Today’s adventure is one we only decided at the last minute, so was a bit of a gamble. Our original plan was to endure the 14-hour slog to Hanoi and consider our next plan of attack, as most travellers do when heading north of Hué.
Quite by accident, however, I came across a few like-minded blogs singing praises of Ninh Binh – a wonderfully-named, slightly-less-frequented stop a few hours south of Hanoi. Known otherwise as the ‘Ha Long Bay of the Land’ for its dramatic mountainous backdrop, it isn’t famed for its wild party atmosphere – which isn’t even remotely a problem for me.
As seems to be tradition, we rolled into the silent town at around four in the morning, aggressively sleep-deprived and confused. With one last tinnitus-inducing honk, the bus belched away into the night and we were left to fend for ourselves until the sun rose. By the time our hotel opened its doors we’d already napped by the side of the river, with bats flitting around overhead and cheery octogenarian joggers sashaying past us.
Ninh Binh proper is a nice enough but relatively bland town, with the usual amenities and industrial parks – when equipped with a scooter, however, your options are somewhat more varied. Most visitors stay in the Tam Côc district, a few minutes’ drive west of town and closer to the sightseeing action: proportionately more expensive, but a neck-achingly gorgeous scene to wake up to.
Our original plan was to stay in Ninh Binh for two nights before continuing northward, but that went out the window as soon as we took in the view. Sunscreen applied, bike refuelled and banana pancakes inhaled, we set out into the landscape.
The surrounding countryside has no shortage of experiences for anyone with a romantic or nomadic soul. If you struggle to take a decent photo of Ninh Binh you either need to get your camera or your eyes looked at – the nearby national parks are dense, sweeping jungles of plant and animal life, with brilliant-white storks flocking overhead and neon fish burbling downriver.
Visit Thung Nham national park during early morning or later afternoon to make the most of the thousands of birds flying to and from their mangrove nests, or take a tour along the river and through the maze of caves interconnecting Ninh Binh’s mountains; the Trang An boat tours are slightly less crowded than those from Tam Côc and take you past floating temples, through looming canyons and, for the film buffs, through the set of 2017’s Kong: Skull Island.
Driver further afield to Cúc Phúóng National Park to really lose yourself in the wilderness. Part national park, part wildlife sanctuary, the rangers are committed to protecting the local species of monkey and turtles. A guide will walk you through enclosures of gibbons and golden-headed langurs, many of whom are caring for highly-protected babies. After taking the tour, I got the impression that they truly care for the animals at Cúc Phúóng, and encourage them back into the wilderness once their numbers are high enough.
As late afternoon draws in, the light falling below Ninh Binh’s mountains paints a truly stunning scene. Commit yourself to the short but demanding walk up the 500 steps of Hang Múa to Dragon Peak – a rough, rocky path with a 360-degree panorama of the spectacular landscape. Unsurprisingly popular with travellers around sunset, the more daring/death-defying adventurer will clamber over the jagged rock up to the stone dragon itself for unsurpassed views of Vietnam’s beautifully chaotic terrain.
It’s hard to drag ourselves away from Ninh Binh – harder still to think that we nearly skipped it entirely. I can’t recommend enough that travellers in Vietnam dedicate at least a few days to exploring its dramatic countryside and taking all the mountaintop #backpackerselfies your hearts desire.
Sadly, leave we must – and, once again, Hanoi will have to wait as we change route once again. Rather than following the much-driven path to Vietnam’s capital, we’re opting for the scenic route to Cat Ba island. We’ve got high expectations, but Ninh Binh is a tough act to follow.