Ninh Binh’s Rice, Rocks & Rivers

If you stay in Hanoi has you yearning for some wide open spaces and superb scenery, this day ride, easily accessible from the capital, takes you through the beguiling landscape surrounding Ninh Binh, often referred to as ‘Halong Bay on the rice paddies’. While Halong Bay has huge rock formations jutting out of the sea, this area has them jutting out of the rice paddies.

Planning

Town maps sufficient for this ride are available at Ninh Binh’s Thuy Anh Mini-Hotel, 871602, 55A Đ (Duong) Truong Han Sieu.

You can do the ride as a day trip, although there are enough attractions in the area to easily occupy a couple of days. The route can be ridden vear-round although the best conditons are between November and March. Set off rela-tively early to beat the tour buses from Hanoi that pull in to Tam Coc mid-morning.

Getting to/from the Ride

Train Ninh Binh is a scheduled stop on Reunification Express services from Hanoi (59,000d soft seat plus 9000d per bike, 21/2-3 hours). Bikes ride in the baggage car and must be checked in at the luggage office adjoining the southern end of Hanoi’s main station building (04-825 3949). It’s wise to show up early to ensure a space for the bike.

Leaving Ninh Binh, arrange tickets the day before departure as the station is required to telephone Hanoi to reserve a bike space in the baggage car. The station, Đ Le Dai Hanh, is centrally located west of the Van River.

Bus Ninh Binh is a stop on Sinh Cafe’s north-south ‘open tour itinerary. Tickets cost US$4 and space permitting – they will carry bikes for US$4. Book ahead and make them aware of the bike. It pulls in at Ninh Binh’s Sinh Cafe.

Regular public buses also make the 93km trip (21/2 hours, hourly services) from Hanoi’s Giap Bat bus station (Ben Xe Giap Bat). The Ninh Binh bus staion is close to main post office, by the roundabout on Đ Le Dai Hanh.

Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh has evolved into a major tourist destination. Its sudden transformation has little to do with Ninh Binh itself, an unremarkable town straddling busy Hwy 1, but rather with its proximity to the unique charms of nearby Tam Coc, Hoa Lu and Cuc Phuong National Park.

Change money at Vietcombank , Đ Tran Phu.

Things to See & Do Occupying a stretch of the Hoang Long River is Kenh Ga floating village (Kenh Ga means ‘Chicken Canal’). Its inhabitants are so adept at life on the water they row their boats around with their feet! Three-hour cruises take in the village, the river scenery beyond and usully stop for excursions to a nearby cave and hot spring. The ride there is 45km return. Cycle north on Hwy 1 for 10km then turn left onto the road signed to Cuc Phuong. In the middle of Me village (20.7km), look for the easy-to-miss dirt road by the post office. The boat ticket office is at the end of the dirt road.

The cathedral in Phat Diem is remarkable for its vast dimensions and unique Sino-Vietnamese architecture. During the French era, this astonishing structure was an important centre of Catholicism in the north but, following the division of the country in 1954 and the mass exodus of Catholics to the south, it was closed. However, along with several dozen churches in the district, it’s now functional again, servicing an estimated congregation of 120,000. Phat Diem is 29km south-east of Ninh Binh – if you don’t feel like riding it’s easy to arrange a lift by motobike in Ninh Binh.

Places to Stay & Eat Deservedly popular, the Thuy Anh Mini-Hotel (871602, 55A Đ Truong Han Sieu) has spotless rooms with private bathroom for US$7 to US$20, many with aircon. The owners are an excellent source of local information. On the opposite side of Hwy 1, the popular Star Hotel (871522, starhotel@hotmail.com, 267 Đ Tran Hung Dao) has rooms from US$5 to US$15.

The large market is the place to stock up on fruit and other snacks. After dark a number of food stalls spring up on Hwy 1 around Đ Le Hong Phong. The Vietnamese dishes and back packer favourites offered at the Thuy Anh Mini-Hotel are hard to beat.

The Ride

Heading south from Ninh Binh’s main post office, there’s a 4km stretch of chaotic Hwy 1 to negotiate; a wide shoulder makes the experience relatively stress-free. Look for the turn-off on the right, marked by a large sign reading ‘to Khu du lich Tam Coc-Bich Dong’.

The quiet sealed road strikes out through vast expanses of jade-green rice paddies and huge, eroded rock formations soon dot the landscape. Your first stop should be Van Lam village (8.1km), a small collection of restaurants and drink stands clustered around a car park. More importantly, it’s the start point for boat trips around north-central Vietnam’s star attraction, Tam Coc (see Side Trip).

At 9.9km, turn left by a large banyan tree, easily distinguished by the concrete pad and a clutch of drink stalls at its base. This narrow road leads through a small village àn into the open countryside, becoming unsealed (14km) but remaining relatively smooth as it travels between the rice paddies, hemmed in by karst cliffs. Veer right at 17.3km (at a square yellow building on the left) then veer left at 18km back onto sealed road. Withh no traffic and only dragonflies and ponds of quacking ducks for company, this is sublime cycling. It almost seems a pity when the souvenir shops and drink stalls of Hoa Lu (20.4km) come into view, although there’s plenty worth seeing here as well.

Hoa Lu was the capital of Vietnam under the Dinh Dynasty (968-80) and the early Le Dynasty (980-1009). The acient citadel, most of which has been destroyed, covered an area of about 3 sq km. The outer ramparts encompassed temples, shrines and the king’s court. The royal family lived in the inner citadel. Yen Ngua mountain provides a scenic backdrop for Hoa Lu’s two remaing temples. The first, Dinh Tien Hoang, was restored in the 17th century and is dedicated to the Dinh Dynasty. The second temple, Dai Hanh (or Dung Van Nga), commemorates the rulers of the early Le Dynasty. To the left of the entrance is a sanctuary dedicated to Confucius, from where there are great views. The ticket office is at the far end of the line of stalls.

The route back to Ninh Binh isn’t as spectacular as the first half of ride although it’s still very scenic in parts. Continue north past the ticket office and veer right onto Rd 491 (21.5km), a relatively quiet, sealed thoroughfare that eventually leads back to Hwy 1 at Cau Huyen (26.1km). Heading south, the final 5.8km stretch along the highway is fast and chaotic.

Side Trip: Tam Coc

Used as an enchanting backdrop in the French film Indochine, Tam Coc means ‘three caves’: Hang Ca, the first is 127m long; Hang Giua is 70m; and Hang Cuoi is just 40m.

Get off the bike and into a rowboat on the Ngo Dong River to properly see Tam Coc. A typical visit to all three caves takes around three hours; tickets are sold by the small booking office by the dock.

If Tam Coc is crowded, nearby Bich Dong (a 3.6km return trip; continue cycling south-west down the road) offers a similar experience with fewer people. It also has a picturesque pagoda consisting of several small temple inside a large cave.

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