Ninh Binh City is a small city in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam. Most travelers skip this place and go directly to Hao Long Bay. We chose the opposite. Surrounded by rice fields, large karst and rivers running in between them, Nihn Binh is sprawling with greenery.
The main center of town is a few miles from the true grit of the providence. The weather is much cooler than Hanoi which is only three hours drive from here. Instead of hiring a private car for $89.00 (USD), we took a limousine bus for $10.00 each. The bus picked us up from our hotel in Hanoi and dropped us off at our hotel in NInh Binh. We chose to stay in the heart of Tam Coc instead of the town area. The town area is not pretty at all. Yes, the price was higher to stay in Tam Coc but this was money well spent. We were in walking distance to the river and the rice fields were our backyard for the two nights we stayed.
We arrived during rice harvest season and were lucky enough to see the rural area covered in yellow rice before it was picked. Women are in the fields doing the back breaking chore of hand picking the rice and a few farmers used equipment mixed with hard labor. All through the towns people were raking rice to dry it on the cement. Huge parking lots were filled with rice spread out and someone laboriously raking it back and forth. Most of the farmers were women and over the age of 50. All of them were covered from head to toe to avoid contact with the sun. They even wore gloves and a face mask. How they stand the heat, I’ll never understand. The best way to get around is by bike or car. Lucky for us the hotel we stayed at offers complimentary bikes for guest.
The first day we arrived we walked to the river and hired a boat to take us through Tam Coc. This is a river that leads through caves within the karst. The driver used his feet to paddle the boat an entire hour through the river and caves.
Inside the caves is pure darkness and the only light was on the head of the driver. Occasionally he would shine it above us exposing all the bats sleeping during the day. They were the size of mice and up close they were so cute.
Along the way we encountered wild pigs, and cows along the river bank looking curiously at us as we passed by. It’s always a good sign when the animals are at ease in countries. I take into account how animals are treated everywhere I go. The worst place being Indonesia.
Luckily we passed by fisherman retrieving large fish from their homemade traps set out earlier that day. They didn’t speak English but one of them managed to say “tip him, tip him”, meaning our driver.
The entire boat trip cost $8.00 (for two people) and we were informed by the hotel to tip the driver. At the end of the trip he asked for a tip but that didn’t bother us considering our life was in his hands the last hour. We gladly gave him over what was recommended and walked away wondering if that was enough. What is considered a horrible tip in America is over the top here in Vietnam.
The next day we took advantage of the complimentary bikes and rode to Hung Mua Peak. This peak gives a view of the entire region, the Red River Delta on the East and the mountains on the other sides. The bike ride took us through villages and we had a chance to see what local life is like in rural Vietnam.
The roads are flat which made the six mile ride easy. We passed rice fields, schools, shops, cemeteries and pagodas. Local people here seemed really relaxed and we were greeted with smiles from most people we passed. The hotel had warned us of potential rip offs when we arrived to the peak. They told us to ignore anyone asking us to park our bikes before going inside the ticket area. Sure enough we were greeted by a guy in a military uniform telling us we had to park our bikes and could not enter the Hung Mua peak area with them. Around this area I spotted a few chickens without feathers except the wings. At first I thought it was a case of animal cruelty, but it turned out to be a breed of chicken I’d never seen before. There were several running around in different areas. I still can’t find the name of this bird.
Just like the hotel told us we said no and rode on it. After paying $4.00 each admission we received two free parking tickets for our bikes. Before reaching the Hang Mua peak, the area is beautifully landscaped with flowers and statues. After walking through this garden area, we reached the start of a 450 rock staircase leading to the top of the mountain. It looked worst than it was and we got to the top in 15 minutes.
The top of the peak gave us incredible views of the entire city on one side and the river with endless karst on the other. It was spectacular. Rice fields went for miles and miles and it was so peaceful to see all that greenery.
We could see people on the boat tours snaking through the river and even coming out of the karst. Doug and I looked at each other and were so proud that we made it all the way there. Secretly I wasn’t looking forward to the six mile bike ride back but it was well worth the thigh pain.
On the way back we saw a heard of unattended water buffaloes and a few loose goats in the cemetery eating grass and stepping all over the graves. But I guess it makes sense, they were just doing the maintenance yard work and keeping the grass low.
Speaking of goats, goat meat is served on the menu at most places here. Goat (de nui) meat is a local speciality, served with fried rice. There are so many goats roaming around it makes me wonder if they are the ones being served. I’ve seen a couple of women herding them but most of them are roaming freely. Some of them were sleeping in the middle of the road when we rode by on our bikes. I like them because they are harmless but I can’t bring myself to eat one. I just don’t like the words goat meat. I wonder if they taste like lamb because they are very similar in looks.
Now lets talk about food. The food out here in the country was some of the best I’ve had in Vietnam. Granted we ate nightly at Tam Garden Resort hotel but the chef was a local resident who went to school in Saigon. The first amazing dish is Pomelo shrimp salad made with shrimp, pomelo carrots, cilantro and a sweet light vinaigrette.
The hotel grounds host a huge garden the kitchen uses for all of the dishes served. The night we were there, the chef made pandan leaf crepes filled with a chilled thick coconut filling. These were amazing and something I won’t be able to find anywhere as it was the chef’s special that evening.
Last on the food train is Buddha’s hand fruit. Of all the fruit and vegetable markets I’ve been through, seeing this was a first. They were on a small plate at a store in the airport of Hanoi. I didn’t know what it was or the cost and there was no one to ask that could answer in English. I read they are used like a lemon or lime rather than eaten as a fruit. The only difference is they have no pulp or juice inside. The smell, zest and soaking are the most useful ways to use Buddha’s hand fruit.
The end came too soon for this relaxing countryside. The only way out is by private car or pre arranged shuttle. We chose the private car. After being picked up from the hotel in a luxury van with comfortable seats for 8 people we were dropped off at a location to meet the private car and driver taking us to the airport. To our surprise we were packed into a sedan with four other people. Two of the four were children but I was jammed into door sharing the back seat with four with Doug riding in the front. Apparently private car means riding in a private car and not a personal private car.
After being dropped off at the Hanoi airport, our next stop is Hoi An Vietnam.