Needless to say we did not sleep well in our threesome bed seat in the bus from Phong Nha. And despite leaving late, the bus arrived early! Even though the sign for the bus said it dropped off at a particular address in Ninh Bình City, we were dropped off at the Long Hotel in Tam Cốc at 4am.
We had read a lot of negative reviews of buses to Ninh Bình, mostly because instead of actually going to Ninh Bình City they dropped people off in Tam Cốc. Then the hotel they dropped people at would try to sell taxis and rooms at extortionate prices because what else are you going to do at 4am. Since Tam Cốc is where most of the attractions of the area are, being dropped off there is not bad if that is where you intend to be, but if your hotel is in Ninh Bình City 8 miles away, it is pretty annoying. We had therefore intentionally chosen a homestay in Tam Cốc figuring we might get lucky. The Long Hotel which has pretty abysmal reviews also seems to be trying to rehabilitate its image, so they let us stay in the lobby using the WiFi and the bathroom until daylight without trying to sell us a room or a taxi. At 6am, we walked to Anh Huong Tam Cốc Homestay a short walk away. As per usual it was too early to check in.
Since it was early, the host offered that she could clean her father’s room in her house so we could sleep, and then we could move into our own room later. That was a very generous offer but also seemed a bit much. We were not quite ready for that level of hospitality. Since we did not have much time in Ninh Bình Province, we opted instead to rent bicycles and go out for breakfast and some sightseeing.
These bicycles, which we rented for đ40,000 ($1.72) each, were a much more reasonable size. They were still a bit rickety, and the pedals sounded pretty crunchy, but the idea of riding them a long distance was more appealing than the free bicycles we had had previously. The furthest site we were planning to see today was 3.5 miles away.
We had to bike through the town to the other side to get to the coffee shop we had chosen. Tam Cốc is a pretty town with some beautiful scenery. One of the main attractions in town is to take an hour and a half boat ride to some caves, so there were tons of boats waiting for visitors when we passed by.
The coffee shop, Brick, was cute with an even cuter two-year-old inside who brought us the menu and then promptly peed in the middle of the floor! We spent the morning here nursing an affogato and an egg coffee while trying to arrange WWOOFing in South Korea and Japan.
We were starting to realize our time in cheap countries was coming to an end. (We only have South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia left). In South America most of our transportation was buses which cost $20 per person on a bad day, but here we have to fly everywhere and even cheap flights are comparatively expensive. We front-loaded the budget with all the flights so we would not have any big budget surprises, but the result is our average is about $180 right now! That is down from a high of $205, but we still think a couple of weeks of WWOOFing will be critical.
Both WWOOF Korea and WWOOF Japan are way more strict than WWOOF Independents was. They are also way more expensive. We both have to be members before we can contact any hosts and the memberships cost $55 per person! WWOOF Japan makes you agree to the rules every time you log into the website and then emails them to you. Jess now has ten copies of the rules in her inbox. If you violate the rules you may have to pay a penalty and/or have your membership revoked. The rules can change at any time, so the agreement even goes so far as to say if you do not check the rules at a minimum once a week, then you have to cease participation in the program until you check them again. It is all pretty intense, but we still think (hope) the cultural experience will be worth it.
Eric found a pig farm in South Korea that sounded cool, so he reached out to them to see if we could come and work there for a week. Jess found a farm not too far from Tokyo and messaged them. We do not have much time to line something up for Korea, so fingers crossed we get a hit now that we have paid for our memberships! We have a bit more time for Japan, so we are sure we can line something up there, although we may get a few more copies of the rules in the meantime.
At some point we figured out our chosen coffee shop did not serve breakfast, so we would have to go somewhere else for food. Eric found the highly reviewed Banh Mì Hanoi which definitely lived up to its rating. We had really yummy, fresh-tasting banh mìs and a second cup of coffee here to get us through the day.
Then we set off on bicycles. Our first stop was Bích Động Pagoda, around a mile and a half outside of town. On the way we encountered some goats wandering along the sidewalk. The scenery is beautiful and we kept stopping to take pictures of the karst mountains looming over the rice paddies.
Eventually we arrived at Bích Động and parked our bikes in the first parking lot we saw. The parking cost đ10,000 ($0.45) per bike which Jess thought was a bit exorbitant since she had paid half that to park her bike in Huế. It turns out there was parking for half the price a few feet away, but we had chosen the “expensive” close parking. Bích Động is a cluster of three Buddhist cave temples at different levels and is free to enter. We enjoyed hiking up the stairs to each level and exploring the cave temples.
When we got to the top level we saw some big black rocks that seemed to lead up to a mountain peak. A French guy was coming down and said it was hard climbing, but you could see a valley on the other side of the mountain, so we decided to give it a try. It was a hot day and the black rocks were pretty toasty. By the time we got to the top, we were dripping with sweat, and Eric, who was climbing in flip flops, was slipping all over his sandals. Luckily, he stores a pair of socks in his backpack for bus rides, so he put on his socks for the way down. The view from the top was definitely worth the climb.
After coming back down through the caves, we retrieved our bicycles and continued on to Thung Nham Bird Park which was another few miles away. Bicycling through the surrounding area is beautiful. There are karst mountain outcroppings everywhere reflected in rice paddies and ponds. It is very peaceful as there are almost no cars and only a few motorbikes.
The ticket counter for the bird park is about a mile and a half from the parking lot. We stopped to buy our tickets – đ100,000 ($4.30) per person – and then biked up the hill. A guy coming in behind us on a motorbike did not notice the ticket window and had to be flagged down to pay. A guard at the entrance gate near the parking lot checked our tickets and let us into the park.
Although it is a bird park, we hardly saw any birds. For us it was just a nice park with lots of interesting attractions to explore. Bikes are allowed in, so we biked around, stopping when we wanted to see something. We visited the Mermaid Cave which required crouching down very small for the first 100 feet and then we could stand up normally. The cave is lighted with pink and purple lights that give it an eerie ambience and goes all the way through the mountain. We crossed a bridge to some pretty terracing. We walked over an arched bridge to an island that held a 1000-year-old tree. We have subsequently discovered the 1000-year-old tree normally looks way cooler than the tree we saw which appears to have been overtaken by a rather scraggly bush. Eric found a star fruit tree and managed to get a star fruit to fall directly into his hands just by nudging the trunk a bit. We kept saying “this is the last thing we are going to see and then we are going to leave.” Inevitably though, we would find something else that looked cool and say, “ok, after this we are leaving.” We biked to a pond where we saw a lone guy rowing a boat gently through the water. There were lots of birds here, but they were too far away to get a good photo. We walked up some steps to get a wider view over the pond. By this point we were getting hungry and our feet were getting tired, so we found the exit and left.
On the way home we passed Chookies which Jess had seen mentioned in a lot of blogs. Apparently if you come to Tam Cốc , Chookies is the place to eat. It is definitely more expensive than most places we have been eating, possibly by a factor of three, but the food is delicious. Jess had an amazing falafel salad with pumpkin and tons of other vegetables and a passion fruit wheat beer. Eric had a yummy falafel burger and a Jasmine IPA. Chookies specializes in vegetarian and vegan food although they also serve pizzas, and it definitely lives up to its reputation. $18 later we returned to our hostel to check in.
Later that evening we were planning to go out into town for dinner, but the host at the homestay offered her mother could cook for us. She brought us a menu that had a huge amount of variety for very little money, and we decided to stay and eat there. The traditional Vietnamese food we ordered was so good (!) and very convenient.
The next morning we rented a motorbike from our homestay for đ100,000 ($4.30) to go to some of the attractions that are further away. The host had arranged an automatic motorbike for us as she thought that would be easier. (She was right.) She gave us (Eric) a quick tutorial on turning the motorbike on, lights, signals, gas, storage, etc., and we were on our way. She advised us to get gas at a particular spot on the other side of town – a real gas station. There are lots of people in town who sell gasoline out of large water bottles, but they charge tourists more for it, and sometimes it is diluted. We found the gas station and asked for đ60,000 ($2.58) worth of gas which filled up the bike. Then while we were trying to look at the map to figure out where we were going, a helpful guy came over to show Eric how to turn the motorbike on. Thanks!
Finally, we were on our way. Our first destination was Bái Đính Temple which was roughly 18 miles from Tam Cốc. It was a misty morning and the mountains looked really cool poking out of the mist. We wound our way through small towns and open fields. The roads were narrow, but there were almost no other vehicles on the road, so it felt very safe. After a while we got to some larger roads that had a bit more traffic on them, but still nothing like we had seen in the cities. There were even cows and goats in the road!
At one point we came to a construction site which had a barrier up that said “đi chậm”, which Jess had figured out meant “go slowly”. Other than riding the wrong way down the other side, there was no other path. Nothing said the road was closed, so we went through the construction site slowly. Just as we were passing the construction workers who were taking their morning break, one of them waved us on, and then another one said, “hey!! hey!! hey!!” very loudly and gestured that we needed to go around. Eric slowed down even more to see what he wanted before he figured out the guy was joking. After we got through that section, the road actually was closed, meaning there was a barrier blocking us from continuing even though the road on the other side of the barrier was open. The only way to get to the other side of the barrier was to cross a long bridge to the other side of the river and then cross back again on the other side. It seemed a bit silly to go this far out of our way, but the bridge was very pretty in the mist.
We had decided to go to Bái Đính first and then work our way back as it was furthest away. Bái Đính Temple is a complex which includes many pagoda buildings that make it the largest temple in South East Asia. It was built over seven years and was finished in 2010. It is huge and can take many hours to walk around. The temple is free to enter, but you can pay for an electric shuttle to take you to the entrance. The shuttle costs đ30,000 ($1.29) per person each way. You can also walk, but it is pretty far, and given how much you have to walk in the temple, the shuttle is worth it. We walked a total of seven miles on this day despite having a motorbike, and we are pretty sure at least four of those miles were in the Bái Đính Temple!
On the way back, we had planned to stop in Tràng An to do a boat ride to the grottoes. This is a hugely popular activity and looked pretty cool to us, but it takes three hours. It was already after 3pm and we had not eaten lunch yet. We were supposed to be back at the homestay by 7:30pm to catch our night bus and we would want to eat dinner, so our available time was rapidly dwindling. We parked our motorbike thinking there would at least be a place to walk around and somewhere to get food. Unfortunately, after leaving the parking lot, we quickly discovered you had to pay đ200,000 ($8.60) per person to enter the Tràng An site at all, and there were no decent food options. We went back to the parking lot to retrieve our motorbike, paid the đ15,000 (0.65) for parking, and left again.
A few minutes later we came across a restaurant with a nice view of a pond where some people were swimming and decided to eat lunch there. Afterwards we continued on to Hang Múa. Hang Múa has a cave and 500 steps up to a viewpoint over Ninh Bình Province. The viewpoint is the main attraction. It was a little bit difficult to find the way to Hang Múa because we had to zig zag down some narrow roads in the small town, but some locals pointed us in the right direction. We were directed into a motorbike parking area just as we came around the corner. We paid the đ15,000 ($0.65) for parking and started walking towards Hang Múa. There were bicycle and motorbike parking lots the whole length of the road and they got progressively cheaper. We realized we had been caught by the enterprising person who has the first parking lot and snags all the tourists who do not know where Hang Múa is. We probably walked a mile just to and from the parking lot! The entrance fee to Hang Múa is đ100,000 ($4.30) per person and gives you access to the cave, the 500-step climb, and some other attractions around the Eco-Lodge there.
We set off to climb to the top. There were more people here than we had seen anywhere in Tam Cốc, but it was not too crowded. There were a few people taking wedding photos near the top which was pretty surprising. We were hot and dripping with sweat climbing the stairs, and somehow these women were wearing wedding dresses and makeup and they looked great. Crazy!
About half way up we came across a long pole barrier laying over a trash can with a sign in Vietnamese in front that Google Translate showed laid out some rules, including “stay within the red line.” We could not see a red line, but the sign did not say, “do not go here”, so we stepped over the barrier and climbed up to the intermediate peak. There were some workers up there installing a barrier and we realized they actually did not intend for people to come traipsing up there while they were working, so we turned around again.
We continued up to the very top of Hang Múa where we had beautiful views of the surrounding area. We could see for miles, especially now that the mist had cleared! We had a great view of the lotus pond just below with its heart-shaped walkway.
We had heard that it was nice to come up here for sunrise and sunset. Sunset was pretty hard to see because of the direction the sun sets which puts it behind a mountain, but sunrise would be stunning. After the sun went behind the mountain, we started our trek back down. Back at the bottom, we walked along the wooden heart-shaped walkway through the lotus pond where people in boats were splashing the lotus leaves with water. The lotus flowers were very beautiful.
We got back to the homestay in time to have one last home-cooked meal before heading off to our bus. We had asked the host if she could book us a bus directly to Sapa. We had found it pretty difficult to get any reasonable information about buses between Ninh Bình and Sapa. The company through which we organized our next adventure in Sapa had recommended taking a bus to Hanoi and from there a night bus to Sapa, but that bus got in at 3:30am, and since these buses mostly dump you on the side of the road at your destination, we really did not want to do that. The alternative would have involved catching a bus to Hanoi, spending the night in a hostel there and catching a day bus to Sapa, but that would have been more expensive and used up an entire day for travel. Instead, our homestay arranged a direct bus to Sapa and then drove us to the bus station in Ninh Bình City. At đ430,000 ($18.50) per ticket, the bus was pretty expensive, but we figured it was reasonable compared to the two bus and hostel alternative. It turns out the bus was well worth the money! When we were getting on the bus, a person who worked at the bus station told us, “you have to write a very good review for your homestay that booked this bus for you. This is a very nice bus. Very good bus! You will see.” It turns out we were on a brand new luxury bus line that had only started three months ago. The bus bed seats were long enough for Eric to stretch out and had curtains around each bed. With the provided blankets, it was very comfortable.