Ninh Binh, Vietnam – A Pleasant Surprise
We had a few extra days to spend in North Vietnam and were looking for other destinations to visit in the area. Walking around town while in Hanoi, we saw numerous pictures and advertisements of a place called Ninh Binh. The photos of the landscape of Ninh Binh looked interesting, so we hopped online and did a little more research to see what it had to offer.
The area of Ninh Binh is more rural with vast mountainous areas and is about a 2 hour drive south of the city of Hanoi. You can take the Reunification Express train from Hanoi’s train station, hop on a local bus which departs from Giap Bat bus station every 30 minutes, or hire a taxi / private driver to take you. Since it was a week prior to Tet, our hotel strongly advised us against taking any forms of public transportation as it can be quite busy, so we decided to take a private car to Ninh Binh which cost us 500,000 VND each way.
Browsing through travel blogs and Tripadvisor lead us to a well reviewed place, Mua Cave Ecolodge. Mua Cave Ecolodge is located just outside of Ninh Binh, right on the base of Mua Cave. Once within Ninh Binh’s town limit, the drive to the ecolodge itself passes through some spectacular views of steep mountains jetting out from the ground and villages with picturesque rice fields with water buffalos roaming the street.
We arrived to the lodge and were warmly greeted by the manager, Mr. Thuy, who showed us our room. It was a nice and clean room facing a charming pond with an interesting feature in the bathroom, a large glass window which displays the backside of the cave the room was built against.
We arrived mid afternoon and had some sunlight left, and Mr. Thuy suggested we take the short hike up the mountain of Mua Cave and also visit the cave itself.
After settling down we walked about 5 minutes and arrived at the cave and walked through the tunnels which was conveniently lit for visitors to wander through. We learned that the name Mua is the word for dance in Vietnamese and it was in this cave that dance performances were held for the local emperor in the past. In addition, the cave was also used for a military medical site during the Vietnam war.
After our stroll through the cave, we continued to walk up the steps of the mountain to visit the altar to Quan Am. As we walked up, we noticed a lot of animal droppings and assumed it was deer droppings. Later on, we found out it was actually goat droppings as Ninh Binh is also known for their goat delicacies.
The top of the mountain gave us some breathtaking 360 degree views of the area. A wonderful bird’s eye view of Ninh Binh city and the surrounded villages to the east, and an amazing view of untouched and unspoiled mountains to the west. The hike up also offered us close up views of a couple of small pagodas which seemed like it couldn’t be accessed. The top of the mountain itself had a statue of the venerable bodhisattva Quan Am and a striking statue of a dragon which snaked across the summit.
The following morning, Mr. Thuy picked us up bright and early and took us to a local breakfast spot in Ninh Binh which was popular for eel vermicelli soup (miến lươn). The broth was rich in flavor and the tender pieces of fresh eel really hit the spot on an early cold morning. We were now fully awake and ready to begin our journey.
After breakfast, we departed towards the Nam Dinh province, about 2.5 hour drive to arrive to Xuân Thủy National Park. We then boarded a boat that snaked through the Red River Delta towards the coastal region to see how the local people farm clams for a living.
The boat ride from the dock traversed through some amazing landscapes of mangroves that lined the river delta towards the sea. This is the Red River Delta, Vietnam’s second famous delta behind the Mekong Delta.
We ended up in a vast estuary lined with stilt bamboo houses spread across endless sand and water. It appears as though we were on a different planet, something out of a science fiction novel.
Our first stop was at a typical farming stilt house owned by the tour operator. The house was completely made of bamboo sitting 20 feet above the water on sturdy large bamboo stilts. The captain positioned the boat right up against the the home and we climbed up a bamboo ladder to reach the top platform of the house.
The living quarters consists of only a single room about 10 ft x 10 ft and an even smaller kitchen with primitive cooking methods of using coal and wood. The floor was lined with bamboo mats and only a few items for daily life which hung throughout the room. This is what the living quarters of a clam farmer looks like. Water was pumped up from the ground, and drainage just went straight back in. No electricity.
We stopped by for lunch at a stilt house restaurant nearby that was barely putting up their restaurant name sign. Goes to show how new tourism is here. Lunch was delicious and consisted of some amazing local seafood caught right in the area. Fresh caught grilled fish, local clams, and sauteed squash. To wash it all down, vodka. The hospitality of the area seemed to often revolve around a delicious meal followed by a few shots of alcohol. We couldn’t deny!
After lunch, we were invited to have tea with the homeowner who lived just a bamboo bridge walk away from the restaurant.
The home was similar to the one we visited earlier, single room with only the necessities. We sat in a circle while he offered us some really strong bitter tea. My attempt to converse ended in failure as my Vietnamese was very poor. The Northern accent made it even more difficult to understand and converse, however, it was interesting trying to listen to him explain about his life as a clam farmer and how he lived.
He explained the home is temporary, which he lives just 6 months out of the year to work and farm the land for clams. He has a permanent home in Nam Dinh and his kids are grown up and attending college in Hanoi.
After saying our goodbyes, we headed to Xuân Thủy National Park estuary to visit a look out tower with a 360 degree view of the area.
On the walk to the tower, we encountered some local farmers selling large bushels of clams. After the sale, these large bags would then be driven into the city to be sold at the local markets.
The tower provided us views of Nam Dinh, stretching across to Thai Binh. This was a great viewpoint, as the scenery was very different compared to the other parts of Vietnam we visited.
The tour to Nam Dinh was a pleasant surprise as we didn’t know what to expect and it surpassed all of our expectations. Riding through the Red River delta and emerging into a vast land of stilt homes is something we’ve never seen before both in person or in pictures. To top it off, having an authentic Vietnamese lunch full of delicious seafood and conversing with the local people really helped us understand the way of life in the area and gave us great insight into the coastal farming culture of the people who inhabit the area. We highly recommend making your way out to Ninh Binh and Nam Dinh if you ever find yourself in Hanoi to see and experience it.
A special thank you to Mua Cave Ecolodge and Mr. Thuy for hosting us in Ninh Binh and showing us the Nam Dinh area in exchange for this review.