind chill on a motorbike and you really start to feel it. In fact, it gets so cold here that some people go to extreme lengths to stay warm. Just look at this guy, he’s wrapped himself in what appears to be a fully grown dog just to try to stay warm! If you’re visiting North Vietnam in the winter, be prepared!
To get out of Hanoi and on the road to Ninh Binh simply head South on the AH1. Leave early in the morning if you plan to return to Hanoi the same day. The single most useful phrase you could learn is, ‘đi Ninh Bình đường nào?’ which literally translates to, ‘go Ninh Binh which way?’ Replace Ninh Binh with any place you want to go and let sign language do the rest!
As you get out of the city and out into the countryside you’ll begin to realise exactly what North Vietnam is all about. Vast expanses of farmland, rivers and limestone karsts pepper the landscape in all directions and it only gets more beautiful the further south you travel towards Ninh Binh Province.
When you reach the City of Ninh Binh, which is nothing to write home about, you’ll need to ask the way to the Trang An river and the bến thuyền (boat dock), where you’ll find a number of middle-aged to seriously-old Vietnamese women waiting to pull you into a boat.
For a relatively small sum of money, which I don’t recall, your 50 to 80 year-old grandmother will take you on a long winding tour of the Trang An river, including a tour through an amazing network of limestone caves. Depending on the level of the river, the ceilings of some of these caves will force you to duck down into the boat in order to avoid a serious headache!
There’s plenty to see on the river; aside from the beautiful scenery and and awesome caves, there are small temples scattered along the shoreline at the base of the cliffs that are only accessible by boat.
If you get restless sitting in the boat, you can always give grandma a little help!
When you get back to shore and have negotiated your tip with grandma, (100k Dong is about $5 and is more than enough) it’s onto another of Ninh Binh’s masterpieces, Bái Đính Temple. Bái Đính Temple is part of the largest complex of Buddhist temples in Vietnam, spread over 700 hectares!
One of the best features of this temple complex is the Maitreya Buddha, commonly known as the Happy Buddha, at the top of a long flight of stone steps. This Buddha is particularly interesting as he is usually depicted sitting down.
Climb back down the steps and make your way over to Tam The Hall, with its impressive triple entranceway and yet another Happy Buddha greeting you on your way to the stairs.
Once inside you’ll find literally hundreds of golden Buddha statues lining every wall and three giant golden Buddha’s. I’m not usually a temple person, having travelled through Thailand and Cambodia, but this place had something special about it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
So there you have it, one day bike rental and a couple of hours ride and you can find yourself amongst some of the most stunning scenery and Buddhist culture in Vietnam! Look out for our next article for more of North Vietnam’s less-frequented destinations. Read more about Ninh Binh here.