Ninh Binh Day Trip: Hoa Lu Temples, Tam Coc River, and Bich Dong Pagoda

Hanoi day 2, my cousins and I decided to book a tour to Ninh Binh, a province about 2.5 hours away from Hanoi by car.  There are so many tour operators around the Old Quarter that all you really have to do is pick one, or you can also book a tour through your hotel.

1a1Our first stop: the Hoa Lu Temples.  Hoa Lu was the capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries.  We were walking around the grounds and taking in the view, and our tour guide was being strangely silent.  Queen said, “Can you tell us about this place?”  At which point he sheepishly told us that he wasn’t a “real” tour guide at all.  As it turns out, he had just volunteered his services because he wanted to practice his English wish foreign tourists, and he had never even been to Ninh Binh before.

3It wasn’t really our guide’s fault though, because he was expecting a licensed guide to join our group and lead the tour.  But the real guide never showed up.  We have no idea if this was intentional on the tour operator’s part so he could make more money, or if something had happened to the real guide,.  There was nothing we could do about it anyway, so we resolved to just make the most of our time there.

2Hoa Lu is all temples and tombs, but I’m not really into temples and tombs, so I didn’t enjoy this part of the tour that much.  It also wasn’t very well-maintained, and the pay toilets were terribly dirty and smelly.

The surrounding mountains and limestone formations were really beautiful, though!

45After Hoa Lu, our guide took us to a roadside buffet restaurant where all the tour buses and vans were stopping for lunch.  The place was nothing fancy but there were lots of vegetarian options, so I was pretty happy about that.  I had noodles, stirfried morning glory, and really good vegetable spring rolls.

6After lunch, we drove to the Tam Coc river for a boat ride.  It was sooo hot, I could literally feel my skin burning.  I still enjoyed the boat ride in spite of the intense heat, though!

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There were these strange-looking trees all around the river.  They looked like something straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.

8bThis is the woman who rowed our boat.  She was really friendly, and was trying to converse with us, even if she didn’t speak any English.  Most of the rowers at Tam Coc are women, and they all paddle with their feet instead of their hands.

9Tam Coc has lots of caves that the boats can go in and out of, kind of like Palawan’s Underground River.  Here we are about to enter one of the caves.

10It was really cold inside the caves, which was such a relief after the intense heat outside.  Some of the deeper caves are pitch black, and you need to switch on a flashlight to avoid colliding with other boats.  It can be a bit scary, but in a good way!   We saw some bats inside the caves, too.

1112Our last stop was the Bich Dong Pagoda.  It’s really picturesque, like something straight out of a postcard.

15This is the lower pagoda, and you can climb up to the middle pagoda, and then to the upper pagoda to enjoy a great view of the countryside.  But we were all super tired at this point and didn’t want to climb up hundreds of steps anymore!  All we wanted at this point was iced fresh sugarcane juice and lots of it.  SO GOOD after a long day under the sun.

16If you’re traveling to Hanoi,it’s definitely worth it to book a day trip like this one.  If we were doing it all over again, I would skip the Hoa Lu and just stick to the pagoda visit and boat ride around Tam Coc.  Just make sure you get a legitimate tour guide to take you around, so you can fully appreciate the tour.

More of my Hanoi travel posts here.

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