Last weekend was David’s first three-day break since we arrived. We decided to make good use it and head 100km (62 miles) south of Hà Nội to the charming town of Ninh Bình . Some of you know that David and I are huge fans of The Amazing Race, a CBS-reality show that has teams of two race around the world. Last year the race included two legs in Việt Nam. One in Hà Nội, and another in Ninh Bình . While watching, we saw a few locations in the town that intrigued us, so it was top of our list for early days in Việt Nam.
I took hundreds of pictures in just a few days. I will scatter a few through the text and leave some more at the bottom of this post.
Getting To Ninh Bình
David and I decided we wanted to take the train from Hà Nội directly to Ninh Bình. He had a long weekend because Saturday was Independence Day (from the French), and Monday was the observed holiday. That meant that people across country were heading out for long weekends themselves. By the time we finalized our plans, I was only able to purchase hard berth seats.
We sat across from a mother with two young boys, 9 and 4, who provided endless amusement during the ride. The 9 year old had impressive English. He was anxious to show off his skills and play a few games with David on the ride. Thankfully, our train departed early in the morning and the fans in the car were working. When the train was moving, the combination of open windows and fans made the temperature bearable. The seats were actually fairly comfortable, and at $3 a person for the 2-hour trip, we had no complaints.
Once we arrived we ate a quick early lunch and rented motorbikes from the restaurant owner to use for the next few days. Our new wheels acquired, we headed outside of the city of 100,000 to rural Ninh Bình and its legendary karsts.
After checking into our hotel and dropping off our backpacks, we headed to one of Ninh Bình’s most famous tourist stops (and UNESCO World Heritage Site), Trang An. This is one of the best ways to view the iconic karsts of Southeast Asia. Apparently, Hollywood thinks so too. Some of the filming of King Kong: Skull Island took place here. A ticket gets the visitor ride a three hour boat ride along a sleepy river. The boats hold just a few people, and each one is rowed by hand (or foot), for the entire duration by an individual from the community.
The tour includes coasting through nearly ten caves while in the boat. These caves are all located at the base of the limestone karsts that flank the river. A few had pretty low ceilings, so we had to duck down into the bottom of our boat, remove all hats, and say a few prayers. The experience didn’t feel especially claustrophobic at the time. As I reflect on it and review the videos, I wonder why I wasn’t more disconcerted.
As we traveled through each cave we received a brief shower dripping from the formations. Emerging from each cave brought a renewed appreciation of the scenery around us. Also included in the trip are stops at a few temples that serve as necessary pit stops to stretch legs, use the toilet, and take pictures from a different perspectives.
Words cannot describe the majesty of this experience, so I will let our pictures do most talking.
Hang Mua literally means Dancing Cave. However the name is deceiving, as few visitors actually visit the cave here. Instead, the big draw is the 500 step climb up the side of a karst and the stunning view of the scenery from the top. This climb was the site of the Pit Stop on the Ninh Bình leg of The Amazing Race.
We’ve struggled to find reliable weather information here, but it was likely in the low to mid-nineties by the time we arrived on Sunday morning. The sun was shinning at full strength and humidity was lingering about 90%, as it usually does this time of year in Northern Việt Nam. That combination usually leads to a real-feel between 110 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit. It was hot!
David and I had our water in hand and our excitement of tracing The Amazing Race’s steps propelling us forward. Whenever the steps or railing provided a bit of shade, there was a person crouched there trying to be a few degrees cooler. I will be honest, we thought about turning back a few times. I expected the stairs to be the challenge, but in reality the desire for shade was the biggest issue. About 20 feet from the top a small tree emerged from the rock, and dozens of people were crowded underneath of it. They often served as a cheering squad for those doing the final push. At the top, a wonderful view of karsts, rice fields, and distant Ninh Bình city. Plus- a pretty amazing dragon statue. After recovering at the top for a few minutes. we quickly ascended to find shade.
I have lived and traveled to the tropics in many part of the world. I’ve climbed mountains much taller. And yet, I have never been as sweaty as I was that day. But, I think I will likely climb here again soon – just not until the months are a bit cooler. I will also bring an umbrella to shield myself from the sun. Important life lesson learned!
During our time in Ninh Bình we stayed at Sierra Homestay, a small new hotel with about ten rooms. The facilities were clean and basic. I took the cover photo for this post from our hotel room. Talk about a room with a view! The hotel is run by a vibrant family including parents and two children in their early twenties. The parents speak almost no English. The kids and other locals who came in and out of the building became fast friends as we worked on our Vietnamese and they worked on their English.
On Saturday night several local high school and university students came to the rooftop restaurant and asked to practice English with us. This is not a rare occurrence in Việt Nam and we are generally happy to oblige. David happened to ask about the Vietnamese pop star pictured on one of their t-shirts. Before we knew it we were doing karaoke to Sơn Tùng. Think of him as the Justin Beiber of It was the site of the Pit Stop on the Ninh Bình leg of Việt Nam. The teenagers were more than amused by us and we were happy to provide the evening’s entertainment. Soon the owner was dolling out homemade liquor and serving as David’s dancing companion. It really was a night like no other.
The following morning Ming, the daughter, gave me a brief Vietnamese lesson to help me complete my homework for my teacher. David worked with the son to address an issue with his rented motorbike. They could not have been more helpful and friendly. When we finally checked out they sent us on our way with free bottles of water, a local special snack of puffed rice, and heartfelt hugs.
We look forward to coming back when family and friends come to visit. Ninh Bình did not disappoint!
Photos from Around Ninh Bình
Additional photos from Trang An
Additional photos from Hang Mua