The plan was to get up at a reasonable hour and go and see Ho Chi Minhs mausoleum but like so many plans it kind of went awry. We had been trying to get there all week and we had one last shot at it but poor planning meant that whereas I thought it was open until 11.30 it actually closes at 10.30 and we had left it too late. Just means that we have to come back again J
The standard line is to take a local tour to one of three main boat trip destinations and cruise through the paddies and into river caves while being wow-ed by the landscape. Thankfully for us we did a bit of reading beforehand and opted to find our own way on a scooter and therefore could go wherever we chose at our own timeframe.
Just outside of the town of Ninh Binh is Tam Coc, famous for its classic “rice fields with a river flowing through it surrounded by karst mountains” type of landscape but because of its fame it is a tout nightmare with heavy handed tactics being used against tourists. We decided to avoid it and instead went for the more laid back general area of Bich Dong for our first day of wandering.
Through the area there are not only the impressive mountains of the karst limestone rising up from the landscape but also a myriad of caves. We found a really cool temple that unbeknownst to us had a huge cave in behind it. There was no lights and all we had was a small head torch in the bag. I, of course, bailed on the dark hot scary expedition but Dave was full speed ahead. He ended up on top of the mountain with amazing views. By the time he got back to me he was dripping wet with sweat and well happy with his adventure.
We finished the day at a private nature reserve called the Thung Nham bird park. The sad thing was that we were in the wrong season for the birds but there was plenty else to see. This park had a selection of different caves to access so we started with 349 steps up to the top of one mountain where a big cave awaited (Vai Gioi Cave). The cave was too much for me but Dave went in and said it was pretty good. My caving pleasure came from further in the park where we boarded a small boat and were rowed into a lovely river filled cave with interesting stalactite/mite formations and plenty of tiny bats. It was cool and peaceful and quite enjoyable.
The following day we just cruised the countryside checking out any small road and getting plenty of wry looks from locals who assumed we were generally lost. It is such a joy to just roam anywhere we like with the freedom of the scooter.
We finished off the day with the classic 2hour “cruise” through the karst. We went to La Trung and found a group of lady rowers who all take turns in rowing the tourists out into the waterways. Our lady spoke no English but was really delightful and very strong. She rowed us for the full 2 hours without breaking a sweat. I would have to say that the quietude of being one of only 3 boats on the waterways was just lovely and certainly matched the inspiring serenity of the landscape.
For anyone considering the Ha Long Bay experience (which is the karst mountains springing from the ocean) and finding the costs prohibitive, I would certainly recommend Ninh Binh as an affordable and equally beautiful alternative.
Tiny little village house tucked under the shadow of the mountain.
Spraying the rice.