Hanoi can be a difficult city to live in if you are a nature lover like I am. The pollution, traffic, and large population make the city an exciting though often claustrophobic place to live. Needing a break from it all, I decided to take a day trip to Ninh Binh.
There are a number of ways to get to Ninh Binh, but I found the easiest way to travel the 100km distance was to take a bus. The 2 ½ hour bus ride picked us up from the bus station in Hanoi and returned us there later that night for a total cost of 235,000 VND (about $10). The bus was comfortable and our Vietnamese tour guide spoke fluent English and spent the entire bus ride telling jokes and talking about Vietnam.
Ninh Binh is a small community in Northern Vietnam’s Red River Delta. It is not as popular among foreign tourists as Halong Bay, but it is one of the more popular destinations for Vietnamese tourists. Like Halong Bay, Ninh Binh is known for its limestone karsts and natural beauty. However, unlike Halong Bay, you don’t need to take a cruise to see the large rock formations. In fact, many people refer to Ninh Binh as “Halong Bay on land.”
Though the rock formations are surreal in their beauty, my favorite part of the trip was taking a small boat through the winding waterways. For less than $3, you can hire a boat to take you along the river, where you will get to see vast rice fields, hidden temple complexes, ancient ruins, and caves. The boats themselves are moved along by large paddles, which the boat’s captain rows with his bare feet. If you have never seen someone row a boat with their feet, it is quite funny to watch.
The boat along the river lasts about two hours and is a far cry from the hectic pace of Hanoi. Slowly, we made our way through the caves and past the rice farmers and fishermen who were busy at work along the river’s edge. I couldn’t help but compare the experience to one of the boat-rides one might take at Disney's Epcot Center. The only difference being that the ruins and temple complexes were not well-constructed copies. These were the real things!
When the boat ride was finished, we bought a couple of cold fresh coconuts from a local vendor who used a machete to cut the tops of the coconuts off for us so that we could drink the cool coconut juice. After our short break, we rented a couple of bicycles to pedal around.
The bikes only cost a couple of dollars to rent, but it took some time to find bikes that were not completely falling apart. The bikes we did choose were functional, but the seats were hard as rocks and just as uncomfortable to sit on. Still, riding down the long dirt paths separating the rice fields was a wonderful experience and a great place to take photos.
I guess what struck me about Ninh Binh the most was how incredibly green everything looked. I honestly don’t know if it was because I had been living in Hanoi, but the juxtaposition of Hanoi’s grey color to Ninh Binh’s piercing green color is dramatic.
Riding back on the bus and looking at the pictures we took that day, I felt reinvigorated by the natural beauty I had witnessed. Hanoi also felt a little less confining knowing that such a place was so close in distance to the city. If you are ever in Hanoi and have an extra day, I recommend taking a day trip to Ninh Binh.
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