Having spent almost a week in Hanoi, Mike was getting a bit restless. We were flying out of Hanoi later in the week, so we didn’t want to travel too far away from town. The solution was taking the bus a couple of hours south down to Ninh Binh, an area known for it’s natural beauty.
Trang An boat trip
One of the main attractions of the area is a boat trip down the river. The boats are tiny, with room for no more than five people, and rowed by small Vietnamese women. The scenery is spectacular, with bright green rice fields and towering limestone mountains, but it is the caves that are the coolest part. The lakes and the river are connected by a seemingly endless number of caves going under the mountains. The caves are barely big enough to accommodate the boats. When you get out on the other side you’re on a lake in the middle of the mountains, seemingly with no connection to anywhere else, and when you think you’ve reached the end of the lake you go through another small crack in the mountain, and the whole thing happens again. Truly spectacular.
Endangered Primate Rescue Centre, Cuc Phoung national park
Cuc Phoung national park lies about 1 1/2 hours from Tam Coc by scooter. When we were almost there we ran out of petrol, but luckily there was a petrol pump 10 minutes walk away! The main reason I wanted to visit the park was for the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre. There’s also a centre for turtles – I’ve never seen so many species of turtles in one place.
The primate centre houses 150 individual apes and monkeys (gibbons and langurs mostly) that have been rescued from smugglers or private owners. The goal is to release the animals back into the wild, but the guide said that this is quite difficult, since there’s a lack of safe natural habitats left for them to be released into. It was wonderful to see the animals, many of whom had babies, but it’s also quite sad to see them in cages, knowing that many have to spend years or decades in captivity. The tour of the centre is quite quick, which I think is better for the animals, but I wish we could have stayed longer to watch them.
Bai Dinh temple complex
We’ve visited a fair few temples during our time in Southeast Asia, from temples in jungles and caves, in the big cites, and of course the temples of Angkor. However the modern Bai Dinh temple complex is by far one of my favourites.
The complex was built between 2003 to 2010, and there’s also an ancient temple on the site. It is built on a hillside, there are three main temples, and the further up you get, the bigger and more impressive the temples get, and the more stunning the views. The three temples are fenced in by corridors lined with Buddhas.
We were there quite late in the day, and there were almost no other visitors. This contributed to the peaceful and serene atmosphere of the place, which was also enhanced by the surrounding natural beauty. From the third temple on the hillside we had a view over the whole valley and the lake below, and the surrounding mountains. We also went into the stupa on the side of the complex, and the view was amazing.
The vibe is probably quite different during busy religious holidays, but as the whole complex is so big it’s quite easy to feel like it’s empty. I thought it was a wonderful experience to almost have the whole place to ourselves.