Wake up early and start your day by getting into the water. Not literally in but on a boat. Head to Trang An, a scenic area with a spectacular landscape of karst mountains, one after the other, some submerged in the water and some on land. The peaks surround the natural streams that flow through, creating countless beautiful caves which you will have the chance to explore by boat. Trang An is a better alternative to Tam Coc which has become a tourist trap. The water here is also more clear, and if you go early in the morning, there won’t be many other tourists around so you can have the whole scene to yourself.
It costs a mere 200,000 Vietnamese Dong ($8.82) for a three hour boat ride which includes 12 caves and three other stops on the way. But before you load your boat, get some breakfast. There are some stalls across the road from the boat docks serving xoi (sticky rice) or noodle soups like pho and some light snacks. Once you load your boat, all your daily stresses will fade away as your guide paddles you through the river and around the karst mountains. It’s extremely serene; you will only hear the sound of the oars as they enter and leave the water surface, and some soft chirping of birds, which perfectly complements what your eyes see. As you enter the caves, remember to duck your head or lie down on your back on the boat since the ceilings can be very low. During these moments, the peddlers lie on their back and carry on peddling with their feet. It’s an interesting sight.
After the peaceful morning wake-up, head over to Bai Dinh pagoda which is not so far off. Bai Dinh Temple Spiritual and Cultural Complex is the biggest Buddhist center in South East Asia and has hundreds of statues in different sizes spread around the complex. If your legs haven’t woken up yet from last night’s slumber, there are electric cars that will take you around the center for just 30,000 Vietnamese Dong ($0.13).
Gia Sinh, Ninh Binh, Vietnam, +84 229 3868 789
Next, head over to Hoa Lu Ancient Citadel, set amidst a backdrop of more mountains and rice fields. Hoa Lu was the capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries, when the country was under the rule of the Dinh and Le dynasties. The old temples and remnants of the ancient fortress built then still remain, and, for a small entry fee of VND $20,000 (US$.88), you can explore all these.
While Trang An grottoes, Bai Dinh temple and Hoa Lu citadel are all near each other, your next stop will be a little further away. Phat Diem Cathedral, built in 1892 with stone and wood, is one of the most beautiful churches in Vietnam. The architecture is unique because it is built with a strong Vietnamese influence, which is what makes the cathedral worth seeing. Plus, it’s strangely eerie and quite empty.
After your afternoon history lesson, head back to Ninh Binh town before it gets dark and enjoy a well-deserved massage for all that walking around. Legend Hotel in the very center of Ninh Binh has a sauna and massage services that you can take advantage of. Afterwards, enjoy some dinner in the many restaurants you see in town and enjoy a good night’s sleep.
Tien Dong Zone, Le Thai To, Ninh Binh, Vietnam, +84 229 3899 880
Even if Tam Coc is more touristy than Trang An, it is still worth a visit for three reasons. First, you would probably want to have another similar experience like you did in Trang An before you leave. Second, it is just as beautiful, and third, it’s near other must-visit attractions that will fill out your day. Once again you should head here early to avoid the influx of tourists, and you will have a nice, peaceful morning. Tam Coc literally translated means “three caves,” and these are Hang Ca cave, Hang Hai cave and Hang Ba cave, which you will be able to explore.
Once your morning boat excursion is done, head three kilometers east, and you will reach Bich Dong pagoda — a complex of three ancient pagodas built into caves in 1428. It’s a great pagoda to explore, and there won’t be many people around, but do beware of the bats that sometimes fly around blindly and ruffle your hair.
Have a simple lunch here at the tourist area, and some local Vietnamese ca phe sua da (iced milk coffee). You will need some grub in you before you tackle the next stop, Hang Mua Cave. This is one of the rare spots in Ninh Binh where you can get a panoramic view of Tam Coc in all its glory. There are nearly 500 steps built into the mountain that you have to conquer, so get a bottle of water with you and challenge yourself to climb all the way to the top for the spectacular view. Oh, and on your way you will bump into goats! These guys are friendly, but don’t try to approach them, you don’t want to be head-butted down the stairs.
Hang Mua, Ninh Xuan, Ninh Binh, Vietnam, +84 167 869 9330
After you spend your afternoon in the area, head back into town and relax. Walk around the alleys, talk to the locals, or you can even go for karaoke. The locals would be happy to join. For dinner, how would you feel about some goat hot pot?
Karaoke 45, 45 Cu Chinh Lan, Ninh Binh, Vietnam, +84 94 777 81 89
Kinh Do Restaurant, 18 Phan Dinh Phung, Ninh Binh, Vietnam, +84 30 3885 823