Rice fields and giant karst hills dominate the landscape around Ninh Binh Province in Vietnam and the combination makes it feel otherworldly.
Our homestay was in the perfect location – just outside the village of Tam Coc and up against some of those mini-mountains. Our room had a beautiful view of fields and hills. It came with air conditioning (a must for me if we aren’t living on water), kettle to make coffee, comfy bed, a communal deck with hammocks, and breakfast. I had a bowl of delicious chilled pineapple, banana, melon, and watermelon every morning.
Our place even had a puppy mascot! Nom-nom. I had fun pretending I could have a pet on this endless travel lifestyle of ours.
But in reality, I can’t have a pet when we’re always on the go.
As lovely and affordable as our homestay was ($20 a night for two people), we weren’t there to enjoy it much. Instead, we were out and about to explore the area on a motorbike rental for $4.35 a day.
Mua Caves Viewpoint
Everyone goes to the Mua Cave viewpoint – made famous by Instagram – for a reason.
We waited until the zig-zag, stone stairs were shaded in the late afternoon on the hottest day of the year up to that point – 104 degrees! We took breaks and drank plenty of water, and after 450 steps up, we were rewarded with breathtaking views.
Tip: Don’t fall for the parking trick if you drive yourself. When you turn down the narrow road to get to the entrance, almost immediately you will be told by official-looking men with whistles and hats to pull over to park. But it’s private parking and they want your money. Just keep going all the way to the end – close to the entrance of the Mua Caves Ecolodge. If you pay anyone to park, do it near the entrance to save yourself an unnecessary and hot walk.
Inside the lodge gate, you pay 100,000 dong to climb to the viewpoint. That’s $4.35. The pictures, as you saw, are priceless, especially when the rice fields are growing.
Trang An riverboat tour
If you go on your own, and not on a tour, there are three ticket options for three different river and cave routes. We chose the longest route with nine caves and three pagodas. That tour lasts three hours.
The caves are spectacular, and to think that you are underneath giant karst formations in open pockets of air on a moving river, is mind-boggling. There were spots we had to duck down to prevent our heads from hitting rocks.
This area is known as the Halong Bay of Land. Wowza.
The official Trang An tour is a short drive from the village of Tam Coc. The official website it here.
Our boat captain was unbelievably strong. We went on the hottest day of the year up to that point, and she kept going like a pro– she took breaks only when we got out of the boat three times to check out pagodas. I tipped her well.
Tickets for the three-hour tour, which is the longest one, cost 200,000 dong per person, or $8.70. You have to wait for one or two more people for the boat before it will go, or you have to pay the difference to make up 800,000 dong.
Tip: Bring hat and an umbrella if you have one to use as a parasol. When you’re not in caves, you’re in sun. The pagodas have nearby stands that sell reasonably-priced refreshments, including beer.
Bai Dinh – largest Buddhist complex in Southeast Asia
We went during a heatwave and we arrived at 12:30 p.m., so we splurged and bought round-trip tickets on the electric cart shuttle to get to main entrance from the parking area for $4.35 each. That is a steep price, but this was the hottest climate either of us has ever experienced. We thought we would be delivered to the massive tower seen from miles away, but we so wrong! It’s still a long walk to the stupe from the electric cart drop-off point.
The walk to the stupe is long and hot – but thankfully – it was covered. There are large statues all along the way where people rub Buddha bellies and feet and legs and hands for good luck.
There are a lot of steps, with many landings. Before the stupe exit from the hall, there was a place to get ice-cold water and by the time we got there, we needed it, badly.
The admission to the stupe is another $4.35 per person. The golden Buddha, golden fixtures, ivory and jade statues, are impressive.
An elevator goes to the top – the 12th floor. The views are incredible. From the top, we could see how far we had walked in those long covered halls.
Other fun sites and tips
We found a swimming hole not too far from the Trang An boat tour site.
It was a way to cool off, but when I got out of the water, four small, strange bugs with clear bodies and fine black dots pinched my skin on various spots of my body – including my ass under my bathing suit! I had to pull them off. Tedly had one he pulled off of himself.
They weren’t leeches, and they didn’t leave any marks. Whatever they were (I can’t find them on Google images), locals don’t mind them because they go swimming at that same spot. In fact, kids got into the water before we left.
If you’re not into river water, there are swimming pools around.
The pool at the For You homestay is free for non-guests who buy a drink. But be warned, this is like a hostel-like setting filled with 20-something backpackers who spray on sunblock and then jump into the water.
A cool part of this pool — the owner showed us how it’s filled with cool spring water and he let us enjoy an incoming stream of cold, fresh water on that hellaciously hot day.
The pool at the Liberty Hall Tam Coc Villa has a beautiful, indoor, cold-water pool with a much more grown-up vibe. The property is only a year old and is in pristine shape. We had the pool mostly to ourselves during a brief visit for a few hours one day. Liberty Villa also has a rooftop seating area with great views of fields and hills.
The Liberty Villa pool will cost non-guests, however — $4.35 for use of the facilities. The price includes a can of soda or a can of beer. But we gladly paid that price on the first day of a heatwave.
Bike around, get lost, visit pagodas & cemeteries, have a picnic
There is no shortage of pagodas, villages, cafes, restaurants, scenic spots to discover in the rice fields. And there is no shortage of bicycle and motorbike rentals. As I mentioned earlier, it’s cheap to rent wheels, by western standards.
On our last day, we rode around the area looking for the perfect spot. Tedly loves to find interesting places to picnic. (For example, if you missed our spot in Rome, check out this post here.)
Our perfect spot one day overlooked tourists being paddled by locals down the river (not the official Trang An tour, but from the dock at Tam Coc Village) up against karst formations. Workers cut a rice harvest by hand on one side the the river (barely visible in a picture below), and a breeze blew over a Buddhist cemetery on the other side of the river.
Oh, and a cow could have stole our picnic lunch, if she had wanted to (before the picture below, she walked right next to the motorbike). And that pretty much sums up Ninh Binh.