Touring Ninh Binh was spectacular! In line with the usual fast-paced daytrip, it was packed with many activities and a mind-blowing amount of detailed information. Scenery in the area is exquisite, so even though it was an exhausting day, I’m glad to have experienced it! Our Vietnamese guide and driver were fantastic. The group included travelers from South Korea, France, Wales, Italy, Finland, China, Japan, and three of us from the US (New York, Texas, and Oregon).
Having immersed myself in Hanoi culture for several weeks now, surrounded by Vietnamese, it was interesting interreacting with people from my and other cultures again. I’m proof that humans can adapt quickly to changes in their environment
It was a good group, but many were focused on taking selfies and chatting about their travel experiences, rather than enjoying the awe-inspiring scenes surrounding us! Although a Korean family – mother, father, young daughter – didn’t speak much English, and I spoke zero Korean, they were my buddies on the tour. I truly enjoyed their company.
The tour lasted over twelve hours, including four hours of driving back and forth from Hanoi. We stopped along the Tam Coc River for a traditional Vietnamese lunch in a secluded bungalow. The area has popular retreats, hostels, and homestays. The three main activities we enjoyed included:
- Tour of the Bai Dinh Pagoda Complex
- Boat ride on bamboo sampans along the Ngo Dong River
- Hiking up Lying Dragon Mountain to Mua Caves Tower
Again, I found photography difficult for many reasons – mainly because we didn’t stand still long enough! A few others in the group offered to take my photo – usually when I was gasping for breath, after climbing in the heat. Not sure what happened during the process, but settings were changed and photos lost. Yet another tale of getting photos of yourself while travelling solo… I have a selfie stick but never mastered using it, and it takes up too much space in my daypack. Photos are fun to look at after the fact, but pictures of myself aren’t the emphasis during travel adventures, so it’s OK.
Ninh Binh is a province in the southern Red River Delta. It’s located in the center of the northern half of Vietnam, about a two-hour drive from Hanoi’s Old Quarter. During the 10th and 11th centuries (968 – 1010), it was called Hoa Lu, the original ancient capital of a Vietnamese Kingdom known as Dai Co Viet. During that period, the Dinh, Le, and Ly, Feudal Dynasties ruled the area. Today, it’s a Vietnam World Heritage site, where cement factories and tourism are the main industries.
Bai Dinh Pagoda
Ninh Binh Province has the largest spiritual complex of Buddhist temples in Vietnam. Bai Dinh was a special experience for me. Its temples cover over two miles of grounds, and the peaceful spiritual ambience is extraordinary. Hiking the complex and climbing seemingly endless stone steps in the heat to reach different temple structures was taxing, but it was well worth the effort!
At the front entrance, Tam Quan Gate, guardian statues on the left and right represent good and evil. There are no monks living in the Bai Dinh complex. It’s professionally managed by the Hanoi Management Board of Relics and Landscapes. You could easily spend a full day or more exploring the complex.
According to our guide, Trung, Buddhism became the official religion of Vietnam in 2003. The different types of Buddhism practiced in Vietnam are somewhat affected by their location in the country. The north is more influenced by Confucianism, and the south by Hinduism and Korean Buddhism.
Confucianism in Vietnam is considered a “social philosophy” rather than a religion. It has no church, clergy, or bible and advocates a “code of social behavior that man ought to live in harmony with society and attain happiness in his individual life”.
Throughout the sprawling complex there are 500 statues of Buddhist monastics (a.k.a. Luohans and Arhats) striving to develop their spiritual practice by studying, meditating, chanting, and praying to achieve inner peace. Almost everything in the complex is symbolic, from Buddhist hand gestures, to statues of serious monastic students wearing shoes and those less serious going barefoot. Continuing along, we saw an amazing 100-ton Buddha surrounded by statues of eight guardian deities.
We visited the temple of the Buddhist mother Quan Am with statues made from 1,000-year-old trees. The Buddha Mother was surrounded by smaller statues of cranes standing on turtles. In Vietnamese Feng Shui, birds represent peace, prosperity, purity, and good fortune, while turtles stand for longevity and stability.
The final stop at Bai Dinh was at a smaller pagoda housing a “great bell and drum,” said to be the largest in Vietnam. The bell is indicative of the sky, while the drum represents the ground.
“Vietnamese Buddhism associates with three major forms of the Mahayana School of Buddhism – Zen, Pure Land, and Vajrayana. One of the most striking features of Vietnamese Buddhism lies in its close relationship with Taoist and Confucian traditions.”
Sampans Ngo Dong River
We enjoyed a two-hour boat trip in bamboo sampans on the Ngo Dong River in Tam Coc. Surrounded by dramatically-shaped limestone karsts, we floated through several majestic water caves – Hang Ca, Hang Hai, and Hang Ba. Tam Coc is often referred to as “Halong Bay on Land“. I visited Halong Bay during a previous trip to Vietnam in 2012, and it’s a remarkable visual phenomenon.
Each sampan was limited to a max of four passengers and a rower. I shared a boat with a couple from Wales. The woman was petrified of going through the caves and worried we might tip the boat – not sure why she didn’t opt out of the adventure. I felt safe, since the river was shallow, and life jackets were required. Her husband clearly enjoyed the sampan ride. At one point, the two of us grabbed paddles and participated in rowing. Many of the Vietnamese rowers are elderly people who were formerly farmers. Rowing tourists most of the day is hard work and wears on their bodies. We saw a few grebes fishing in the river but no other wild life. The imposing karst mountains, luxuriant green vegetation, and reflective river were mesmerizing!
Lying Dragon Mountain and Mua Caves Complex
Our final adventure of the day was climbing 500 steps to the top of Lying Dragon Mountain and visiting Mua Caves (Hang Múa), also known as the “Dancing Cave” and “The Great Wall of Vietnam”. In the extreme heat, it was a difficult climb – at least for me. There were zero handrails, so a walking stick would have been helpful while ascending the steeper, narrow steps. Two thirds of the way up, you can go right or left. Left leads to the highest point and the most breathtaking views. Mua Cave “check-in tower” is to the right. After slipping a few times, I ended my ascent two thirds of the way up but still enjoyed spectacular views. Some in the group opted out of the steep climb.
An interesting sidenote was seeing water lily seeds piled on tarps in the Mua Cave Complex. Popped water lily seeds have become a “hot new superfood snack“. They’re rich in nutrients but sugar and saturated fat free.
Although I wore long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, I discovered itchy bug bites the next morning. Since we were in the full blazing sun all day, I didn’t carry mosquito repellent. Hope I don’t live to regret that, as dengue fever cases have increased substantially in Vietnam since 2021. The mosquitoes bite most of the day – beginning two hours after sunrise and lasting into the night. It was a long but fulfilling tour, and I learned much more about Vietnam!
Vietnamese National Day September 2
Tomorrow is Vietnamese Independence Day, marking Vietnam’s declaration of independence from France in 1945, and the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). It’s a four-day national holiday – September 1 through 4. I’ll be exploring again and attending a concert at Hanoi Opera House and will post, if there’s anything particularly interesting to share.
I depart Hanoi September 5th for Vienna. Vienna is a great centrally located “home base” for exploring Europe. I may stay there for the entire 90-day Schengen visa period and make daytrips via train to surrounding areas and countries – still thinking things out. I’m also considering spending time in Bratislava Slovakia. Cooler European weather will be fantastic! :)