Organised tours, early get-ups, and cold weather all rank very low on our list of favorite things about travel, yet somehow they fused into a wonderful day away from the frenetic streets of Hanoi. Joined by a small group of other travelers (five in total), we set off on a dreary January morning to explore Ninh Binh, an otherworldly landscape just two hours east of the Vietnamese capital.
We’re not going to lie, our expectations were low. Having joined the odd organized tour in Morocco, Kenya and Iran – all inevitably involving stops at boring commission-paying shops, and guides a little too eager for a generous tip – we resolved to avoid them as much as possible. But as we are somehow becoming more lazy with every trip we take, the thought of not having to figure out transport options and entry tickets was enough to persuade us to give it another shot.
Surprisingly, it did not disappoint.
Fifty shades of green
Approaching Ninh Binh, the landscape started changing. The factories that were lining the road made way for soaring karst mountains, tattered pagodas, and landscapes in fifty shades of green.
As our car pulled up at our first stop of the day, it became apparent that this tour might just be a bit different from what we were used to. Where were the busloads of other tourists? The touts? And did our tour guide, a witty local lady named Thao, order us our noodles “so we don’t have to pay foreigner prices”?
Turns out, most travelers make a beeline for Ha Long Bay, famous for its Avatar-like landscape and rowdy booze cruises, leaving Ninh Binh inexplicably off the tourist trail. Not that that bothered us, of course.
After a quick breakfast of insanely cheap phở (thank you, Thao), and a Vietnamese cà phê to go, we were given a tour of Hoa Lu, Vietnam’s ancient capital. While listening with only half an ear to what Thao explained about the historic significance of the area – we mostly focused on shooting the temples from their best angle. The tour included a stop at two temples which turned out to be almost exact copies of each other. Our advice; unless you’re really into Chinese-Vietnamese temples, visiting only one will suffice.
Next stop: Tam Coc, also known as ‘Ha Long Bay on land’. Admittedly a little less colorful than what we’ve seen on stock photos, but incredibly beautiful nonetheless. We boarded a sampan (a small boat) and set off on an hour-long tour around towering rock formations, cave rivers, and the actual Skull Island movie set. Its ‘native’ village is now inhabited by actors who do tricks for a small tip, meh.
At lunchtime, we were dropped off at a cozy restaurant for a cooking class. Or, “cooking class”, to be more precise, as the only thing we contributed to the preparation of our meal was the chopping up of a single carrot and a bunch of spring onions to be used for our appetizer; deep-fried spring rolls. The rest of the dishes were prepared in the staff kitchen by those who could, like, actually cook. That worked out in our favor: while restaurants frequented by organized tour groups don’t have the best reputation (in our experience, at least), the food at this spot was plentiful and absolutely terrific.
Lunch was followed by a leisurely bike ride across rice fields to visit the Bich Dong Pagoda. With its dramatic backdrop and crumbling pillars, it’s probably the most Instagrammed spot in the area. However, mere minutes after arriving, the relaxed ride turned into a rushed one as rainclouds started approaching. We had to make it back to the car for our next stop: the Mua caves.
While we did pass a cave on the way, the main reason for visiting this spot isn’t underground – but high above it. Five hundred steps zigzag up the karst to a small pagoda on top. The climb took us some sweat, but the view from the top was -literally- breathtaking and worth the hour up and down (if you ignore the enormous factory towers on the skyline, that is).
Just as the rain started to approach, we concluded our tour. Saying our goodbyes to Thao (who didn’t join us back to Hanoi), we were handed a small gift bag with Vietnamese coffee, a metal drip filter, and a personalized thank you note from the tour organizer. From the dozen of tours we have taken, this was a first.
Full disclosure: this tour was sponsored by GetYourGuide, a booking platform for tours and tickets around the globe. While we can’t, of course, personally vouch for all tours on their platform, we do believe that their selection standards are a fair cut above the rest and that tours involving pushy guides and tourist traps are actively avoided.
Heading to Vietnam? Book the Ninh Binh day tour we joined (highly recommended).