My favourite destinations when I travel always tend to be the ones I least expect, and Vietnam was no exception.
As I started to plan to make my way down the country after my visit to Ha Long Bay, I really didn’t like the sound of a 15-hour bus ride to the next place on my list. Phong Nha had been recommended to me by a friend, but I decided that it could wait a few days and instead I would take a much shorter 4-hour bus ride to Ninh Bình.
From my very brief online research, the place looked beautiful, but this is Vietnam - everywhere is beautiful - so that was expected.
Little did I know how much of a treat my lil photography-loving self was in for.
Bear in mind: I was just coming from Ha Long Bay, one of the New 7 Wonders of the world, so I wasn’t expecting much to top it, but Ninh Bình did, in fact, do just that. It had a lot of similarities to Ha Long Bay, except you didn’t have to fork out for a day-long cruise. You got the same incredible views, but with the freedom to explore them all on land at your own pace - a photographer's dream.
When I'm travelling, you'll barely see me without my camera in hand, and if you've spent any sort of time on my little corner of the internet, you'll know I'm a sucker for travel photography. So instead of just walking you through the best things to do in Ninh Bình, I thought I'd add a little twist and turn it into a mini photographer's guide, and where you can get the best photos whilst you're there.
GET ON YER BIKE
Out of all the 18 places I stayed during my 2-month solo trip around Southeast Asia, when it came to just getting on a scooter and exploring, Ninh Bình was a solid 10/10.
Long, flat open roads accompanied by endless breath-taking limestone mountains is the perfect recipe for a photographer who loves riding a scooter. It gets you around quickly and gives you a chance to explore freely til your heart's content, allowing you to take as much time as you like hunting down that perfect shot.
If riding a scooter or motorcycle isn’t for you, then getting yourself on a bicycle will do the trick just as well. I personally preferred the option of minimal exercise purely because of how hot and humid it was.
Plus, I like to think having a scooter featured in my photos makes me look 10 times cooler.
QUOC KHANH BAMBOO HOMESTAY
I think a huge reason why Ninh Bình blew me away so much was the location of the hostel I stayed at. For the equivalent of £5 a night during low season, the photos on the booking.com website seemed too good to be true. But thankfully, the photos I saw online did not deceive me, and I managed to capture some pretty awesome shots myself whilst enjoying a pint on the jetty.
Most people who visit Ninh Bình tend to stay in Tam Coc which is a bit more central. That also means you’re probably around more fellow backpackers as opposed to being a bit deeper in the valley. But trust me, it’s 100% worth it.
The family who ran the hostel were super friendly and helpful. All the hotels by this particular part of the river are run by family and friends, so when it comes to hiring transport and booking excursions, it’s really easy as you have access to each hotel's facilities.
There's nothing like staying up until the early hours of the morning, chatting with fellow travelers about life looking out at this view:
TRANG AN BOAT TOUR
Probably the most popular thing to do in Ninh Bình amongst tourists, but certainly not a thing to be left out of your itinerary.
As incredible as it is to explore the mountains through the windy roads, it’s always a different experience when taking another perspective, this time along the Sông Sào Khê river. Not to mention the beautiful reflections you get in the photos.
For 200,000 dong you’ll be rowed through the stunning isolated mountains for 2 hours and have a chance to explore caves, temples, and even where they filmed ‘Kong: Skull Island’.
I took a boat tour towards the end of the day when the tourist buzz had started to die down, and the sun had started to set. It was such a relaxing way to spend a late afternoon – enjoying the beauties of mother nature and making friends with fellow passengers.
TAM COC & BICH DONG PAGODA
As I mentioned earlier, Tam Coc is a village which tends to attract most of Ninh Bình’s visitors. It’s an area of Ninh Bình that includes the start point for the Tam Coc Boat tour (similar to the Trang An boat tour) and plenty of restaurants and hostels.
A 5-minute scooter drive from Tam Coc will take you to a series of cave temples nestled into the mountainside, known as Bich Dong Pagoda.
The entrance is enough to blow you away, with a gorgeous structure surrounded by water topped with hundreds of lilies - the perfect chance for a 'gram photo. Entry is free, so whilst you’re snapping away at the entrance, you might as well head in and check out the caves.
Heading to the top will take you out to the other side of the mountain with an incredible view over the valley which is also worth a few cheeky snaps.
If you do one thing in Ninh Bình, make sure it’s this. Climbing up 500 steps to the top of Hang Múa Peak is a pretty strenuous task, but boy is it worth every single drop of sweat.
Most people will tend to gather here at the top of the two peaks to watch the sunset, but from what I heard before I went, this is just way too crowded. The top of the mountain isn’t exactly spacious and there’s no sort of barrier stopping you falling to your death – this is Vietnam after all – so I opted for getting there for sunrise instead, which turned out to be a very good move.
The Hang Múa grounds consist of two peaks, a cave and a gorgeous garden to wander around. Going early in the morning during low season meant it was practically empty, but there were still people I could ask to take my photo – which is, of course, all I’m concerned about as a solo traveller.
The entrance fee is 100,000 dong (just over £3 or $4) and there’s parking right by the entrance. (Don’t be fooled by the punters trying to charge you for parking like I was).
I'm longing for the day I can go back to Ninh Bình and explore it even more - this time with new camera lenses and possibly at a different time of year to see the difference in the shades of green and yellow amongst the rice paddies.
Vietnam is such a special place, and it's a privilege to have had the opportunity to prance around this country with a camera for a month.
If you want to be nosey and see some more pics, check out my Instagram.