We spent the last portion of our tour in Vietnam in and around Hanoi. Everyone who spends any time in Northern Vietnam goes on the Halong Bay Tour, it’s a given. I’m sure you have seen the many amazing pictures of the karst formations popping out of the bay. Initially, we had planned to do an overnight tour of Halong Bay like everyone else, but as we spent more time researching, we got overwhelmed by the amount of cruises being offered. The average price was about $125 per person, with most of the cheaper tours not getting very good reviews. So we decided we wanted to try something different, a bit less touristy, more off the beaten path. After debating whether or not we would regret not going to Vietnam’s “CAN’T MISS” tourist attraction, we decided to instead take a short two hour train ride to the town of Ninh Binh. The countryside just outside Ninh Binh also contains many beautiful karsts, and thus it looks similar to Halong Bay, aside from the sea. We rented a scooter, giving us easy access to a number of beautiful nature spots, including Tam Coc, Ma Yen and Trang An.
Because it took us a bit of time to figure out where things were before getting there, Aurelien put together a map of the Ninh Binh and Tam Coc area with all the main attractions, along with our route.
Getting to Tam Coc:
Tam Coc is located in a small town SE of Hanoi called Ninh Binh. We took the train from Hanoi to Ninh Binh using Seat61’s amazing timetable and information. Just scroll down to the Southbound Timetable. I would recommend having your hotel or hostel call to confirm the times because our train back to Hanoi ended up leaving an hour later than we thought it would. We took the 9am and arrived in Ninh Binh around 11:20. It was a short and easy ride! I’ve said it once and I will say it again, I love train travel! It was lovely looking out the window and seeing village life pass by.
Where to Stay
Unlike the other places we visited in Vietnam, there weren’t a lot of housing options in Ninh Binh. We recently realized the usefulness of www.wikitravel.com. This site allows anyone to add travel information for any place, including favorite hotels, restaurants, things to do, how to get there and anything else. It’s like an updated Lonely Planet guide. I especially find it useful for smaller cities, because the larger ones sometimes have too much information. We found Kim Lieng Guesthouse through wikitravel. A very sweet couple runs the guesthouse and the owner lady, Kim, made a wonderful (huge) dinner for us (costing $5 each). The rooms were not quite as nice as the photos online and after spending very little in Vietnam we felt the cost of the room and moped were somewhat overpriced, but overall it was a nice, quiet place to stay and we would recommend it.
What to Eat
We only had two meals in Ninh Binh, one at our guesthouse and one at Trung Tuyet (a restaurant half a block from the train station). It was the top-rated restaurant in Ninh Binh, nothing to write home about, but the owners were friendly and good at marketing. The girl would run out to greet any tourist walking by, and at the end they give you their business cards. Aurelien tried the Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk here and loved it.
What To Do
There is nothing to do in the actual town of Ninh Binh, but a lot of beautiful things to see in the area due to the amazing karst formations that cover the landscape just outside town. The most popular spot is Tam Coc, which is like Halong Bay but with more land. People take boat rides through the valley and go to different sites along the way. The first picture in this post is a view of Tam Coc, you can see the river winding through the rice fields and the karsts (mountains). We were planning on going there but our guesthouse owners mentioned that Trang An would be less crowded and was their favorite place, so we decided to give it a try.
The best way to get around is definitely by scooter! We rented one from our guesthouse for $6 for the day, which felt a bit expensive considering it had trouble starting, but it got the job done and we loved the flexibility it gave us. We would never rent a scooter in a big city like Hanoi or Saigon, but the traffic around here was minimal and relaxed.
Trang An was a short 20 minute ride from our guesthouse. Once we arrived to the boat dock we paid for scooter parking because we had been warned that if you park it elsewhere people might deflate your tires and then charge you to get it fixed. You then cross a bridge onto an island and pay 150k dong per person ($7.50) and then go into a boat that is manned by a female rower. There were way more people than we expected, but they were all Vietnamese, so it’s clearly a popular spot for locals, rather than foreign tourists. We had to share a boat with two other guys who were possibly drunk and a little high, which put a damper on my experience for the first five minutes, but I got over it eventually. 🙂
The ride was lovely. It’s a loop that took about two hours, the highlights included going through about ten different caves! We were in some of the caves for 4 minutes! The caves had electricity so they were lit up, which was nice. I can’t imagine going through the caves with flashlights, that would of been scary. At the far end of the loop everyone gets out and you can climb a series of steps to get to a little temple. The temple was nothing special, but it was fun to see all the locals so excited and surprised to see us on this tour. It was clear that not many westerners come to Trang An.
After the boat ride we zipped over to another attraction to get to a view point overlooking Tam Coc. The place is called Ma Yen and it has 500 steps to get to the top. We had to pay 50k dong ($2.50) each for admission. It was already late in the day, so we and a trio of English tourists were the only people climbing the steps. It was hard work, but the view of Tam Coc from the top was completely worth it!
After coming down from Ma Yen, it was starting to get dark, so we quickly rode over to the starting point of Tam Coc just to see what it was like and then headed home. The Tam Coc area is much more built up than Trang An, as there was a small town surrounding the dock. There were some hotels, places to eat, and many people selling trinkets. Seeing that, we were pretty happy that we had gone to Trang An instead.
The next morning we had planned to go visit some other sites, including the Van Long nature reserve and perhaps the National Park, but it was raining and so we decided to just head back to Hanoi. If the weather had been better I would have enjoyed seeing more beautiful landscapes and experiencing peaceful boat rides, but it didn’t work out this time. If we come back to Vietnam, we will definitely come back here again!