Ninh Binh is northern Vietnam’s “Halong Bay of the Mountains” with the same scenery, albeit without the salt water, and just a fraction of the visitors.
by Dave Stamboulis.
A Vietnamese friend in Hanoi had promised me that Ninh Binh was the “real” Vietnam, more beautiful than Halong Bay, with the same mountain scenery (minus the salt water of course) and just a fraction of the visitors. I found that hard to believe, but it turned out that she was right. While the city of Ninh Binh itself is just a noisy pit stop for long distance buses and trucks along busy Highway 1, just 10 kilometers away the jagged limestone mountains appear and rise from a pastoral agricultural setting, with the languid Tam Coc River flowing through their midst. Locals here make their living growing rice, raising ducks, and rowing boats with their feet.
Yes, that’s right: rowing boats with their feet. The Tam Coc River weaves its way through the mountains here, taking in some picturesque postcard scenery. Rowboats are the ideal way to enjoy the landscape, and the ride can be pretty exciting too, as they travel through pitch black caves and grottoes, and the locals have learned to navigate the small rowboats that travel the river with their feet. This stunt enables them to eat and drink while sailing along, or even borrow tourists’ cameras to take snaps of their disbelieving smiles.
Vinh – a wise-cracking rower I’d used for several days – said that until recently, men didn’t do the rowing here, but with the growing domestic and foreign tourist scene more feet had become required to handle the boats. Vinh said that said he occasionally missed being at home farming, but that the money was good rowing. “Besides,” he quipped, “my wife doesn’t bother me anymore when I want to relax with a drink,” he said with a wink, and as we floated into one of the river’s eerie dark cave complexes, he pulled out a bottle of rice whiskey and several shot glasses, proceeding to show off the art of pouring a shot while still rowing. Feet first naturally.
Back on land, I made my way by bicycle to the sparsely visited Hang Mua Temple, only four or five kilometers from town, yet a complete world away. Surrounded by rice paddies, the temple is named after a cave located in the mountain that the pagoda sits on top of, reached only by a climb of some 500 steep steps. Pilgrims come here during festival times, but otherwise the place is usually deserted, with just a lone caretaker standing by the entry gate to collect the THB 30 entry fee required from the few intrepid foreigners who make it out here.
After parking my bike, I tackled the steep stairs leading up to the pagoda. The route up is relentless, broken up only by the occasional bench to rest on, with the sight of mountain goats looking out at you rather quizzically, wondering what brought you into their territory. The ascent is hot and sweaty, but the panoramas once on top are one of Ninh Binh’s highlights. On one side, there are endless views of rice paddies, with limestone needles and pinnacles sticking up from everywhere, composing one of Vietnam’s most beautiful landscape paintings. From the other side, a precipitous drop overlooks the Tam Coc, languidly winding its way through the tranquil farmland and grotto scenery.
The small village surrounding the boat pier at Tam Coc is fairly nondescript, with a tiny outdoor market full of vendors selling food and produce to the locals, a ticket counter, and a handful of simple restaurants and bars to have a meal and a few beers in. I ordered a plate of thit dê, Vietnamese for goat meat. In Tam Coc, they barbecue the goat with lemongrass and ginger, and often serve it alongside com chay, which is burnt rice. This might not sound overly appetizing, but it actually is quite delicious. The cooked sticky rice is taken from the bottom of a steel pot, molded into squares or circles, and left to dry in the sun for several days. The squares are then soaked in hot oil until they become golden, and then combined with beef or pork, onions, mushrooms, and various spices.
During the day, a good number of private tours make their way to the Tam Coc River for boat rides, but at night, the area is deserted. I made my way back to my guesthouse accompanied by the drone of frogs in the rice paddies and ducks quacking their way home, made all the more enjoyable by a dusky blue sunset with pink hues.
As the darkness set in, the peaks surrounding me became huge shadows, standing like guardian sentinels. I gazed out at the dusk’s final beams of daylight, reflected in the irrigated rice fields and meandering canals, and realized that my Vietnamese friend was right.
This was the real Vietnam, not to mention my own private Halong Bay, and one of Vietnam’s best-kept secrets.
Ninh Binh can be reached in two-and-a half hours with public buses from Hanoi’s Giap Bat bus station, or more conveniently with tourist minibuses via Open Tours – www.sinhcafe.com from Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The caves and rivers of Tam Coc are seven kilometers from the city, and an overnight stay is recommended. Chez Loan – www.chezloantamcoc.com (Tel: 094 857 7322) is a great relaxing spot and it is a comfortable home-style guesthouse perched amid the rice paddies just minutes from the boat piers with plenty of peace and quiet. Make sure to try the aforementioned goat meat here; the owner of Chez Loan is a gourmet chef and even runs cooking classes if you’ve got extra time.