They call it “Ha Long Bay on Land” for the way hundreds of limestone karst rock formations rise up out of the ground. There’s a real feel of the untouched around Ninh Binh, so much so that the area was used to film Hollywood hit movie Kong: Skull Island. On a quiet morning in the countryside around the city of Ninh Binh, you could easily imagine mythical creatures skulking around in the mystical fog, ducking behind small mountains and bathing in rivers.
Ninh Binh is small enough to visit in just a day, but we like to take our time and soak things up. Traveling shouldn’t be stressful after all. Here’s how we’d spend 48 hours in Ninh Binh.
8am: Take a quiet boat ride through Trang An
Head out of town early to nearby Trang An, just 15 minutes out of the town center. There’s barely a more peaceful way to spend a morning than to be guided down the emerald green river, flanked by lush fields and limestone mountains, not to mention plunging through caves. Don’t worry about rowing yourself by the way, a conical hat sporting elderly man or woman will gently guide your sampan boat around -- just don’t forget to tip at the end for their efforts! (Approx $5 will do just fine). The cost of the tour itself is around $10 per person (200,000 VND)
2pm: Up the steps at Hang Mua Cave for a stunning view
Rest up after the boat trip, get a bracing lunch, slip on your sneakers and fill your water bottle - it’s time to climb 500 steps. The reward? One of Vietnam’s most breathtaking views. The lookout point at the top gives hikers a mesmerizing, unspoiled view over Tam Coc. The steps are a site in themselves, hewn directly into the rock face. Take your time on the way up and down to get a breath and drink in the fantastic landscape on Ninh Binh.
7pm: A Traditional Vietnamese Dinner
You’ll be in need of another filling meal after all the afternoon exercise, and more adventuring to do tomorrow. Head over to Orchid Restaurant for some great authentic Vietnamese cuisine. The Bun Cha is a crowd favourite, and make sure to try the lemongrass fried tofu, even if you’re not a vegetarian! The zest of the lemongrass and chili compliments the tofu, which is crispy on the outside, and soft in the middle.
10am: Phat Diem Cathedral
Also known as Chau Son Monastery, the cathedral is a spectacular Catholic church built in 1891. Portuguese missionaries had been spreading their word since the 16th century, and the stone and wood structure was designed by a Vietnamese priest, Father Sau. He died that very year and is buried on the grounds of his life’s work.
The cathedral remains famous today in large part because of Graham Greene’s prophetic novel, The Quiet American, in which narrator Thomas Fowler witnesses a vicious battle between French and Vietnamese combatants in the area surrounding the cathedral. Not every part of the cathedral is original unfortunately, as it has experienced very real war in its time -- American B-52 bombers did their fair share of damage in 1972 and forced some rebuilding.
Go a little bit later in the morning if it’s the weekend, as Sunday mass starts at 9am.
2pm: Unwind at the spa
Granted, the town centre of Ninh Binh doesn’t have much going on in terms of tourism, and in truth that’s all part of the charm. It’s a lovely place to just meander around the streets and alongside the small rivers that run through the city. If you’re feeling heavy legged after all the adventures of the Ninh Binh surrounds though, book a few hours of paradise at the Huong Sen Homestay and Massage. For less than $15, the expert staff will see to it that all your stresses melt away. Choose from foot treatments, hot stone massages or a long soak in the steam.