Ninh Binh by no fault of its own, had a lot to make up for. We’d just been on a hideous fifteen hour night train, which even the dawn and the sight of the rice farmers starting work in the silver light could not improve. This journey, to be followed by a five hour bus ride, would have been worth it for all of us to see the one place I’ve been dreaming about for years; Halong Bay. However to step off the train, get almost an hour into the bus ride and then be told that Halong Bay was cancelled due to a typhoon approaching had us all in a bad mood. We were informed that rather than being allowed to sleep (logistics were handled badly, but that’s another story) we would be carted three hours back down south to Ninh Binh – otherwise known as ‘Halong Bay on land’ – and we all resented it already by default.
The dramatic cliffs rising from the calm waters in Halong Bay are formed of limestone, and so are the giant stone protrusions, which grace the eerie river landscape of Ninh Binh. It’s much less visited than Halong Bay but only because it’s less well known; it truly is a beautiful landscape, well worth inclusion on any Vietnam itinerary. The bonus of this was that it was very quiet and much less affected by tourism than Halong Bay is supposed to be.
You can already see the first of the great cliffs carving out the bizarre landscape as you lower down into the small rowing boats, which the Vietnamese mostly row with their feet, and settle onto the peaceful water. You slowly slip your way towards these obscure square mountains dotted in the grey-silver water, with swathes of water lilies, small flocks of white ducks in wooden pens and sometimes a small rice paddy in the flats in between. Water lilies are important in Vietnam because their roots help stop the erosion which is cause by rice farming. The constant hauling of silt to build up the edges of the paddies, and displacement of water for irrigation, causes quite damaging erosion in the countryside and the lilies route themselves and help hold the river beds together. At least, that is what I understood from our guide, I’m not an expert.
It’s hot on the winding waterways too, there is no escape from the beating sun and I start to envy the savvy tourists who purchased an umbrella for shade. As they drift by the limestone cliffs are steep and bare in parts but covered in thick, lush greenery in others. The areas around the bases look so fertile with their almost glowing green covering of trees and crops, a few goats hopping on and off the outcrops, and one rather bemused looking herd of cows picking their way through the lowlands. Apart from one or two small fishing houses we see, this place feels prehistoric, as if I’ve stumbled across the Jurassic Park set. At the base of these ancient giants the water has carved overhangs in lots of places and sometimes even low, jagged caves, which the boats slide on through. What strikes me is the peace; apart from the relatively few tourists chuntering up and down the liquid path, there is not a human soul moving in this great rocky terrain, at least, not a visible one, but they still seem to breathe their own life.
Have you ever been to Halong Bay or Ninh Binh? If you’ve been to Halong, what did I miss, how did it compare?
P.s. Click if you want to read more about my travels in Vietnam.