I primarily went to Northern Vietnam on this particular holiday in order to experience Halong Bay. I only had a short time there so I wouldn’t have enough spare days to also make it to Sapa, although I was still left with one extra, lonely day to fill. I decided to book a day tour through my hostel, Hanoi Hostel, to an area known as Ninh Binh. Ninh Binh is about a two hour drive south of Hanoi and is a good alternative if you have to forgo either Sapa or Halong Bay. It offers incredible natural beauty, history, and culture.
NB is known as the “Halong Bay on land,” and features the same huge limestone mountains just jutting out from the ground instead of the waters. This place really is a hidden gem, with Halong Bay getting all the praise, it being a World Wonder and all. If I’m being totally honest though, I actually found NB to be even more breathtaking than Halong Bay itself.
Along the way I met another solo female traveller from Australia named Emma. We struck up a conversation and were soon swapping stories of our own travels. I swear, meeting other solo female travelers equals instant friendship. We decided to stick together for the remainder of the day. Once we arrived we were led to two temples in place to honor the kings of old. The cities used to be the capital of Vietnam and held two dynasties. It was only the capital for about 41 years, but in that time three kings ruled and left a lasting impact on the country. The temples were small and intricate and set in an ideal location of fields, mountains, and a river. Truly beautiful.
We then were led to a buffet lunch and stuffed ourselves until fully satisfied. But we mostly drank water, lots and lots of water. It was blooming hot.
After lunch it was time for a 2 hour slow boat ride down the river. This turned out to be one of my favorite travel experiences ever. It was two to a boat along with a rower, who turned out to be a ridiculously strong older woman who rowed the boat with her feet. She was a boss. Anyway, gliding down this river surrounded by immense mountains that seemed to jut out from nowhere was very humbling. We also made our way through a number of caves where the ceiling was so low you had to duck your head at times. This was the type of place that I had to stop and pinch myself several times to come to terms that it was real. It really is such a hidden gem of Northern Vietnam where it gets drowned out in the conversations saturated with Halong Bay and Sapa. Seriously, a day trip to Ninh Binh would not be a mistake in your itinerary, I only wish I had more time there.
Once back on land we were given bicycles and vague directions as to how to find a pagoda fifteen minutes away. The bikes themselves were old as the hills and not the slightest bit comfortable, but we managed to survive. The road towards the temple led us past rice fields and ponds. Once at the temple we paid to park our bikes and made our way inside. I honestly have zero information of this temple as there were no signs to read about it, but it was beautiful. It was built directly next to a cliff and far above was a mysterious looking cave. Where’s the Expedition Unknown crew when I need them? It was also here where a strange Chinese man asked for a hug (which happens a lot) but then proceeded to grab my butt. That was a first. So, beware of oldish Chinese men at sacred temples. Their hands wander as much as your feet did to get you there.
On that note we ran back to our bikes and proceeded back to the bus for the drive back. I cannot recommend Ninh Binh enough, butt grabs aside. This was probably my favorite spot during my time in Vietnam and hope that you can sometimes share in this beautiful place yourself.