On a cool November morning, Jed and I arrived in Ninh Binh City aboard a Vietnam Railways train from Hanoi. The entire ride we were looking out the window trying to decipher if this was a ghost village. It looked like the zombies had come and gone, and all the people have left the city. We were so used to the organized chaos of Hanoi (not to mention Manila) that deserted roads — and now a crowdless station — just didn’t feel right.
Ninh Binh City is the capital of Ninh Binh Province, about a two-hour train ride from Hanoi. The bulk of our adventure happened in a commune, 30 minutes away from the main city, known as Ninh Giang, a part Hoa Lu District, Ninh Binh. But for the purpose of this story, I will simply refer to it as “Ninh Binh.” We also explored two of its main attractions: Trang An Reserved Site and Mua Caves.
Jed and I stayed in a charming AirBnb called Dragon Boat Rock. It’s a quaint accommodation run by a German lady named Sabine in the middle of a true-to-life Vietnam countryside. I’m not a Westerner, so being delighted by rice paddies seemed like a strange thing for me to say. But, Asian or not, this place looked like a Hollywood movie set, a romantic version of what non-Asians would probably think when they hear “countryside.”
Even inside the car, we could already see the yellow-green rice paddies all around the vicinity. The sun was high and, again, no one seemed to live around here. I barely saw people. I remember a Mandy Moore scene in the teenybopper film Chasing Liberty, when she was “biking” around the European countryside on a hot summer day. This looked exactly like that, only we were in Northern Vietnam on a normal November day.
When we arrived at Dragon Boat Rock, I almost whispered to Jed, “Baby we’re not in Bagong Pagasa anymore, are we?” The place housed about 6 to 8 cabins, small and intimate. The gardens were huge with a maze of a walkway all covered in flower plants and fruit trees. I was amazed to see yellow-green pomelos hanging low and within our reach. Fruits are found in the markets not in orchards where I’m supposed to live.
Our cabin was located at the far end, which means more peace and quiet (as if we need more of it). Inside was a country-style designed bedroom filled with wood furniture and gingham linen. The air was particularly cool and crisp, like I know I’m breathing the healthy kind of air. I had to pinch myself occasionally because the place felt and looked too idyllic, almost like we’re about to be Midsommar-ed around here (maybe an alay for a barrio fiesta or a cult).
As excited as we were in the land of calm and serenity, our first order of business that day was to get some sleep. We then had the best and soundest nap we’ve ever had. I never expected such a thing. A nap so relaxing it felt like someone just massaged me. Something about the soft bed, the cool breeze, the deafening silence, the fresh air that made it so conducive to just snooze.
By the time we woke up, which was already 3 in the afternoon, we decided to shake off our intensely-relaxed bodies and go for a ride. Yes, a bicycle ride to explore the rest of this countryside heaven. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jesus cycling somewhere to be honest.
We rode our bikes and just explored the beautiful flat lands of Ninh Giang (our friendly AirBnB neighborhood).
I promised Jed I won’t be a dead weight on this trip so I feigned excitement and agreed to do what we were supposed to do in Vietnam: bike. Fun fact, we practiced bike riding in UP Diliman just to prepare for this inevitable activity. Thank God, Ninh Giang has some great flat lands, like someone up there knows I suck at this so they made sure everything was as flat as a runway, and the surrounding view as picturesque as a desktop wallpaper, with zero tourists to ensure maximum satisfaction.
We passed by a few locals and by few I mean three or four. Once, we passed by a group of young Vietnamese boys, whose bike riding skills put me to shame. They were almost like “walking” on their bikes, looking so relaxed and smiling from ear to ear with hints of perplexity directed at us. By then our phones were up and we were snapping photos like I’ve never seen a rice field before. We passed by one or two farmers tending these rice fields, and a couple who were cleaning a deserted pagoda.
We basked in the sunset and bathed in the dusk.
We were slow to bike because every corner was just incredibly photogenic. We had more stop-and-shoots than actual pedal leg work. I could hear my gasp reverberating the empty alleys of this town. When sunset came, we braced ourselves for the unprecedented beauty of Ninh Binh.
The whole place was lit by the setting sun. I was now glowing in sunset yellow orange, like my entire life was moving in VSCO warm filters. The grass became even more yellow green, the flowers more romantic pink, our shadows hovering over our bicycles. Jed and I alternately sang songs of praise — which all sound like “Ang ganda naman dito!” (It’s so beautiful here!) ad infinitum.
We joined an early morning tour of the local market.
The next morning, we woke up early and headed straight to the local market. Most small markets in Vietnam are open only in the morning. It has the similar buzz of our markets back home, but drier and cleaner. Here in Ninh Giang, the stalls were smaller and most vendors sold only specific items like these green mangoes and chili. I get the feeling they have harvested these produce from their backyards. It’s also common to see dry goods like clothes and slippers being sold in the outskirts, too.
I love photographing markets. There’s lots of color and movement. It’s where you get an authentic sense of how people live. The mis en place of fresh produce, the different textures, the buzz of locals going about their everyday lives — all these make for great photos.
Jed and I ended up eating a bowl of rice porridge in the market. It tasted like arroz caldo, with lime and pepper as condiments. The Vietnamese vendor looked at us with a perplexed smile, trying to decipher where we come from. When we told her we came from the Philippines, her smile widened in recognition. I could almost hear her say, “same, same.” A local who sat across offered us another cup of hot tea.
I like the feeling of fresh eyes when traveling. That feeling when you see something familiar, like a normal-looking tomato or ginger, but somehow, to you, it’s different. They look a lot shinier, plumper, like way better, more “organic” looking than the ones you have back home. Funny how perspective works when the truth is it’s the same, you’re just more willing to feel amazed by it.
We explored the famous Trang An Landscape Complex.
Visiting Trang An was partly the main goal of why we’re in Ninh Binh in the first place. Since this was our first time in Hanoi (and the northern part of Vietnam), I chose Trang An over Halong Bay because I prefer a less touristic option. I wanted to veer away from the crowds without compromising value, and Trang An seems to answer this balance just fine.
From our AirBnB, we had three options to get to Trang An: by car, by motorbike, by bicycle. As you know, this list is not just based on decreasing levels of kilometers per hour, but also of comfort per minute. The latter being the most tiring — alright “fun” — option of them all. We chose the bike because it’s supposed to be fun and free. However, after a couple of mishaps and burning calf muscles, it took us more than two hours to finally reach Trang An. Though I have no regrets for our little adventure, I recommend a car if you want to get there faster.
The route to Trang An was absolutely scenic. The highways were huge and wide and almost empty. Enormous karsts on the side of the roads hovered over us. I’ve never seen karsts before, except perhaps for the big islands scattered all over the lagoons of El Nido. These tall, spiky rock formations made me feel like I’m a speck of the earth amidst the glorious landscapes of Ninh Binh.
When we reached Trang An, we went on a 3-hour boat ride, our mouths wide open from witnessing the beautiful shades of green in front of us. I’m finally living in one of picture-perfect postcards — evergreen mountains as backdrop for forest green trees, all of which were reflected on the luminescent, almost olive green reflection of the river. We talked in hush tones, hearing only the sound of the paddle swishing slow and steady.
Trang An was also full of caves and pagodas to explore. We entered caves of different sizes. Some had very narrow openings and low ceilings that made me respect our boat woman even more. She maneuvered that little boat like it was nothing. We got a little drenched from the limestone drips but still we were unfazed, always amazed by its sheer beauty.
We hiked the never-ending steps of Mua Caves.
Before we left, we were able to squeeze an early hike to Mua Caves (Hang Múa), another famous attraction in Ninh Binh. This place was supposed to give us a bird’s eye view of Tam Coc (another site similar to Trang An that we opted to leave out, sadly, due to time constraints). I knew we were about to climb a number of stairs, but as always, I underestimate the height of these places and overestimate my level of fitness. We were only half prepared for the very active morning ahead of us.
The entire time we were climbing, I kept mumbling how this effin’ view better be worth it. I felt exposed. However, I’ve long learned that when a location requires some shortness of breath, it almost always pays off. After several false stops and near-death deep breaths, we finally reached the mecca of Mua Caves. You could see the full expanse of Ninh Binh, yellow-green flat lands and cascading mountains framing the flow of the rivers. It’s aptly (breath)taking.
On the way to the top, I also noticed a different kind of “view” — that of people risking everything for the shot. Some were willing to pose at the edge of a cliff, on top of a small rock, or a questionable ledge. Wherever the view is best, they’ll do it. We even saw a wedding shoot in one of the flat areas in between the stairs.
If only we had more time, I would love to just hang around and stare at this view for a long time (mostly to catch my breath but yes look and marvel). The wind was crisp on top. Like the many grand landscapes in Ninh Binh, I felt small in this world, like my problems were small but my gratitude big. As Bourdain said, some places are hard to describe and the only thing to do is feel grateful that you were there to live and see it in person.
Jed and I agree that Ninh Binh was one of the best places we’ve been to. If like us you’re enamored by roads less traveled (and I mean lesser people, more empty roads), with an abundance of mother nature’s finest landscapes, this is the place for you.
I recommend staying at our AirBnB because the countryside experience, though sometimes eerily serene, is an infinitely more charming experience than staying at one of the hotels in Ninh Binh City. The idyllic countryside of Ninh Binh is an itinerary on its own, even for Asians like us, or maybe even more so for city dwellers like us. I’ve never felt so relaxed yet filled with adventure in a landscape I’m supposed to be familiar with. Ninh Binh is, quite simply, beautiful.
Recommendations: 1. We booked our Vietnam Railways ticket from Hanoi to Ninh Binh and back via BaoLau. It's a legit and swift transaction. 2. Our AirBnB is called Dragon Boat Rock. They have other room options that you can check out. I recommend not just the place/ambiance, but also the food served. Although a word of caution, all meals are communal at Dragon Boat Rock, which means you have to eat with your co- AirBnB-ers, mingle and talk with co-travelers. Some find this great, others not. There are no restaurants nearby. None. 3. Our AirBnB also took care of our cab from the airport for a modest fee. 4. Other interesting spots in Ninh Binh: Hoa Lu Ancient Capital, Tam Coc (similar to Trang An), Bai Dinh Pagoda, Bich Dong Pagoda. 5. This recommendation is kind of useless. 6. If you're in Hanoi, just go!