While on honeymoon in Vietnam, we used Hanoi as a home base and took multi-day side trips to break up crowded city hustle. We returned to Hanoi after our trekking trip to Sapa and spent a few more days sampling street foods, checking in on our custom clothing at the silk tailor and exploring the scene. For our next adventure within Vietnam, we headed south for a two-day trip to the Nihn Binh province.
Lying Dragon Mountain
To start our trip, a private driver picked us up at our hotel and drove us a couple of hours to the Red River delta. Our driver had various animal figurines on the dashboard, including a bobble-head tiger, which we came to learn was a good luck charm for braving the wild roads in Vietnam. We arrived at our first stop, the Mua Caves, to climb more than 450 stairs to a cement lying dragon statue that towers above the river delta, perched on a mountaintop. We were accompanied by our guide, who had a silly sense of humor and an infectious giggle, which made for a pleasant hike despite the heat. On our way up, we passed a bride and groom posing for formal wedding pictures - we would run into them again later in the day. As a side note, since moving to Europe, we've noticed the impressive effort that some Asian couples put into obtaining exotic bridal photos, as we bump into couple decked out in flowing white dresses and tuxedos in the most unexpected and hard to reach places.
The views from atop the mountain were totally novel to us. The mountains were resting directly atop completely flat rice paddies and deltas, and we had 360 degree views to the city of Nihn Binh and to the rural countryside. We could just make out the silhouettes of farmers in conical hats tending to the rice fields. On the way back down, we took a bit of time exploring the caves, and then headed to our accommodation, Tam Coc Gardens. To reach this oasis of a resort, our driver had to head down a one-lane road with watery rice fields and deltas on both sides. From inside the vehicle, it felt like we were driving on water.
Once we arrived, we were greeted with cold towels and shown to our bungalow, set within a fruit, vegetable and flower garden. Our spot featured a giant bathroom with soaking tub, glassed-in zen garden and a back deck looking out onto the rice terraces and mountains. We sat down for a delicious multi-course lunch of traditional Vietnamese fare, and headed back out with our driver to explore the Van Long Nature Reserve. We loaded onto a traditional sampan boat to coast through the protected park featuring a river, grasslands, mountains and wildlife like rare birds, butterflies and endangered monkeys.
Our female skipper used wooden oars and a bamboo pole to guide us through the reserve. Compared to the more popular tourist experiences, there were only a few other people visiting the vast area, as many tourists to the area choose the boat rides at Disney-like Trang An. We loved gliding through the water to the sound of silence. Dave willingly took over the bamboo pole role and paddled us through with tall reeds using the boat like a stand-up paddle board. We stayed at the reserve until sunset, and then headed back to our bungalow resort for a relaxing evening and set dinner, prepared using ingredients from the garden.
Check out our Ninh Binh travel edit
The following morning, we rented a motorbike and drove around the countryside on our own. Our hotel concierge told us that there wasn't much to see, but as visitors, all of the activity along the roads was new and unfamiliar to our eyes. Despite the epic sites the day before, on this day we felt like we really got to know the area, as we drove through local villages, getting lost on bumpy streets and country side-roads. We slowed down to study a woman walking down a busy street with a herd of goats. We also saw fully roasted animals - heads included - displayed in roadside food stands. We narrowly avoided colliding with an old man driving what looked like a self-made model T/tractor hybrid through a village (he didn't slow down to avoid us because at his age he clearly did not give a #$%^). We stopped at Trang An, to check out the impressive design of the scenic complex building.
We usually meticulously plan our trips. And it's rare for us to stumble upon a major attraction or temple that we haven't seen at least one picture of. However, we were pleasantly surprised for the payoff when we followed our noses to Bich Dong Pagoda. We entered the gate at the base of a mountain and eagerly weaved our way through a multi-teared temple structure through the cavernous rock.
After motorbiking around the area, we headed back for a delicious lunch, including warm banana cake and our favorite rice rolls and then chilled by the pool for a while (until we were interrupted by some wild loud French kids) before hopping back in the car with our driver and heading to Hanoi for a couple more days. After spending more than a week exploring Vietnam, which gave us a glimpse of the past, we changed gears by flying 6 hours to Tokyo - city of the future.
The adventure continues in Tokyo