NINH BINH, VIETNAM with KIDS
Updated: Aug 8
After spending a month in Hanoi, we were looking forward to a more rural, verdant scenery, so we headed south on a 2-hour train ride. At a population of 160,000, Ninh Binh isn't exactly a tiny town, and it has certainly flourished into a major tourist destination since we were last here in 2007. Now, hotels, homestays and tourist restaurants line the main streets with a steady stream of giant tour buses occupying the roads. It is no surprise why. There are some spectacular sights here, making it one of our favorite places in Vietnam.
(Photo above: 2 hr train ride from Hanoi to Ninh Binh)
WHERE TO STAY
We spent one week at a place called Anh Hoang Homestay. 400,000 vnd/ $24 CDN/$18 USD a night with breakfast included. The real charm of this place is the family, who made us feel right at home. Owen got into a routine of waking up before anyone else and going to "Grandpa's" house to play with 5 year old "Noah". Kids got along effortlessly despite the language barrier, fishing with bamboo poles, riding bikes and playing with puppies among other things. In the evenings, we were often offered complimentary, home-made rice wine and got to know the family and other fellow travelers. Rooms were small but clean and new.
By this time in February, the schools had shut down indefinitely, due to covid-19, so there were a lot of kids to play with. Social distancing, and mandatory masks had not yet come into effect at this point, and many tourists, both local and international, still filled the streets.
We stayed another week farther from town, at a place called Hang Mua Homestay, for 380,000 vnd/$22 CDN/$17 USD with breakfast included. The family room was basic, but spacious and clean. Although it was slightly more inconvenient to find places to eat nearby, it was nice to be in a quiet spot surrounded by mountain views and gardens with plenty of space for the kids to run around and explore. The owner was very friendly. He generously insisted on giving Molly and Owen big boxes of cookies, crackers, and fruit on a daily basis.
THINGS TO DO:
For the Tam Coc boat tour, it costs 120,000 vnd/ $7 CAD/$5USD per adult and half price for kids, with 3 and under being free. You also have to pay for a boat ticket, which is an additional 150,000 vnd. It is a lovely 1 hour boat ride passing rice fields amidst lush, karst mountains. It is impressive to watch these rowers in action, who are often elderly. They alternate handling the oars with their arms and feet, expertly maneuvering their way around narrow, low hanging caves.
IF YOU GO:
Take snacks and water. Before they turn back, there is a final cave where a bunch of snack-filled boats eagerly await you. They are, as expected, overpriced and best avoided.
At some point, there will be a boat with a photographer taking your photo, whether or not you want them to. At the end of the ride, they will be waiting for you with a laminated photo and attempt to charge you considerable money. When you walk away, the price instantly drops down to a more reasonable number, and only then, it may almost be worth the purchase.
There are no stops on this tour, but it is only about 1 hr long.
We are pretty sure last time we came here, we just casually walked in without an admission (300,000 vnd/ $17 CAD/ $13 USD for the family now). Now there are horse sculptures, water fountains, flowered arches, dress rental shops, and giant swings for photo-ops, to name a few. If you can ignore all the overdevelopment, the steep, 500 steps up to the top of the mountain are worth the climb for one of the best views in the country. We admit, it was a struggle for the kids, as it induced a fear of heights for one of them, and the crowds didn't help with that. They were more fascinated by a fuzzy caterpillar they found along the way than the stone carved dragon overlooking the countryside at the peak. You just never know what they may or may not find impressive!
BICH DONG PAGODA
It was a pleasant, 2km walk to reach this temple from the main town of Tam Coc. With flat roads that are light on traffic, a lot of people opt to cycle there, though, we found it difficult to find child-sized bikes. Admission is free, but if you come with a bike, you will have to pay for parking.
What makes this ancient temple unique is that it was built on the side of a mountain, with 3 separate pagodas on different levels. The dimly lit caves have some impressive formations and carvings, which kept the kids' interest high. With only about a hundred steps to reach the top pagoda, it was a lot less taxing on little legs than Hang Mua.
Many tourists go to Tam Coc, and skip Trang An since it's similarly another boat tour. However, if we could suggest one over the other, or if you only have time for one outing in Ninh Binh, TRANG AN is the superior choice. Here is why.
It is a longer tour, up to 3 hours, covering a larger area.
There are more caves you paddle through. They are longer and more impressive that Tam Coc.
There are many stops along the way, where you can stretch your legs, explore temples and walk around, which the kids really appreciated.
The scenery is comparable to Tam Coc, but with less rice fields and more untouched, natural surroundings.
Tipping is now discouraged due to many complaints from foreigners of getting scammed in the past. You will even get a short questionnaire that you are required to fill out towards the end of your tour, asking if your boat driver requested a tip. You may feel obliged as they don't make a lot of money and it is physically exhausting work for some of these older folks. It is at your discretion if you feel like tipping, but if you do so, it must be done discreetly prior to disembarking.
You can choose between 3 different tours. We did the 9 caves tour. It cost 740,000 vnd/$42 CAD/ $32 USD for all of us. (same price for any choice)
The caves were all lit up inside, which helps for those of us who are slightly claustrophobic. Cold drips were occasionally felt from the low hanging stalactites as we ducked under them. Like Tam Coc, there are no motorized boats here. The gentle sound of the water lapping against the ores was at times all that you could hear.
While Ninh Binh itself is the local town, Tam Coc is tourist central. On the plus side, this gives you tons of options for places to stay and eat, with english spoken everywhere. The people are very friendly, and it's not uncommon to see kids running out to greet you. We enjoyed lots of lovely, long walks all over town.
If there was one disappointment, it was the food. Most of the time, when we ordered "local dishes" it was often very bland and tasteless. It was very hard to find a place to eat that wasn't geared to tourists. There were plenty of pizzas, hamburgers and french fries on the menus at reasonable prices though. I guess, after having spent some time in Hanoi, we got spoiled with so much delicious Vietnamese food, and we expected more. We did find one new restaurant, called "Palm Garden Original" with outstanding food and service. Portions were huge and prices were very reasonable, with free tea, peanuts, and fruit included.
2 weeks was plenty of time to explore Ninh Binh with kids at an unhurried pace. As much as we enjoyed all the sights and tours, this isn't necessarily a town we would want to stay longer term, as it is just a little too small and tourist focused. However, breathtaking scenery aside, the kids enjoyed just simply playing in nature. Whether it was hiking and climbing on rocks, spotting goats and water buffalos, or learning how to fish with the local kids, Molly and Owen had a blast. Sometimes, all it took was finding that perfect bamboo stick, and off they went on their endless imaginary adventures...