The city of Ninh Binh itself did not thrill us, but the activities and sights of the surrounding area made our jaws drop and our smiles strech wide across our freckled faces, earning it a high place in our favorite Vietnamese destinations.
As usual we decided to make our own tour with rented bicycles instead of paying a moto driver and guide. We cycled through the heat (only asking directions once and making frequent map checking stops) to Tam Cuc, usually packed with tourists but due to the light rain was only speckled with them. We parked our bikes and bought tickets for a boat ride down the Ngo Dong River that winded through breathtaking scenery, tall jagged limestone mountains, and rice paddies. The boat was a small metal dingy that fit two passengers and was operated by a local who often used his feet to move the two wooden paddles that glided us along the water.
Along the river we passed through small caves that were cool and dark, our driver navigating around the larger stalactites that hung from the ceiling (as well as avoiding other boats). At the end of the tour we were greeted by an assortment of vendors on dingies, we chuckled that there was no escape to the desperate sales of vendors, even here in seemingly the middle of nowhere.
On the way back from Tam Cuc we visited a pagoda atop a very tall mountain, obtainable only by a long, long staircase. The view was epic, we could see the river below that only an hour before we had floated down! It was worth the exhausting stairmaster workout.
The next day was Alistair’s birthday, and what better way to celebrate the day then by hopping on our first moto ride and heading to the beautiful and lush Cuc Phuong National Park. An hours ride from our guesthouse through valleys of pineapple fields brought us to the entrance of the park where we visited the Endangered Primate Rescue Center. There was an assortment of different local primate species, mostly Langers and Gibbons, that were all rescued from the black market or confiscated at the border (on their way to China to be used in medicines and ointments). They had a very impressive three step program for these primates; first step is to regain their health and boost population numbers, the second step is to accustom them to a large semi-wild enclosure, and the third step is to release them back into the wild. Some species were at a shockingly low population of only 65 left in the world, so I was touched by their efforts.
We also stopped at the turtle conservation center before going for our jungle hike, like the monkeys the turtles were also all rescues from the black market.
After a 20 minute moto ride through the winding lush roads of the park, we were dropped off to begin our 2 hour hike through the park. The trail was gorgeous and covered in mosses, ferns, vines, and endless uneven stairs that left my legs shakey. Halfway through the hike we spotted a small sign that lead off the main path to “palace cave”. We donned our head lamps and poked our heads inside, enchanted to find that this dark and damp bat filled cave went around 100 meters inwards. The cave actually went further than we explored, but we decided against squeezing through the small hole to go deeper.
Back to the hiking trail we continued along to the main attraction, a 1,000 year old tree. The tree was very large, but we both agreed that the cave exploring was by far the best part of the hike. We made our way back to our moto drivers; hot, sweaty, and personally slowing down as the stairs seemed to only be going up. I was glad to give my legs a break when we reached the end of the trail and hopped on the back of our motos to the next destination, a cave of prehistoric man.
This cave was larger than the previous one, and included a staircase and high ceilings. As we left the cave a group of tourist from a bus tour started to enter, screaming and laughing and furthering our preference to the previous cave that seemed private and eerie.
We returned to the city that bored us, but were feeling great after two days of amazing experiences in the area. Our next stop would be another breathtaking adventure, an overnight stay on a boat in world famous Halong Bay!