Exploring Vietnam. Part III – The rainy Cat Ba island and picturesque Ninh Binh


Two wonderful days in Sapa got us impatient to see the rest of Vietnam. After having some discussions of where to head next: Ha Long Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay or Cat Ba island, we favored the last one. It seemed to be more interesting because of jungle trekking options and was easier to reach than Bai Tu Long Bay, which is situated a bit more to the north of Vietnam.

Nevertheless, arriving Cat Ba island from Sapa wasn’t an easy task and took us almost 20 hours… We had a long chain of transport starting in Sapa: Bus – OMG! Shoes!!! – taxi – minibus – train to Hanoi – another train to Hai Phong – bus – ferry – and yet another bus that finally arrived Cat Ba island.

First bad signs: no direct boat to Cat Ba, which forced us to take a bus – ferry – bus option instead

We wanted to spend there 2 or 3 days, staying in a floating house situated close to one of the surrounding islands, doing some jungle trekking or even some kayaking around the islands. As always, we were checking the weather forecast, that promised rain, rain and more rain. What else can you expect going to a subtropical country on a rainy season… By this time we already got used to be wet all the time. If it wasn’t because of the rain, then it was because of the sweat and humidity. But what we didn’t expect was that the port of the island would be closed and all our plans would collapse…

Cat Ba island seemed to be very empty, not even tourist information points were working. After wondering around a bit trying to find any working boat we sat down in a local bar to have some breakfast (though it was already almost lunch time) and think of what to do next. While sitting cozy in a covered terrace we saw yet another tropical rain pouring out like hell. No wonder the port was closed…

A very calm and empty port in Cat Ba island
All boats, big and small, resting until the weather will permit them to sail again

As the weather forecast didn’t promise anything good and locals didn’t have a clue if tomorrow boats would be sailing, we decided not to stay in Cat Ba and better invest that time in other regions. We found a bus going to Ninh Binh 3pm the same afternoon. After getting some advice from the travel agency we set off to visit a Cannon Fort situated on the closest hill of the island. We still had a couple of hours left before the bus and wanted to make the most out of a crappy situation.

We were lucky enough not to get almost any rain during our short hike in the island, but the humidity and clouds covered a bit the views that otherwise would have been spectacular. The Cannon Fort was empty like the rest of the island, thus we saw more domestic (wild?) animals than humans on our way.

Our companions on the hike to the Cannon Fort
They are lucky that they can’t read! 🙂

It felt very good to move our legs a bit after such a long day of traveling, especially knowing that we would have to spend another 5 hours on the bus to reach Ninh Binh. We quickly had a beer in an empty bar on the top of the hill, looked around the Cannon Fort and got back down not to miss the bus. Even though very short, the visit to Cat Ba island wasn’t wasted.

An empty bar with gorgeous views – a perfect spot to have a beer
Islands going as far as your eyes can see
We didn’t know where this path would take us, but had enough time to wander around…
Coming out of the bushy path I got scared for a second seeing a green figure coming out until I realised it was just a sculpture
Exploring Cannon Fort
Peaceful harbor that broke our plans…

We arrived Ninh Binh in almost a private bus around 8 pm the same evening. We booked 3 nights in Green Peace Bungalow on the way and our bus dropped us right next to it. Julia, the owner of the place, greeted us with a big smile and directed us where to have dinner. The bungalow was very nice, had a mosquito net above the bed, air conditioning and a nice big shower. It felt good to have some comfort after a few crazy days!

To be fair, the first night in Ninh Binh didn’t impress us much – the streets were full of restaurants, all very directed towards tourists, everything quite empty due to low season, service was very slow, etc. Maybe being tired didn’t help creating any good impressions either. But in the morning everything changed.

We talked with Julia during the breakfast to get to know the place better and to plan our upcoming 3 days. We decided to rent a bike at least one of the days as most of the places we wanted to visit were a bit further away, but we wanted to start with a walk the first day.

We set off fairly early and started by visiting an old cemetery and Thai Vi temple close by to our staying place. I have a weird attraction to all kinds of cemeteries. The older, the better. This one was really beautiful, surrounded by picturesque mountains, river and… with goats and cows wandering around in the middle of the cemetery, peacefully eating the plants. We walked a bit next to the river that runs one of the popular boat tours in the area before heading towards the temple. It was surprising to see that all the boats were rowed with feet (yes, with feet 😊). I’d never seen this technique before.

Exploring an old cemetery
The goats were exploring (or having breakfast) too
Boats in Tam Coc are rowed with the feet! A nice option for the ones who don’t like big crowds in the river
Laura and the cemeteries… It was just too beautiful to resist!!!
Rice fields on the way to Thai Vi temple
Ninh Binh was full of all types of water lilies that added scenery a lot of charm
Huge Jack fruits tempting to grab one for lunch. If it wasn’t in the temple…
Dragons, dragons and more dragons! Our favorite part of local architecture

After a nice 4,5 km morning walk we decided to rent the bikes the same day. Ninh Binh is quite flat thus it is easy to move around. The traffic was also fairly reasonable, especially if you keep away from the main streets. It felt nice to finally be out in nature by ourselves, no guides required. Ninh Binh was definitely worth visiting. It has a landscape very similar to Ha Long Bay, except that it is on the land. Not high but very steep mountains all over, lots of rivers and rice fields… Beautiful.

We biked to the mountain of 500 steps – Hang Mua. To reach it we used almost all possible shortcuts on our way, crossing the rice fields, which not always meant an easy way. Nor a quick way. Pushing my bike through one of those “shortcuts” I was thinking what Julia would say when we’d get back with her bikes dirty to the top…

Our rented bikes were very simple. They only had one gear, barely functioning brakes but the seat was super comfortable 🙂
Crossing huge fields of rice that are harvested twice a year and are resting at the moment
A shortcut???
Julia will kill us…

Once we reached Hang Mua, we parked our bikes and started a hike towards a steep mountain. The park we crossed was very nice and well maintained, with a small emerald pond, beautiful plants and big swings to enjoy the moment. We didn’t stop much and headed straight to the mountain – 500 steps were waiting for us. Pedro tried to count them but lost it somewhere at 400+. It wasn’t an easy climb, though not too difficult either, but worth every single step. Up on the top the marvelous views made us forget all the suffering immediately. We spent some time enjoying the views and making photos before heading down. Back in the park we drank a well-deserved beer at the emerald pond and jumped back on our bikes. Next stop – Trang An river boat tour.

Emerald pond with the swings was just calling for a stop
A dragon meets you at the bottom of the mountain inviting you for this spectacular hike
Outstanding views from Hang Mua
Could stay there all day watching such a panorama
Thank god going down was easier than climbing up
Got tired climbing up? You can always rest on a chair!
Pedro and the dragons… This dragon up there on the hill was by far the most impressive in our trip.
Still at Hang Mua

On the way to Trang An we started feeling hungry and exactly at the moment we started thinking if it’s time to start looking for a place to eat, a nice restaurant popped out on our road. We seized the moment and stopped by to have lunch with awesome views to the mountains.

A beautiful spot for a lunch break
Yummy fried noodles
A tiny detour on the way to Trang An river
While curious tourists explore local architecture, curious boy explores tourists
Vietnam was full of beautiful flowers everywhere we went, I couldn’t keep myself from taking a photo 🙂

A bit lazy after lunch we continued to Trang An where we took a boat tour on the river. We wanted to go for a longest route, visiting 9 caves on the way, but due to weather conditions and high levels of water most caves were not accessible, so we were forced to take a shorter route. On this route boats were rowed in a more traditional manner – using hands instead of feet 😊. The river resembled a highway full of exactly the same same blue boats shining with orange life vest on every tourist. It wasn’t my favorite attraction in the area because of the way it was exploited for tourists. Yet, all locals were smiling and happy to have a job. Magnificent views quickly carried me away and we enjoyed our two hours tour around the temples and caves. It was interesting to see temples in such outstanding places. At one of them I even commented that I wouldn’t mind staying there! But even more than the temples we were amused by crossing some caves. They were not very long or impressive formations, but the way boats maneuvered in them was definitely outstanding! The water level was high so the boats could barely enter or exit. We even had to lay down flat to cross some parts of it! Caves added nice excitement to our otherwise very calm tour. Fully loaded by impression of the day we headed directly back to our bungalow before it got dark.

Lazy tourists and a hard working Vietnamese woman
This Temple completely enchanted me…
Emerald lake, surrounded by mountains, a small garden for fruits… I could stay here unlimited time
The color of the lake was SO outstanding…
As always, the temple had loads of dragons in the architecture. We could notice that dragons change their typical form depending on the region of Vietnam
So sad to leave this gorgeous place…
High waters of Trang An river

Next day we decided to visit Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam’s first national park established in 1962. We hired a private car to take us there (Julia helped us with all the arrangements). The ride took a bit more than an hour. The photos we’d seen on the web were promising a nice jungle trek with a possibility to see some wildlife. Yet the sky on the way to the park was drawing a different picture. The closer we got to the park, the darker the sky was. The rain started just before we arrived.

We payed an entrance with a guide to facilitate the tour. He showed us around starting with the turtle and monkey conservation program sites. We were walking all soaked under the heavy rain with our Marmot jackets that were not able to resist tropical rain. Meanwhile our guide was again using an umbrella and basically stayed dry. Stupid tourists…

It is hard even to imagine how wet we were on this hike… and our guide was just walking with an umbrella, slippers and pants rolled up to the knees

The park was a bit of a disappointment to us. Not because of the rain or the park itself, but because we didn’t know enough about where we were going. It turned out that we visited most of the park in a car, because to walk from one point to another it was simply too far for a day hike, so either you take a car or a bike (which wasn’t really an option in such a rain). The jungle treks they offer are also a multiple day treks deeper in the jungle. We barely saw some animals as they were all hiding from the rain deep in their cages and then had a couple km walk in the jungle to see a thousand-year tree and a pre-historic cave. I do have to admit that walking those two km in a heavy tropical rain was quite an attraction in itself. There were knee-high rivers appearing instead of the paths and the whole atmosphere gave me chills thinking of how difficult it could be to survive in such conditions in a really wild jungle all alone.

Ok… Can anyone switch that shower off??? Visiting prehistoric cave
A thousand-year tree
Are you sure this is the way? Apart from being deep this rain river also had a fairly strong flow

We finished our tour in just couple of hours and headed back to Ninh Binh. Our driver didn’t speak much English but we asked him through our guide to take us to a local restaurant to have lunch on the way. So he did. To a very local restaurant. This one wasn’t directed to tourists. It barely had 3 or 4 tables and a group of local youngsters sitting in one of them. It didn’t have any information in English nor anyone working there spoke English. We ordered something to eat with the help of Julia (the driver called her and used her as a translator). Sitting on those tiny plastic chairs, all wet up to underwear I was happy to finally have something warm to eat. The rain kept pouring…

A very hot soup at a very local restaurant warmed us up after an extremely wet hike

We were back to Ninh Binh quite early in the afternoon and decided that we’d seen most of what we wanted to see in the area. Time to move on. We tried to arrange the tickets for the night bus directly to Phong Nha, but all places were sold out. Night train to Dong Hoi also had no more soft sleepers left so we grabbed the last available soft seats in the train and went to pack our backpacks. We still had one more night booked in Green Peace Bungalow so Julia, even though surprised and sad we were leaving too early, offered us a free taxi to the train station. When it was time to go, the same driver from the morning tour showed up on our door. Must be a relative of Julia. Dropping us of at the train station he asked us to pay for the ride. A bit confused we payed him and went inside to print our tickets and get some snacks. After more or less 15 minutes the same driver came to us and gave back the money! That was even more confusing!! Right after that we got a message from Julia apologizing for not warning the driver that the ride was paid on her behalf. Probably first time in this whole trip we stopped feeling being “milked cows”. Even though Ninh Binh was also very directed towards tourism it wasn’t so abusive and the local business was trying to fight tourist scamming.

We grabbed some snacks in a tiny shop at the station and prepared ourselves for another sleepless night on the train. We would arrive Dong Hoi early in the morning where the most exciting part of our trip would begin…

Our routes on this part of the trip: (You can click on the pictures for a more detailed information)

Quick hike in Cat Ba island to Cannon Fort:

Cat Ba

A day in Ninh Binh area:

Ninh Binh 1  Ninh Binh 2 Ninh Binh 3   Ninh Binh 4Ninh Binh 5

A visit to Cuc Phuong National Park:

Cuc Phuong 1  Cuc Phuong 2 Cuc Phuong 3

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