36 Hours in Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh is an incredibly special place. I thought the landscape was so unique and beautiful that I already have plans to go back. I had made some pretty lofty goals of biking around everywhere but it was a lot hotter than I expected (it would have been hot already but there was actually a heatwave while we were there) and so we couldn't really do as much as I wanted. In the end, I ended up enjoying the pace of our time there so I can't really complain.
It was just a two-hour train ride from Hanoi but it felt like a completely different country. The air was fresh, the terrain was gorgeous, and though we got harassed by a couple of taxi drivers the second we stepped off the train, we were immediately rescued by a legitimate taxi driver (one that worked for Mai Linh taxi; look for the green and yellow cabs) and whisked off to our hotel.

We were up at the crack of dawn to hop on the train. It was just as muggy and hot at 4:30AM as it was during the day, if you can believe it.
The train was pretty full and bustling with people. I had booked through Baolau knowing that I wanted the early train and because I was apprehensive about the language barrier. The ride down was ₫143,000 each ($6 USD), the ride up was ₫116,000 ($5 USD), there was a service fee of ₫40,000 ($1.70 USD) for each leg and then one final processing fee of ₫26,000 ($1.10 USD). The service fees and processing fees were for the transaction and not per person.

After purchasing through the website, I was issued a ticket via email that I had to print out and bring along with us. We looked at the schedule board to find out what track we needed to be on, had a little trouble finding it and had to ask for assistance, and then made it to our train with a few minutes to spare. There was a laser scanner that unlocked a turnstile for us at the Hanoi station.
We had assigned seats and at first, we didn't know how to figure out the numbering system; it turned out the numbers were on the backs of the chairs.
The scenery on the way down was really lovely. We saw loads of duck farms and temples and farms and rice paddies and it made the ride fun.
There are loads of hotels and hostels in the area but I chose this particular place because it looked so pretty and it was brand new. We paid ₫2,197,125 ($95 USD) for the night... although, now that I think about it, since I paid with credit card, they charged us an additional 10% on everything. There are loads of places that are much cheaper and a handful of places that are much pricier; it's really all about what you're looking for in the hotel. While I was looking for places to stay, I found a bunch of really cheap places, including a tree house hotel, but none of them had air-con and looked like mosquito magnets.
We were allowed to check into our room early (we'd arrived at 8AM) which was great. It had blasting air conditioning which was great after sitting in the sweltering open air lobby for 15 minutes.
We dropped off our things and immediately hopped on some bikes in search of bottled water and to get to know the area a bit.
We were misinformed by our hotel about being allowed to bike around the temples. It's free to enter but it's a massive property and most people choose to pay the electric trolley to give them a shortcut. I wasn't super excited about this place and it was way too hot to walk around so we opted to just bike around some more instead.
We were sweating too much and it was too uncomfortable to keep riding while the sun was so hot so we went back to the hotel to have some pool time and eat lunch.
Because it was so hot, I didn't have much of an appetite so we just picked a handful of easy-to-eat foods off the menu. We ended up getting crispy sticky rice, spring rolls, and a goat stir fry with lemongrass and chili. The crispy sticky rice had a great texture; the inside was gooey and chewy while the outside was light and lived up to its name with a crispy crunch. The spring rolls were made with this super thin wrapper that was almost dry but it was so good. I've been trying to figure out what it's called and if I can buy it in the States but I think it might be a lost cause. It was filled with carrot, cucumber, pineapple, and omelet and it was fantastic.
The goat was a bit tough and chewy but the preparation and seasoning were fragrant and yummy.
After lunch, we hopped in a cab and headed to do a hike at Hang Mua.
It was boiling hot so we prepped by bringing a few huge bottles of water which were essential. It was a pretty strenuous hike and we were sweating balls. The actual temperatures was something like 95F but according to my weather app, it felt like 110F.
There are two peaks, each with a pagoda. One of them was higher and had a dragon and was the more crowded of the two. It seemed like because it was so hot, people were opting to just do the higher one and then leave. We really got our workout that day because we did both.
Looking out across the vast landscape at the amber rice paddies and towering karst formations was an amazing reward for the climb.
We contemplated going to a second destination but because the sun was starting to come down and it wasn't as hot, we decided to head back to the hotel and hop on the bikes.
We explored the area around our hotel and we ended up discovering a bunch of unnamed pagodas and we had the best time.
The combination of golden hour, pagodas, and landscape made for the most striking scenery ever and I had such a hard time trying to decide which photos to share.
We stumbled upon two little groups of cows. This first one was so docile and just munching down on dinner. The second one we happened upon wasn't quite as gentle and while M was trying to get some close up photos of the baby cow, its mother started to snort and get upset. She had to run away and put the bike in between them, which left me in hysterics.
Before it even got dark, we saw storm clouds rolling in and heard thunder in the distance so we headed back to our hotel. Almost immediately after we got to our room, the rain really started coming down so we decided to get some room service for dinner. We loved the spring rolls at lunch so much we got two orders for dinner along with some chicken wings and rice. We asked for hot sauce and one of the girls working the front desk suggested we get seasoned salt with chili and lime. They just gave us a little dish with the salt and sliced red Thai chilis and instructed us to squeeze the limes over the salt. It was so simple but made for an awesome dipping sauce.

The wings were so crispy and satisfying and we went to sleep happy that night.
In the morning, we got our free breakfast at the hotel, which included loads of fruit, meats and cheeses, pastries, vermicelli; there was a really good variety of food to choose from.
There are a couple of options for river tours in Ninh Binh but it seemed like Trang An had the best reviews so that's the one we wanted to do.

Each boat holds four passengers so we were told to wait for another group of 2 to join us. Luckily for us, we watched a humongous tour group come through for about five minutes straight so immediately afterwards, the men handling the queue apologized for the wait and directed us to board the boat. It was kind of eye-rolling to me that the boats are run by the women and the "easy" jobs are performed by the men, but that's just how it is, right? Women area always working so hard to support their families and men are just trash, no matter where in the world you go.
We opted for Route 1, which was the one recommended for those who are interested in geology because it goes through the most caves. Route 2 was the one recommend for those who like a balance of temples and caves and Route 3 was for King Kong fans, as it went past one of the filming locations for the recent movie.
No motorized boats are allowed here so everyone maneuvers themselves around with oars. We helped out by rowing the entire time.
I highly recommend bringing a few bottles of water and a snack because it's so hot and the ride can be up to three hours. Also bring hats and scarfs and umbrellas and anything else to shield yourself from the sun.
Some of the caves required us to duck down pretty low. Our boat operator was so sweet and even though we couldn't communicate with her, body language got us a long way. Actually, I have to give a shout out to the Google Translate app because the voice translator came in so handy.
We finished our ride a bit earlier (maybe a half an hour) because we skipped the first temple and because we were helping with the rowing almost the entire time. I wanted to skip the first temple because it was crowded and I also thought it would give us a head start on the route and get us on the river with no one else there, which totally worked. That's why none of my photos have any other boats in it except for the boats of the locals doing business. The photos below were taken when we were just a few minutes from pulling back into the port.
I don't know how this bride wasn't sweating balls in her dress.
After our boat trip, we grabbed a cab back to the hotel to get some lunch. We considered getting food near Trang An but because everything was so touristy, expensive, and didn't have great reviews, we didn't want to waste time there.
We ended up getting stir fried morning glory, crispy sticky rice, and the "crispy af" chicken wings.
For dessert, they cut up a dragonfruit for us. The fruit was actually from our room; we'd been given a little welcome basket of fruit and hadn't had a chance to eat this yet.
After lunch, we packed our bags and left them at the front desk for safekeeping and then hung out at the pool before it was time for our spa appointment

Since we couldn't get a late checkout and we knew we'd be too sweaty for comfort to hop on a flight later that night, we decided to book in for a spa treatment before we had to leave to catch our train. The cost for each of us was ₫413,000 ($18 USD) including a 15% discount for being guests of the hotel, which is insanely cheap compared to typical US spa costs.

We ended up booking a lemon honey scrub and got to use these cute little tubs. The spa ladies painted the homemade scrub, which was just honey and lemon juice, all over our bodies, then wrapped us in towels and let us sit and "steep" for twenty minutes. Then, we rinsed off in nice, cool water in the tubs. The scrub really did make our skin lovely and soft. I thought we were going to have a chance to also wash our hair but alas, they were kind of in a rush to get us out of the spa because there was a production crew making a promotional video for the hotel that needed to get in there and shoot some footage.
After our time in the spa, we took a cab to the train station and headed back to Hanoi. When we got back to Hanoi, we were walking to get some banh mi to have as an airport snack and I randomly fell in the street and sprained my ankle and skinned my knee. It was my first semi-severe injury abroad and thank goodness it wasn't debilitating. We managed to make it to the airport in one piece (with our sandwiches) and got on our red-eye to Korea.
Here's my video diary: