Vacay in Vietnam Part 3: Exploring Ninh Binh to see Bích Động Pagoda, Hoa Lư, Tam Cốc, and Mua Cave
Updated: Apr 3, 2019
Welcome to part 3 of my Vietnam Blog series! I hope you have been enjoying reading about my travels in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay so far. This blog features the beautiful province of Ninh Binh where we stayed overnight in Tam Cốc, and explored the popular Bích Động pagoda, Hoa Lư, and Mua Cave.
I will be sharing the itinerary from the trip we booked, and hope that after reading this, those interested in Vietnam will have a better sense of the country's diversity, and inspired to make a pit-stop in Ninh Binh.
Unplanned Private Car Pick-up
JD and I had originally booked a small tour to Ninh Binh. However, through some system error on the tour company's end, they actually forgot about us on the morning of! As it would turn out, we would be the only two on the tour. Essentially it seemed as if we were booked for another weekend or not at all. Regardless, this resulted in the tour guide apologizing and us getting a private shuttle all the way to Ninh Binh. The ride was only around 2 hours and the guide shared stories of her life in Vietnam. Sometimes, really good things come out of seemingly bad situations. We were both lucky and grateful that we could continue our vacation as planned.
Traditional Boat Ride Through Tam Cốc Rice Fields and Caves
Our shuttle arrived to the small yet bustling town of Tam Cốc. After dropping off our bags at the home-stay, we walked a short 5 minutes to the loading area on the river for our traditional boat ride.
Aside from the rower, it was just the two of us on the boat. By the time we got on, the river was already sprinkled with with brightly dressed tourists experiencing their own personal tours of the area. We were amused, and impressed to see many of the rowers using their feet to propel the boats forward.
The boat ride lasted around two and a half hours. We passed so many beautiful limestone formations partially hidden by fog. All around us was 360 views of bright green rice paddies, towering limestone karsts, and wildlife. Tam Cốc means "Three caves" in Vietnamese. So perhaps the coolest part, was rowing under some of the formations through tunnel-like caves. Hang Ca was the first grotto, Hang Hai was the second, and Hang Ba was last. In each of the small caves we experienced a few minutes of darkness while seeing shadows of the stalactites and light from the sun at the end of the tunnel.
There will come a point during the picturesque and calming boat ride where you'll approach a line of women in snack filled boats, eager to satisfy any ounce of hunger you didn't know you had. As our boat was exiting the last cave, one of the women at the end of the line of boats, made her way in front of, turned her boat around and began offering snacks on snacks. The woman even encouraged us to pick up a light snack or two for our rower who had been working hard all day. We honestly found the situation humorous.....like, ahhhh of course we were bound to encounter someone selling something. JD and I were hungry anyways, so we grabbed some mango slices for ourselves, and bought some guava for our rower who seemed thankful for the gesture. It seemed that every passenger boat was in some way pressured to pick something up, but it is not mandatory.
Lunch and Tea Time with a Home-stay Family
After spending part of the morning on the river, it was time for some lunch. As part of our tour, a family graciously welcomed us to their home where we enjoyed a traditional home-cooked Vietnamese meal. JD and I kept wondering if the family had planned on serving lunch to an entire small group rather than just two people because we got so much food. Vietnamese cuisine includes a lot of fresh vegetables, meats like fish or beef, noodles, and rice. Always rice. We felt bad not being able to finish it all. Afterwards, we got to chat with our tour guide and the father of the family who's home we were in. Over tea, we listened to the man recount his day rowing on the rather and a little bit about the lineage of his family. He seemed enthusiastic to speak French to us as well but our French was very limited which we laughed about. It's always nice when we get a chance to meet new people and have our questions answered by a local.
Bike Ride to Bích Động Pagoda
We took a brief rest after our big lunch, but we didn't waste much time before we hit the road on bikes to explore more of the area. Our tour guide, Vuong, led us out of the small town we were in through winding busy roads onto a dirt path that led to the popular Bích Động pagoda. The ride was actually smooth and it only took about 20 minutes or so to arrive. The air was a little misty and felt cool, which made for a good backdrop and the perfect amount of natural A/C during the ride. Bích Động we realized is actually a complex multiple pagodas with some imbedded into the mountains. We walked through the complex and uphill to the edge of a cliff that offered great views. I'm always impressed to see how old structures, some in ruins, last for years and years.
Bike Ride to Thung Nham Bird Park
After our short stop at the pagodas, we put our feet to the pedals and took off for the last trip of the day. The sun was setting, and we biked up and down a small steep hill as fast as we could to catch a fun sight. We entered the Thung Nham Bird Park. The grounds were really beautiful, and we saw many families spending time together there. We noticed there were nice resort-like bungalows to stay in, ice-cream stands (which we took advantage of), swings, among many other things to enjoy. We boarded our second boat of the day, this time with five other people. The nature of Vietnam is something I will never forget, especially after living in the city for so long. Instead of hearing sirens, and the beeps of cars as I had in Hanoi, I experienced moments of silence. The only thing I could hear (when I wasn't busy talking) were birds, and the sound of the paddles going in and out of the water. We were rowed out to a more secluded area of the park where we witnessed hundreds of birds, predominately herons and storks, preparing to rest for the evening. Big droves of these birds would fly from one tree to the next.
Trek to Mua Cave (Hang Múa)
The last leg of the tour in Ninh Binh would consist of just two activities before heading back to Hanoi. After breakfast our guide, Vuong led us back to the home we had visited yesterday at lunchtime to pick up our new rides; motorbikes. We rode the motorbikes out of town and about 20 minutes toward the Mua Cave, or Hang Múa. The Mua Caves is an extremely popular destination. For this reason, it's best to plan on arriving early and staying awhile, if you're interested in getting great photos. If photos aren't your thing, the good news is that you can go up and down the moderate hike in about 45 minutes to an hour.
The trek to the peak consists of 450 steps that are steep in some places. Once at the top, we got to marvel at the 360 views of the limestone karsts and Red River Delta. We could even see where had been on the boat ride the day before!
Motorbike Excursion throughout Ninh Binh
Despite my fears, I knew it would only be a matter of time before I ended riding a motorbike. Let's face it, no trip to Vietnam is complete without experiencing the thrilling feeling of whirring through winding streets on one of the busiest road systems in the world. Organized chaos. JD and I agreed it was best if he took the wheel while I clung on for dear life behind. To my surprise, it was one of my favorite experiences on the trip!
Riding the motorbikes around was the best way to explore the beautiful area. The advantage of the bikes were that we could literally go off the beaten path onto smaller dirt paths so discover hidden areas. We rode through tiny neighborhoods, passed so many amazing fields of rice paddies, and saw baby mountain goats along the way! The rush of cool air on our faces was really refreshing, and we lucked out again with no rain.
Hoa Lư , The Old Capital of Vietnam
Before heading back to Vietnam, a small bus dropped us off at the grounds of Hoa Lư; the old capital of Vietnam during the 10th-11th century. Many families were spending time together running around the grounds. Walking through the grounds we could see gardens, temples, and shrines. These were built in honor of emperors Đinh Tiên Hoàng and Lê Đại Hành, along with their sons, and the Queen. It was a short stop on our trip but we were glad to see the old capital.
If self-planning isn't your thing and you'd rather go the tour route, know that there are many amazing tour companies offering 1 day, 2 day, or even longer trips to Ninh Binh. We ultimately decided to go with the 2-day tour from Get Your Guide. Aside from the slight hiccup at the beginning with the pick-up situation, the trip was amazing. Vuong was such a great and attentive tour guide who went out of his way to show us some cool spots. (Thank you!) The accommodations we stayed in also happened to be newly opened to the public, everything was pristine and the staff were lovely. This tour offered pick-up and drop-off in Hanoi too which was a bonus.
Where to Stay
Again, Vietnam is a really affordable place so rest assured that there is something available for any budget. In Ninh Binh I noticed plenty of great home-stays available. We stayed in the Tam Coc Golden Rice Home-stay. The place was brand new, super clean, and again the owners were incredibly friendly. They offered guests free wi-fi, free use of bikes, and had an onsite restaurant/bar where they cooked us a great dinner. The place was minutes away from the Tam Coc Cave boat ride loading area, and only a 30-45 minute bike or motorbike ride away from the destinations I mentioned above.
When to go
We travelled to Vietnam shortly after the lunar new year in February. The weather was warm enough and sunny on most days. Some days were cooler, but we were lucky that it never actually rained during our stay in Ninh Binh. I believe that the sights in Ninh Binh would be just as beautiful during any time of year. On days when we didn't have peak sunshine, we were met with a cool foggy backdrop that added a different element to the experience.
Bike Riding, Night Riding, Driving a Motorbike
Like other parts of Vietnam, we found Ninh Binh to be safe and felt comfortable during our stay. As with any sort of bike riding anywhere, be sure to be aware of your own limitations. In Vietnam it's especially important to wear a helmet on the hectic roads if you can. Don't let fear keep you from exploring the area in a fun way though, trust the ways of the road and keep an eye out. Try not to follow to closely behind others, although on smaller roads that can be tough.
If you know anyone traveling soon to Vietnam, feel free to share these posts with them. For any questions, comments, or feedback feel free to comment below, or dm me on instagram!
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