Ninh Bihn is about 90km south of Hanoi and home to some beautiful landscape. I know that we could have gotten there for less than what we paid but the convenience of being picked up directly at our hotel was just too appealing. By the time we pay for a taxi from our hotel in the Old Quarter Hanoi to the bus station and buy a bus ticket, we would pay around $7 each. Instead we got the tourist bus that would take us to the same place for $10 each.
The bus of course was late. Busses don’t seem to be very punctual here, probably because they try to navigate down narrow city streets with traffic running in both directions. Then they try to do that in record time. Once we were picked up (15-20 minutes late) we spent another 15 minutes picking up the rest of the passengers.
On the bus, the guide starts talking about the tour they’re doing today. I start to wonder if I’m going somewhere I didn’t expect to go. Turns out, we are just going to be dropped off on the way. At the halfway point the bus stops for a restroom break. The guide tells me that Kristi and I are going to get on another bus because Ninh Bihn is out of the way for him. The other bus is leaving immediately. We tell them we need to use the restroom first. We appear to be a hassle for this guy. We head another hour and a bit south and the guide on the new bus tells us they are going to drop us off on the highway and we can get a taxi into town. I sternly tell him “No” and that we paid for this bus because it’s supposed to take us to the city center. They tell us that we have to come with them on the tour and they will drop us off after their first stop. Good thing I’m not in a rush.
They stop at a big temple. The guide says we can join them if we buy a ticket at the gate. We’re still pretty templed out from Thailand so we decide to pass. Instead we use our time to watch the bus drivers gamble. At first I thought they were playing 3 card poker but later realized it was a game more similar to baccarat. I still am not 100% sure what they were playing.
45 minutes to an hour later the group comes back. The bus drives us into Ninh Bihn and drops us off. I ask, “Is this the city center?” He nods and points straight ahead. They didn’t drop us off in the city center. Some directions from a local and stop in a local coffee shop about 1km down the road determined that we still have 1.5km to go to get to our hotel (which is in the city center). All I can think is what assholes the bus guys were.
I’m not even sure what hotel I was at that booked the bus because we booked a hotel online and they were full so they “upgraded” us to a hotel down the street of the same calibre. I remember his card saying they were associated with Sihn Travel which is a major tour company here. It was also the same price as the Sihn travel office that we went into. So right now I’m blaming Sihn Travel for being assholes and overcharging for the bus that drops us off wherever it’s convenient for them.
All this aside, Ninh Bihn is a wonderful place. We made the decision to hire motorcycles with drivers to take us around. We paid 440,000vnd to have these guys for most of the day. They are very friendly guys with decent English. They tell us if we want to stop for pictures to let them know. This is our first time on a motorcycle in Vietnam and it’s terrifying. You weave in and out of traffic similar to Thailand but the major difference is that nobody yields. On a left turn, you don’t wait for traffic to pass, you just drive into it and weave through the oncoming traffic to make the turn. Don’t forget to honk to let everyone know that you don’t give a shit that they’re coming right at you. My motorcycles speedometer didn’t work so I have no idea how fast we were going but it was about pee your pants fast at one point. Kristi said hers read 80km/hour which is fast for the small bikes here.
As we drive through, my driver points out the rock formations and says, “It’s like Halong Bay!” It really is. It looks like Halong Bay but instead of on water, it’s very dry. Just a beautiful drive.
Our first stop is Trang An. Our guide takes us to the front to buy a ticket. Foreigner price is 150,000vnd each. It’s also supposed to be 4 people to a boat so he found another group of 2 to join us. Our drivers then waited for us as we went through Trang An. Most people that visit Nihn Bihn go to see Tam Coc. From what we understand, Trang An is similar but more of a local tourist spot with fewer boats and foreigners.
Trang An is stunningly beautiful. Unfortunately, our boat had a Chatty Cathy on board that seemed to have an opinion on everything. An older gentleman from Australia with his wife(?) from the Philippines. She happened to live in Vietnam for 9 years prior so her Vietnamese is fluent. This of course results in the guy asking her to translate everything being said around us in Vietnamese. People on other boats talking out loud… “What are they saying?” Why does it matter? They aren’t talking to you.
We go through a couple different caves with low ceilings. Our guide doesn’t speak English so if you were about to hit your head and needed to duck, she would yell “helloooo”. I wondered why she didn’t learn the word “duck” but then realized that might not translate to other tourists who are English Second Language. “Hello” gets everyone’s attention.
After the 2nd cave, there’s a 175 stair climb to a viewpoint… except the view up there sucks since it’s been overgrown with trees. I’m glad they don’t chop down the trees… I just wish they would tell you that there’s nothing to see at the top. I’m sure the exercise is good for me but I’m super lazy. And now I’m unimpressed. Stupid trees blocking my view. Someone should chop those down.
Back on the boat we go back in a sightly different direction. Taking a new tunnel through the cave and coming out on the other side of the river. Our “guide” who is rowing the boat is like a 70 year old lady. She hands us ores so we can help paddle. I don’t want to paddle but now I feel obligated. I half ass it.
There is another stop but we decide to continue through. Our guide said it was the same as the other stop. We don’t need to climb stairs to see nothing again. Plus just being out on the water is amazing. On some of the other boats, the rowers have learned to row with their feet. This is obviously entertaining for everyone and they are able to row quickly and efficiently.
The round trip takes about 3 hours and is completely worth it.
Our guides ask us how the tour was and if we are hungry. We are. So we go up the road to a restaurant where I think all the tourist go. We notice a bottle of alcohol going over to our guides table… They invite us to join them so we do. They have a bunch of random dishes, where we just ordered an overpriced bowl of Pho. They start wrapping up meat into spring rolls and feeding it to us. It’s goat and it’s not bad. I’ve only had goat once before in Nicaragua and I can’t remember if I liked it. This was pretty good. None of the food was all that exciting. Depending on the piece of goat I got would result in me pulling cartilage out of my mouth.
All of a sudden shots are being poured. Rice Wine. Our drivers are drinking. They talk about how they can drink 1L each and be okay but after that they get drunk. I size up the bottle… It’s about 500ml. So by their account, we should be good. I decide it would be a bad decision to turn down a shot because for every once I drink, they don’t get that shot. For every shot we do we yell out, “Mod. Hi. Bar. Zo” which translates to “1.2.3. Drink”
8 shots later I’m finished lunch. They seem to like me. They keep telling us that the wine is good for man and that I am a good man. I like how alcohol can unite us all no matter what our nationality or first language. I can drink and hold myself together, I am “good man”. I was surprised that I was only billed for the 2 phos and 2 cokes that we ordered. I thought for sure I was buying rice wine.
Our guides show us a little village across the street that we can walk through. About 1.5km long and there are no tourists here. The walk is great and a good detox for me. There are a handful of villagers and workers building a home stay. Some look confused to see us, others greet us with a friendly “hello” or “xin chow” They seem to look even more confused when we greet them with a “xin chow” first.
Our guides meet us at the end of the village and they seem fine. I’m gonna assume they didn’t drink another bottle of rice wine while we were walking. Back on the bikes we head down all the back streets to find our way to the Mua Cave. We pay a fee of 50,000 each to go in. Nobody goes to Mua Cave for the Cave though. There is a hike to a view point. 450 steps up.
Every time I reached a plateau I expected to be at the top… but I wasn’t. Head down, push up. I have no idea what to expect up here. Unlike our previous viewpoint, this is stunning!
Just an unbelievable panoramic view of Tam Coc and Ninh Bihn.
When we reached the bottom, it was time to head back. Tearing along the uneven dirt roads, I felt the back end kick out a couple times. I was very happy to see pavement until it came to another busy intersection and made another left turn. I don’t know how they avoid accidents here! It’s crazy!
We made it back to our hotel safely though the safety of our methods was super questionable.
Ninh Bihn has more to offer but as we try to stay on budget, we decided we don’t need to see and do everything. They have a National Park with Turtle and Monkey Conservation centers. There’s a few temples and pagodas in the area too.
The main attraction that we skipped on is Tam Coc. Here’s why: It has become so touristy that the boats basically row side by side around the river. There are very pushy sales people selling cheap trinkets at absurd prices. Even some of the boat rowers stash goods on their boat and we’ve heard horror stories of them going from guide to aggressive salesman half way through the ride. We even heard a story where one rower refused to return the customers to the front if they didn’t buy anything. Another person said they bought something small and it wasn’t enough. They wanted more. There’s also scams where people on boats approach you selling beverages and stuff. They ask if you would like to buy a beverage for your rower, if you do, the rower takes it and sells it back to the sale boat for half the price. How true or over exaggerated these stories are is always up for debate but we weren’t willing to spend large portions of our small backpacker budget to find out. According to most people, it’s best to skip the boat and just take your bike or motorcycle for a cruise beside the river.
I’m not saying “don’t go!” but you should be aware of what you might be walking into.
I recommend Ninh Bihn to anyone that has time on their travels. It’s a great time and very worth a day or two. We are taking a night bus south to Dong Hoi next. I look forward to not sleeping on another sleeper bus.