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Ninh Binh Trip from Hanoi

Organized tours, getting up early and cold weather are at the bottom of our List of favorite things to do when traveling, but somehow they blended into a wonderful day away from the hectic streets of Hanoi. With a small group of other travelers (five in total), we left on a dreary January morning to explore Ninh Binh, an otherworldly landscape just two hours east of the Vietnamese capital.

We won’t lie, our expectations were low. After participating in one or another organized tour in Morocco, Kenya and Iran – all of which inevitably involved stops at boring commission shops and guides who were a little too eager for a generous tip – we decided to avoid them as much as possible. But since we somehow get lazier with each trip we make, the idea of not having to find transport options and entrance tickets was enough to convince us to try again.

Surprisingly, it did not disappoint.

Fifty shades of green

When we approached Ninh Binh, the landscape began to change. The factories that lined the road made way for imposing karst mountains, tattered pagodas and landscapes of fifty shades of green.

When our car pulled up on our first stop of the day, it became clear that this tour might be a little different from what we were used to. Where were the buses loaded with other tourists? The Recruiters? And did our guide, a spiritual local named Thao, order us our noodles “so that we don’t have to pay the prices of foreigners”?

It turns out that most travelers head to Ha Long Bay, famous for its avatar-like landscapes and noisy booze cruises, inexplicably leaving Ninh Binh off the beaten track. Of course, this did not bother us.

After a quick breakfast of incredibly inexpensive pH wahnsin (thank you, Thao) and a Vietnamese Cà phê to take away, we had a visit to Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam. While listening to what Thao explained about the historical importance of the region with only half an ear, we mainly focused on photographing 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; If you are not really interested in Sino-Vietnamese temples, just visit one.

Next stop: Tam Coc, also known as “Ha Long Bay on Land”. Admittedly, a little less colorful than what we saw on the archive photos, but still incredibly beautiful. We boarded a Sampan (a small boat) and took a one-hour tour of the imposing rock formations, the cave rivers and the Skull Island film set. His native village is now inhabited by actors who do tricks for a small tip, meh.

At noon, we were dropped off at a cozy restaurant for a cooking class. Or, more precisely, “cooking class”, because the only thing we brought to the preparation of our meal was to shred a single carrot and a bunch of green onions for our starter; fried spring rolls. The rest of the dishes were prepared in the staff kitchen by those who knew how to cook. It worked in our favor: while the Restaurants frequented by organized tourist groups do not have the best reputation (at least according to our experience), the food at this place was abundant and absolutely terrific.

After lunch, a leisurely bike ride through the rice fields followed to visit the Bich Dong Pagoda. With its dramatic backdrop and crumbling columns, it’s probably the most instagrammed place in the area. Yet, just a few minutes after arriving, the relaxed ride turned into a hustle and bustle as the rain clouds approached. We had to go back to the car for our next stop: the Mua Caves.

While we passed a cave along the way, the main reason to visit this place is not underground – but above. Five hundred zigzag steps on the Karst to a small Pagoda at the top. The climb made us sweat a little, but the view from above was – literally – breathtaking and well worth the Hour from top to bottom (if you ignore the huge factory towers on the skyline).

Just as the rain was approaching, we finished our tour. When we said goodbye to Thao (who had not returned to Hanoi with us), we received a small gift bag of Vietnamese coffee, a metal drip filter and a personal thank you note from the tour operator. Out of the dozens of tours we have done, this was a first.

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Full disclosure: This tour was sponsored by GetYourGuide, a worldwide tour and ticket booking platform. Although, of course, we cannot personally guarantee all tours on their platform, we believe that their selection standards are above the rest and that tours with intrusive guides and tourist traps are actively avoided.

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