Ninh Binh; The Hidden Red River Delta
It was the stuffs that dreams are made of; a charming, elusive hamlet on the plains of an agriculturally rich delta dedicated to the cultivation of rice. Ninh Binh, located 80km from the bustling capital city, has an air of similarity to that of Ha Long Bay with the exception of it being on land.
We had only just arrived in Hanoi and yet the pull of Ninh Binh's picturesque beauty became irresistible right from the beginning as we longed to escape the burgeoning city momentarily for a more naturalistic experience that Northern Vietnam has to offer.
Figure 1 The magnificent Hang Mua as seen from the main entrance.
Bearing in mind that we were on a budget, we chose the train to get to our destination and our tickets were bought online to avoid disappointments. Just 2 hours from Ga Ha Noi trains station, the whole journey criss-crosses through some of the most scenic plains in Northern Vietnam. Once at Ninh Binh station, ,we booked a taxi to get around and having done our research beforehand, we haggled the fare to 85,000 Vietnamese Dong according to the standard meter fare. Ninh Binh's attractions can be divided into 4 areas; Trang An, Tam Coc, Van Long, and Cuc Phuong but for this trip we chose to explore the best of Tam Coc.
Figure 2 The Hang Mua signage facing the picturesque karsts and delta.
The Jewel of Tam Coc & Hang Mua Temple
I've heard of its raw, untouched beauty and so when we found ourselves at the entrance situated at the foot of the temple's hill, our eyes scoured in amazement of the sight that unfolded before us.
Figure 3 The beginning of the 500 steps leading to the top of the karsts.
In complete paradox, Hang Mua (Mua Caves) is not the main attraction, but the 500 steps leading to the peak of the hill where the panaroma opens out to Tam Coc's lush green valley, karsts and subtle river take the win. The even spaced steps that soon turned steep and narrow was certainly an endurance test but the reward of its panoramic view is incomparable as the ever serene Quan Yin temple dominates the peak that is outlined by a slithering stoned dragon.
Figure 4 Literally heaven on earth with its lush green valley flanked by karsts.
Figure 5 The conspicuous Quan Yin temple at the very top of the karst.
Figure 6 The view of Tam Coc valley from the peak.
"There are things that words can't begin to describe, a raw, unrefined beauty left as it is to thrive without any hindrance.The pounding heart soon abated and then there was complete silence. We offered a prayer to Quan Yin and looked around us. She sits in peace surrounded by such tranquility; the towering green mountainous karsts flanking the still Tam Coc river whose silence was only broken by the rowing boats, forming an enchanting valley".
For a half-day budget trip, we opted to walk back to the train station whilst taking in the scenic countryside. The valley of Tam Coc is known for its lush green paddy fields, limestone karsts and meandering rivers that emulates the beauty of Ha Long Bay. We wandered through open paddy fields and observed the day to day living of its inhabitants; a goat herder rounding up her live stocks, a man fishing on a rickety boat and children on bicycles playing under the blazing sun.
Figure 8 A goat herder as seen at one of the many paddy fields in Tam Coc.
Figure 9 Ninh Binh's livestocks found amongst a shrub of daisies
Figure 11 Day to day living of the local villagers at Ninh Binh.
In all there was an air of simplicity around the village. It was quiet, untouched and represented the true Vietnamese spirit. Walking through the 9km trail back to where our journey began brought us to a path so off beaten that we had almost forgotten what it was like when a local group of people can actually greet a lone foreigner with absolute humility and kindness. Although it began to pour, we still trekked across quaint villages, paddy fields, rivers and remote bridges without any angst, knowing that each step of the journey is invaluable to our experience.
Figure 12 Vietnamese architecture at Ninh Binh
At 3pm, it was time to catch the train back to Hanoi. Half drenched, we sat down at a local coffee shop, watching the rain ebb. The owner, an elderly German gentleman, sat down in complete silence looking out in awe at the dwindling downpour. We began to realize that the pull of the simple life, coupled with the magnificent panorama and habitual humbleness of its people makes Ninh Binh all the more bewitching. I took one final glance at this hidden jewel before it dissipated into a timeless experience.