Cycling Ninh Binh

They said it couldn’t be done, and maybe it can’t for some, but that didn’t stop me seeing the sights of Ninh Binh province by bicycle. No need for the unanimously touted motorbike. Another broken rule was that I stayed in Ninh Binh City rather than closer to the sights in Tam Coc. This may have meant some longer stretches on my awkwardly shaped bicycle but the longest stretch was still under an hour and a half and honestly when over half of that is through mountainous karsts and alongside rice paddies it is really no hardship. Furthermore, the nature of the Karst landscape in Ninh Binh, commonly referred to as Ha Long Bay on land, means that all the roads are almost completely flat with only the occasional minor gradient.

The view from Bich Dong Temple.

Having arrived in Nihn Binh Road City at four in the morning, I wondered around with another guy off the bus until we found a open noodle shop where we drew out eating our bún cha for as long as possible before giving up and sitting in front of a cafe until it opened at six thirty and we could order a much needed coffee. Coffee finished, we parted ways, me to check in to my hostel which had finally opened.

Cycling through the rice paddies.

Determined not to waste the day, I settled my stuff and rented a bicycle from the hostel. The bicycle in question was the most uncomfortable I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. Even after I pulled over at a bicycle rental and asked them to tilt the seat forward, the angles of the bike were all wrong and it felt as if I needed an extra six inches of arm and torso to reach the handlebars comfortably. This left me cycling along in a bizarre hunched over position and I must have looked quite odd with my scarf acting as makeshift sleeves to complete the look. All I can say is that at least by the end of the day my abs felt like they had had as good a workout as my legs.

View from the first peak of the Hang Mua viewpoint.

And it was a good workout indeed. I powered along the main road to Tam Coc, as I drew closer and reach the more minor roads, I began having to swerve around large patches of rice being dried on the road, timing it not to get run over by whatever vehicle was coming in the opposite direction. I breezed through Tam Coc pretty quickly as it is the most touristy spot in Ninh Binh and I had already decided to do the Trang An boat trip instead due to The Tam Coc boat trips having a reputation for scams. Instead I headed straight for Bich Dong Temple.

View of the first peak from the second peak at Hang Mua.

Bich Dong was hidden away in the fold of a karst. While not huge, there was a small flight of steps that lead up the side of the Karst and through a pitch dark cave with a small shrine tucked in the entrance. Continuing up there was a fantastic view of more karsts and rice paddies stretching into the distance. Descending once more into the central courtyard, I exited the temple and walked around to another path the climbed over a ridge in to an idyllic little valley that could have been part of the Shire if Lord of the Rings had rice paddies. For a small fee (I think 10,000đ) a gentleman was showing tourists around a cave but I opted out of that particular adventure, deciding one set of bats was enough for the day. Instead I admired the goats and returned to my bicycle.

DRAGON!!!

From Bich Dong I cycled back through Tam Coc and on to the spectacular Hang Mua viewpoint. Just as wonderful was peddling along the tracks that crisscross through the rice paddies. I knew the general direction I had to head in and which road I would have to join but beyond that I just picked roads at random and meandered between the rice paddies, encountering ducks and water buffalo along the way. At one point I almost went for a swim when I hit a patch of soft mud and swerved dangerously close to the edge of the road. Sadly the rice wasn’t in its most verdant stage of growth, the paddies more brown than green, but the looming karsts made up for this small downside.

Hang Mua view. As I understand it, the Tam Coc boat trip runs along that river.

I paid the entrance fee to get to the Hang Mua viewpoint and began the massive climb. In hindsight tackling that many stairs under the heat of the midday sun probably wasn’t my brightest idea. Halfway up I began to feel the effects of sleep deprivation and a lack of electrolytes take over. When I reached a fork in the road, the two paths leading to different peaks, I took the path less travelled, Robert Frost ringing in my ears. The view was absolutely breathtaking and there was even a lone chair which I scooted as far back from the edge as possible and parked my arse on for the shamefully long period of time it took me to get my breath back.

Pho Bo noodles. Very tasty and definitely something I plan to try cooking back home.

Descending and then starting up the other side, I was delighted to encounter a small kiosk where I could get a can of coke to battle the electrolyte loss. I crammed myself into the scant inches of shade to enjoy my drink and admire the huge number of steps still ahead of me. By the time I set out again, I felt much more like my normal self and the blessedly cool breeze at the top restored me fully. Once again the view was astoundingly beautiful and I was hard pressed to decide which peak I preferred. In the end the second peak won out due to having shade, a breeze and a giant dragon statue of which I took a photo by scrambling up some boulders.

Just cycling through the karsts was an adventure.

I eventually worked up the courage to leave the shade and descend the karst. Not yet ready to return to my hostel, I ponderously cycled through a variety of small back lanes, stopping for some pho bo noodles and scouted out the Trang An boat stop. I had vague thoughts of doing the boat trip that day if it wasn’t too busy but the tour group packs of boats were shipping out in droves so I made a note of the opening time and returned to the hostel, only getting mildly lost when I turned off a road early.

I saw these goats as I was cycling along. When I cycled around the corner I saw the same goats cooked, head and all, and ready to eat on little stalls on the side of the road.

I rose early the next day, determined to beat the crowd to the boat tour. This also meant that I had to gently poke awake one of the hostel staff to let me out of the hostel and get the bicycle out of the garage. It is pretty common for the staff of hostels to sleep randomly scattered through the common areas, often with very little in terms of bedding. In this case the three men who ran the hostel all slept on the floor of the reception. Given that the official breakfast time was only twenty minutes away, I didn’t feel guilty for having to wake one of them up however, it was damned awkward to poke a complete stranger awake.

The Trang An boat trip.

The boat tour was amazing. Being a solo traveller, I was put into a boat with a Vietnamese couple who spent most the trip talking loudly into their phones and at each other. By this point I had realised quiet is not a concept that exists in Vietnam, be it music blaring in restaurants or the musical tones of car horns, so I just tuned them out as we drifted through caves and weaved between karsts. I was amazed by the endurance of the lady rowing us along the two and a half hour route. The only break she had along the way was when we visited a small shrine halfway round. While the couple elected not to make the climb, I powered up and over the ridge to the small shrine, overtaking a tour group on the upward stretch. There wasn’t much to see but I did feel a certain victory when I passed the same tour group, still descending, on my way back.

Where we stopped to visit the temple on the boat trip.

Going through the caves on the boat was a tad nerve wracking as the bright lights made me completely night blind and trying to discern which shadows were stalactites waiting to hit me on the head was far from easy. Despite this, our guide steered us unerringly through the caves. As we reached the final stretch, I realised going early had definitely been the correct decision as a steady stream of boats passed us in the opposite direction. Furthermore, cotton wool cumulus clouds had full crowded out the blue sky and the day had begun to turn a little hazy.

More scenery from the boat trip.

Luckily the weather held off for the day. I hesitate to say I have been incredibly lucky with the weather for fear of jinxing the matter, but that doesn’t change the fact that I do not recall getting caught in the rain since Malaysia. There now I’ve said it, I have no doubt my days shall now be filled with rain. Alas I digress. Returning to topic, I cycled to Bai Đính temple. This took just over an hour thanks to some misinformation about the presence of roads on Maps.me but was well worth the trek.

View from the top of the ridge when I climbed over to the temple on the boat trip.

Bai Đính was absolutely huge and I spent several hours exploring it. The compound contained a lot of largests and longests such at the longest arahat hall and the largest Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva statue. I paid to go up the tower (tallest) since the rest of the temple is free anyway. Taking the lift to the top, I was rewarded with yet more stunning views, a recurring theme on Ninh Binh it seems. Upon entering I was given cotton booties to slip over my shoes. These almost proved to be my downfall as they offered no traction and I ended up sliding halfway down a flight of stairs after losing my footing on the way down. Finally having seen all of Bai Đính (I think – the map was rather unclear) I returned to the hostel.

Bai Đính Temple.

So Ninh Binh and cycling eh? Is it possible? In my opinion yes, it is perfectly possible. Admittedly I didn’t see every site in Ninh Binh but that was more a matter of choice rather than time constraints. Both days I returned to the hostel relatively early. If I had had the inclination, on day one I could have easily fitted in the Tam Coc boat ride or cycled into the bird park instead of looking at the Trang An boat stop and on day two I could have stopped at the Hoa Lu Ancient Capital but wasn’t in the mood for what are apparently very ruiny ruins.

Karsts, Caves and Valleys

Rocking up to the Easy Tiger Hostel just in time for happy hour, I unloaded my kit, grabbed a free beer and booked onto a tour for the next day. Beer finished and having reached a good stopping point in my book, I turned in for the night, determined to catch up on some sleep as rising with the sun (however unwillingly) is only maintainable for so long.

Rising early (at least for a backpacker) just after 0600 I tucked into breakfast and continued reading my book until the start of the tour. None of the times for the tour agreed, ranging for 0815 to 0845 so it was a case of sit in a conspicuous spot in the lobby and hope someone tells you when to get onto a bus. Around 0830 the minibus turned up and we all piled in before whizzing off to the 8 Ladies Cave. Bombing through the towering karsts, I could see why motorbike is the recommended mode of travel around the national park. As it was, I spent a large amount of time with my face smushed against the window, craning my head back in a vain attempt to see the tops of the looming monoliths.

The Martyrs’ Memorial Shrine.

The 8 Ladies Cave and Martyrs’ Memorial lie on Road 20 or Victory Road and are two shrines combined with memorial spots that remember the people who travelled up and down the road during the Vietnam war as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. With half our group draped in royal blue skirts and capes to ensure modesty, we walked up the final stretch of road to look at them. There wasn’t much to see but we did receive an interesting explanation about the use of the road in the war and how eight people had been trapped in the cave by US bombing and eventually died after rescue attempts failed.

Not so itsy bitsy spider.

The next stop was Paradise Cave, one of the biggest dry caves in the world. This cave is probably the location that put the rural Phong Nha on the tourist map. As such it was absolutely teeming with tourists, most notably busloads of Chinese tour groups that appeared only at caves with easy access and nowhere else in Phong Nha. To reach the cave, we had to hike up an horribly large number of steps, using several huge spiders as excuses to stop and take photos while catching our breath. Upon reaching the top we were blessed with a heavenly breeze swirling out of the cave mouth. According to our guide, this is the origin of the Paradise Cave name. Here our guide left us to explore the cave individually. Walking down so many steps after having to climb all the way up was extremely frustrating but the deeper into the cave we descended, the further my complaints drifted from my mind.

Paradise Cave

The cave was absolutely huge and crowded with hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites. We walked along the plank walkway, stopping regularly to take photos and dodging tour groups as they clustered around their microphone wielding guides. The cave was very well lit which allowed for some excellent photos (at least in comparison to most of the cave photos I’ve taken in the past). Having taking so many photos as we walked in one direction, it was easy to relax and merely enjoy the fantastic cavescape on the way up out of the cave.

Paradise Cave

Having descended the stairs, passing a small snake that captured our attention for a good while, we moved on to the Dark Cave for lunch. In all honesty the lunch was something of a disappointment. It had clearly been prepared hours in advance, the sticky rice having become a rather solid block. Furthermore there was more bone, cartilage and fat than actual meat on offer. While not inedible in terms of taste, it was probably one of the worst meals I’ve had in a long time, especially compared to some of the superb local dishes I’ve sampled and I would have rather stopped at a smaller lunch spot with freshly prepared food, even if it would have meant a longer wait.

Back row bunch.

The Dark Cave, while something of a blatant tourist trap, was a huge amount of fun. We started by ziplining down to near the cave entrance before swimming the last stretch. There was some disagreement on whether the water could be classified as cold (it couldn’t) but otherwise we made it to the cave safely. From there we scrambled through the cave, head torches shining, until we made it to the mud bath. Slathered from tip to toe in mud the most reluctant of us had to be practically dragged from the cave, it was just too much fun. This did mean we got a little left behind and there was one fork where we ended up just guessing on the correct direction.

Watching the sun set from Momma D’s.

Making it out of the cave, still rather coated in mud to the amusement of some, we played around on some inflatable kayaks, which proved very hard to steer with only half oars, and rode ziplines into the water before making the most of our lifejackets and just floating around (I told you the water wasn’t cold). A couple of bottles of Vietnamese rum later and we were on our way back to the hostel in time for drinks, pizza and sunset at Momma D’s bar.

The next day saw me getting all the dits for Phong Nha at the Easy Tiger’s 0900 talk on the area. This popular hour long talk is packed with excellent advice and is open to everyone, not just hostel guests. Attending helped me plan out the perfect day trip and what has so far been the best day of my journey.

Tapioca and chillies at Moi Moi’s.

I paired up with a young lady who had been on the tour with me the day prior. We borrowed two bicycles from the hostel and set out towards Bong Lai Valley. At the recommendation of the hostel, we followed the river away from the centre instead of the main road. While this had the added advantage of cycling along a quieter back road rather than dodging cars, busses and lorries, the best part was the view over the tranquil river and the boats that slowly moved up and down it.

Moi Moi’s restaurant.

We saw the Pepperhouse Homestay several minutes before we reached it, its distinctive mustard yellow paintwork standing out against the backdrop of greenery. Home to a lively Australian and his Vietnamese wife, the homestay was a welcome respite from the heat and we both enjoyed a coke while sitting by the pool and chatting to the other guests. While I didn’t hear this story from the man himself and so can’t attest to its truth, David, the owner, goes by the name Multi among many of the locals due to filling in his residence permit application wrong, writing his visa type in the name slot. This led to a residence card for one Mr “Multi Entry Visa” and an amusing anecdote.

Tapioca dumplings stuffed with meat and peanuts.

We departed the Pepperhouse for Moi Moi’s a small homestead come restaurant. At this point we hit a hill so were not surprised when everyone from the Pepperhouse whizzed passed us, perched precariously on the back of their guides’ motorbikes. Dismounting to push our bikes down the gravel hill, we emerged to see an open side dining area, complete with hammocks and a vast tapioca field stretching out behind it. Parking our bikes in the shade of some trees and next to a couple of cows, I could see chillies and a variety of herbs being grown along the field’s edge.

The bamboo pork served at Moi Moi’s.

Originally we had planned to eat bamboo pork and spring rolls on the advice of the Easy Tiger staff but upon seeing some tapioca dumplings being carefully wrapped in banana leaves, we quickly switched to the sticky treats instead of spring rolls. This was not a decision we regretted and we tucked into the dumplings with great gusto. The bamboo pork came with rice and was such a big serving that we shared a single ome between us. Served with a plate of rice, the dish is made by stuffing a large piece of bamboo with pork and vegetables before cooking it over a fire. This results in delightfully juicy pork flavoured with caramelised onions, mushrooms and carrots. We washed all this down with sugary lemon juice. Extremely popular here in Vietnam, the drink is made differently at every restaurant and I have to say that Moi Moi’s version was particularly good.

View on the way to the Wild Boar Eco Farm.

Pleasantly stuffed we continued cycling along to the Wild Boar Eco Farm. Fortunately, before we left Moi Moi’s David had told us to look out for and cross a large metal bridge otherwise I suspect we would have ended up rather lost. With food comas threatening and the sun beating down this stretch of our route felt rather tiring but perseverance won out and we were rewarded with some spectacular views and getting to feed some wild boar and pigs. Conscious of time constraints, we had a sunset to catch, we only stayed at the Eco Farm long enough to appreciate the view and cool down a little.

Wild boar.

The imaginatively named Pub With Cold Beer was our next stop. Until 2005 they didn’t have electricity and it was only much more recently that they got a fridge to chill the beer. The story goes that an Australian had rather cheekily stopped at the house and asked for some food. He was so blown away by the taste, he persuaded them to set up a restaurant and begun sending all his hostel guests their way. The only issue was that the beer was always warm. The initial attempt to bring huge bags of ice back to the pub from Phong Nha were unsuccessful given the minor issue that ice tends to melt. Finally someone asked why they didn’t just get a fridge and it was only at this point that it emerged they had no idea what a fridge was. Since then the beer has been consistently cold and sometimes frozen.

Baby pigs.

The beer was indeed excellently chilled when we went and the recently installed tarpaulin water slide was brilliant fun. My only regret was that I was still too full from Moi Moi’s to try what is widely claimed to be the best peanut sauce in Vietnam if not the world. We also gave the catch, kill and eat a chicken part of the Pub With Cold Beer experience a miss with too little time left in the day and the notorious Duck Stop to visit.

The stunning view at the Boar Farm.

Forget some of the largest and most beautiful caves in the world, when it comes to Phong Nha the Duck Stop is now number one on Trip Advisor. What’s better than being the duck leader, feeding ducks and getting a duck foot massage, not to mention getting to chuck a duck for luck? We were kitted out in conical hats and plastic sandals before entering the duck pen. Almost immediately the ducks ran up out of the pond to greet us. Rattling the tin of food we took it in turns to let the extremely enthusiastic ducks gobble food from our hands before letting them chase us around. Never have I felt more powerful than when my duck minions spread before me awaiting their food. Next was the mildly terrifying but utterly hilarious foot massage. Sitting down we made little bowls of our feet which were filled with feed and promptly attacked. The sensation was extremely ticklish and weird, certainly not something I had ever experienced before.

Duck stop outfits.

The final part of out visit to the Duck Stop was the duck chuck. Done for luck, this is exactly what it sounds like, we each grasped a placid duck and threw them into the air above a large pond. By all accounts the further one’s duck goes the more luck will be forthcoming. Hopefully this is not the case as my duck plopped rather rapidly into the water. Hands and feet rinsed of mud and duck, we leapt back on our bicycles and began a mad dash for the Phong Nha Farmstay, determined to make it in time for the sunset.

The duck minions and their glorious leader.

Just as the sky began to turn pink, we pulled up to the Farmstay and enjoyed the two for one on gin and tonics while watching one of the most spectacular sunsets I have seen in a while. Rice paddies with water buffalo plodding through them stretched into the distance until the mountainous karsts suddenly leapt up on the horizon, reaching to hide the flaming disc of the sun from view. What was even better was that we could leave our bikes at the Farmstay and catch the after sunset shuttle back to the Easy Tiger instead of cycling back in the dark.

Sunset at Phong Nha Farmstay.

My final day in Phong Nha was spent relaxing and planning a little more of my route out. Looking back I think the best thing about Phong Nha was the determination of all the hostel and restaurent owners to support each other and the local businesses. From the locally made pizza Momma D ordered for us to all the recommendations and advice on where to stop in Bong Lai Valley, it was definitely the people as much as the scenery that made Phong Nha so special.

Escaping Bangkok

Escaping Bangkok for the day, I headed up to Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand. I caught the 0820 train up from Hua Lamphong Station, arriving just before 1000. Picking up the requisite tourist map, I hopped across the river on the small shuttle boat and rented a bicycle for the day. I could have rented a motorbike for around an extra 50 to 100 baht but decided I rather liked being attached to all my limbs. That said I probably wan’t much safer on the bicycle, the chain of which slipped every time I started from stationary and whose back brake was questionable to say the least.

The back entrance to Wat Ratchaburana.

Describing how I cycled from one picturesque red brick ruin to another incredibly similar looking ruin is rather boring so I will instead sum up a few key points of my visit.

  • Plan for the early afternoon rain shower by eating lunch as you wait for the downpour to subside. I didn’t and found myself trying to outrun the storm as I sought shelter.
  • The six temple ticket was not worth the cost as I only used it at two of the temples I visited, otherwise it was a separate entrance fee.
  • Wat Phra Si Sanphet had a back entrance with no ticket booth. As some temples were free, I didn’t realise there was a ticket booth at the front until after the fact.
  • The Ayutthaya floating market is actually a tourist attraction with a 200 baht entrance fee and an elephant riding camp right next to it. In my opinion it is not worth the visit even if it is rather scenic since the touristy wares can be found at any normal market without having to pay an entrance fee.
  • Just cycling around the the more minor roads is rather enjoyable so take the time to enjoy oneself.
  • Finally, even the tourist police, can’t read the tourist map with ease, I had three trying to help me orientate myself after getting somewhat turned around.

And now for some more pretty photos:

Wat Phra Mahathat with Wat Ratchaburana sticking up in the background.
Wat Phu Khao Thong and also the moment I realised I was about to be rained on.
Wat Si Sanphet
I’m really not sure which wat this photo belongs to. I think I just snapped the photo as I cycled past.
Wat Ratchaburana again. It was the only wat people could climb up and look inside.
The three stupas at Wat Phra Si Sanphet

Bangkok to Ayutthaya trains: 20 baht each way, 40 baht total.

Bicycle rental: I cannot remember exactly but think it was 120 or 150 baht for the day with a 1000 baht (or passport) deposit

Shuttle boat across river: 5 baht

Temple entrance: Typically between 20 and 50 baht each but some are free.