Ninh Binh is like Ha Long Bay, but on land rather than in water. It’s a part of Vietnam that is little explored by tourists; the ones who do visit mostly do so on day tours from Hanoi. The countryside felt as though it was waiting for us, hoping, hungry for more of us to come. Ninh Binh itself though, aside from our hotel, felt very unready for tourists: we couldn’t even find restaurants to eat at.
There are many things to see in the countryside of Ninh Binh, but in the end, we didn’t feel like joining a tour. We decided to rent bicycles instead and the owner of our hotel gave us a map and explained where to go for a nice day trip.
We had to bike along the main road (read, highway that goes through the town) in Ninh Binh for a while before the turn off, and I have to say, cycling in Vietnamese traffic is not fun. As soon as we turned onto the road to the countryside though, we left all civilization behind. Apart from us and a construction crew building the road, there was not a soul in sight. We rode and rode, towards the limestone mountains coming straight up out of the ground.
We past a few houses and restaurants serving goat (the region’s specialty), but aside from that, it was just natural beauty. Then we encountered a few temples (called pagodas: in Vietnam that means a temple of sorts inside a cave-like setting), which we stopped to visit. We skipped all of the boat rides along the magically clear rivers, although I’m not really sure why. There were so many boats waiting, so many ladies just waiting for tourists to show up for rides – they looked at us as though we were what the government had promised them would come. We cycled through a few tiny villages and watched as water buffaloes crossed the road to go for a dip in a pond.
Eventually we reached one of the major tourist sights, and it felt like an overdone, Disney-like version of what the temple and area used to be like. As such, we decided to skip it and eat lunch instead. Of course we tried the goat, and it was delicious.
We decided to ride back into town the same way we came instead of doing a loop. The map was a little confusing, so at least this way we would not get lost.
Near the end of the limestone mountains, we past a few homes and factory. They were mining the mountains for stone, slowly destroying them completely until it was as though they were never there. We had seen it too in around Ha Long, and it felt so counterproductive to tourism.
Overall we had a great day riding around Ninh Binh, and we regretted not staying an extra day to explore some more. Our Vietnamese visa was about to expire, and so it was time for us to leave and head for Laos.