Wednesday we took a 6 am train to Ninh Binh. Just 2 hours south of Hanoi, Ninh Binh is a popular tourist destination for its karst formations. The area is often called the Ha Long Bay of land. We walked from the train station to our hotel and rented two one speed bikes for about $2. The hotel gave us a map and we headed off toward Tam Coc to see the rocks by boat. Once again, the map was pretty terrible, but we only got lost once. On the way, we stopped at Hang Mua, a great viewpoint of the area. We climbed 500 pretty steep and crumbling steps to reach a pagoda at the top. The view was fabulous and we could see the boats far below.
We descended the stairs, much faster than we ascended, and rode our bikes further south to Tam Coc. We hired a boat, with a lady who rowed with her feet and took a 2 hour trip out into the limestone karsts. We had heard some complaints that this is very touristy and you get hassled by your lady to buy her handicrafts and by other boats to buy drinks and snacks, but we had a pleasant experience. It was the late afternoon and our driver must have been tired because we went slow and were only hassled a little at the turn around point by the other boats. There were lots of ducks and we saw some kingfishers (?) and mountain goats, which is a local specialty.
On the ride back, we encountered some interesting practices. It appears that every evening, right before sunset, the excess part of the rice plant is piled up and burnt. This makes an incredible amount of smoke and could probably be one of the reasons it’s so hazy here, just a thought. We biked back to the hotel, arriving just before the sunset, luckily, since there are not many street lights and the road was pretty bumpy in parts.
They use every available flat space to dry the rice.
The next day, we rented bikes again and rode to Hua Lu, an ancient capital to the north, nestled in the karsts. We climbed another 250 steps here for a view of a few temples and what is left of the city.
Then we rode to Trang An, the less visited version of Tam Coc. We were told this would be less touristy and cheaper, but in reality, we found it to be more touristy and only $4 cheaper for both of us. And we had to share a boat with 3 very loud tourists. So we liked Tam Coc better, though the caves in Trang An were pretty impressive, though very tight. We had to duck on multiple occasions to get through.