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Ninh Binh: Is it worth it?

Updated: Feb 17

Photo By: Sonia Azad
My friend recommended a hotel that looked really cute on Instagram, so I booked it. Logical, right?
Although not warm and sunny at the time of my arrival, I felt that Ninh Binh would be a really badass stop on the Vietnam tour! There are 3 main places I wanted to experience in this town, which is about 2.5 hours south of Hanoi by car. 
I landed at the Hanoi airport, grabbed a Vietnamese coffee and slice of banana cake at a café to use W-Fi and charge my phone. Everything I read online about getting to Ninh Binh from Hanoi would cost at least $96 USD — unless you are willing to take a bus, which didn’t sound appealing to me. I took a chance and ordered a Grab (Vietnam's Uber). Let's see if they'll take me that far. The app quoted me about $50 one way. The driver showed up, but asked me to cancel the ride, switch cars, and his buddy (some younger kid who looked about 20) loaded my bags into the trunk, turned on some Vietnamese R&B and we were on our way. I agreed to give him 1,300,000 VND which is $54. Fine. This is basically door-to-door private car service. 
Think — Houston to Austin. 

He got me there safely. I gave the kid 1,500,000 VND.

The mornings in Ninh Binh were slow— and cold. The heater was turned all the way up in my room and I wore wool socks around the clock to avoid the cold marble floors touching the soles of my feet. 

Something people don’t tell you: hot showers are hard to come by in Vietnam. I guess I’ve gotten lucky to this point. I didn’t know that was a thing… or wasn’t a thing… until now. 
I’m at a pretty amazing resort called The Goat Boutique Hotel and had steamy hot water for like 5 minutes until the party was over and it turned lukewarm. It wasn’t until I talked to two other female travelers who experienced the same at other hotels in this town that I realized, oh, be grateful for all the hot showers that have come before and after this. 

Photo By: Sonia Azad

Despite the cold, after breakfast I ventured out to Trang An for a boat ride. 
It’s touristy but sort of a “must do” in Ninh Binh so — I took a taxi to the ticket counter where I purchased a ticket for route 3 (which rides you through 3 caves and stops at 3 spiritual sites). 
You ride 4 people to a boat. So, walking up to the boat dock, you just hop into a random boat, and they wait until each boat is full. 

I tried to board a boat with three people who I overheard speaking English, but it turned out they were part of a tour group and were doing an abbreviated ride, so I detoured to another boat.

As I climbed in, a staff member ushered two other people on the boat— a young couple also from America. 
The three of us set off. I asked where they live and they said California. I told them I live in Dallas and within 5 minutes of the ride we discovered that Tiffany is the cousin of one of my dear college friends, Phuong! WHAT are the odds I end up in this town, on this day, at this site, on this route and on this boat with my friend’s cousin? 

I’m still mindblown. 

The boat ride was $11 and really stunning scenery. They call Trang An the “Ha Long Bay on land” which totally makes sense. It’s similar topography — you’re just in a small boat rather than a cruise ship. I felt it was a gift to land here since I won’t have time for Ha Long Bay and the rest of the nearby Vietnamese islands on this trip. 

The cooler, moody weather of Ninh Binh made this excursion totally fine because there were so few tourists out and about. 

The three of us finished the tour and I joined Tiffany and her husband for lunch. I ordered a bowl of delicious Vegetarian pho and greasy (less desirable) spring rolls at a restaurant on site. Total: $4.

I thought about going back to the hotel but pivoted to Hoa Lu, which was also sparse (I’m sure this place is nuts in nicer weather). 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
I zigzagged through the small Old Town, where vendors were beginning to set up for their night market. The glow

of collective lanterns around the market and pagodas gave the entire little town a soft shimmer. Perfectly timed for sunset, I walked around and took it all in with my eyes and through a camera lens. It didn't take long to walk the area that I was most interested in. I was still full from lunch and didn't need food. Plus, it was cold. I saw a massage spot and decided it was time to warm up indoors! I chose to get cupping and a 30-minute foot massage. The only kind of cupping I had experienced in America was with glass and fire. This was the first time I'd seen "Mugwort Cupping." I didn't know what it was-- and honestly, didn't really care. I was down for the adventure of something new! Short version: it was less intense than what I'm used to. As it turns out, they used suction cups following an amazing and intense massage. Mugwort cupping is apparently an ancient Chinese technique that uses heat from burning the herb Artemisia vulgarisms (Mugwort) to stimulate the circulation of qi (energy) and blood. 

The treatment felt really nice and the foot massage, although not as powerful and dynamic as what I've experienced in Cambodia or Thailand, was performed with great care by a sweet 15-year-old girl who was desperate to practice English. Mid-way through my foot massage, an English speaking woman in hijab sat down in the chair next to me. I struck up a conversation. It turns out this 35-year-old woman from Oman is a wife and mother. She was on her first solo travel journey. She described how much she needed a break from the rigors of her daily life-- and all I could think about was how so many of my friends and women across America could relate to her. 

Photo By: Sonia Azad
The people at the massage shop were so nice-- bouncing back and forth with me in conversation via translator apps. They helped me to get a taxi and sent me on my way. 

Sleep came fast and hard and I woke up early the next morning ready for adventure but... it was raining. I wandered to the breakfast area and sat down with my daily meal consisting of fried eggs, coffee and thin slices of banana and carrot cake. The combination of emo music that was playing over the speaker and me knowing that this might be my last day in Vietnam brought me to tears right there. I'm so glad no one else was in the dining area at the time. How do you explain that you're crying because you don't want to leave? I sent my dad a series of WhatsApp messages. "I could stay for another month honestly," I wrote to him. "But I will be home next weekend." My heart really wasn't ready to leave Vietnam, so I decided to extend my stay and take the day slowly. 

Before leaving the now busy breakfast room, I struck up a conversation with a girl named Ginni from Hong Kong. She lives in New York now and is taking a sabbatical from her job as a speech therapist. We immediately hit it off. I told her about leaving my career and she talked about the dissatisfaction around America's hustle and grind culture. We exchanged contact info and she asked to take a selfie with me. We wished each other well and promised to stay connected on Instagram.  

Photo By: Sonia Azad
I did some work in my room, and by afternoon the rain cleared! I decided to head to the popular and impressive sites that most Ninh Binh visitors hit: Bich Dong Pagoda and Mua Cave.
Photo By: Sonia Azad
I took a taxi from place to place. The cab driver agreed to wait for me at each spot and drive me around, which was very nice. We agreed that I would just WhatsApp him each time I was ready to move to the next spot. When the weather is nice in Ninh Binh, people usually travel between these sites via rented motorbike or bicycle. It's free to enter Bich Dong and it's a relatively quick, easy and gorgeous stop. The 500+ stair climb up at Mua Cave takes a bit longer. It cost 100.000 VND to get in (about $4) and the hike up wasn't bad (in my opinion). Toward the top, the route allows you to go right or left. I chose to go left first where you could keep hiking, then almost scramble up rocks (difficult when slippery) to the dragon at the top. There was a French-speaking Moroccan man who was kindly helping people up and down the jagged rocks as they tried to snap impressive photos with the dragon at a pretty precarious viewpoint.

Photo By: Sonia Azad
He took some pictures for me-- and then I did the same for him. A few other people must have noticed that my picture taking skills were above average because a line quickly formed and I took pictures for a half dozen people before politely continuing on my way. Next, I hiked up the right side route which was far easier. I saw the same man at the top, and this time he introduced himself as Sam. He took some additional photos for me and we talked on the way back toward the entry point. Sam is a math professor in France and has visited Vietnam (and countless places in the world) many times over! He asked me where I'm from and when I said America, but my family is from Iran- he stopped in his tracks. He told me it's always been a dream of his to visit Iran. As he explained why, and how previous trips there had been canceled, I couldn't help but think, wow, this is quite (another) coincidence... isn't it? What are the odds that I would meet a guy whose dream it is to go to Iran? Before we exchanged contact information and parted ways, I told him that one of my dreams is to soon lead a yoga retreat to... Morocco! Another friendship that was meant to be. 

The day was full and fulfilling-- so after wandering around the Mua Cave area, I messaged my driver that I was ready. I wanted to walk the lush and manicured hotel grounds in daylight before eating dinner, packing and gathering myself for the next morning's departure.

I tried a new dish for dinner-- a specialty of this region: scorched rice. Usually it's eaten with meat, but they prepared it with a tofu stew for me and it was delicious! I drank a very satisfying Vietnamese coffee with coconut and booked my next flights-- to Laos, and back home to Dallas. 

I woke up to my last day in Vietnam feeling ready to go. While I still felt sad to end this part of the trip, today felt right. I packed, took a 5-minute hot shower (iykyk) and went to the breakfast area for the usual coffee, eggs and small cakes. 

I was met at the sliding glass door to the breakfast area by 7-year old Finley, from Canada. A sweet and energetic blonde haired, fair skinned boy who was traveling with his mom from Vancouver. Finley's mom was the first person I talked to at this resort. The night I arrived, they were eating dinner so I asked her some questions about the menu, and she seemed very kind.

At these small boutique hotels, you run into the same travelers over and over again... so Finley had grown accustomed to seeing me since that first night. I would always say hello and talk to him about the day's adventures, so on this day he greeted me with, "I was looking for you!" 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
I told him today would be my last day to see them as I would be leaving in a few hours. The corners of his mouth turned downward as he told me he didn't want me to go, and he wished he could come with me. His mom and I had a good chuckle at that. 

Finley asked if I would sit with them for breakfast, so I did. He insisted on sitting next to me-- and I chatted with him until the moment I left in a taxi toward Hanoi. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad

We ate breakfast, talked about the tiny dogs around the property (which he'd personally named) and we ventured toward a kumquat tree not far from our cluster of bungalows. (Finley peeled and tried one of the tiny citrus fruits and immediately spit it out saying it was way too tart for his taste!) Kumquat trees are typically decorated for Lunar New Year. This one was wild, colorful and beautiful!  
I had a couple of extra miniature candy canes and a lollipop with me that I gave to Finley and he asked to take a picture with me, saying, "Sometimes I take pictures with my friends." Of course I didn't hesitate! He walked me all the way to my taxi and his mom and I exchanged Instagram info -- inviting each other to visit one another's homes in Texas and Canada. 

Despite the weather and all of the zigzagging it took to get to this sweet place, I am so grateful for this magical and memorable stop.
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