Ninh Bình is located a day’s drive south of Hanoi. The nearby area of Tam Cốc is known for its stunning karst landscape. However, unlike the Đồng Văn Karst Plateau and Halong Bay, the limestone crags here rise out of rivers. Rice is planted on the shallow edges of the river, and snowy egrets stalk the fields in search of food.
Jake and I took a boat cruise through Tam Cốc. We marveled at our guide’s adept use of only her feet to row the small boat. The boat wound its way between towering rocks and then slipped through underground caves. At the halfway point, we made a U-turn and revisited the landscape we’d just passed through. Despite the repetition, I wasn’t bored; things looked different from the other direction, as the easily rocked boat prevented rapid head swiveling while trying to take everything in.
After a late lunch of phở, we motorbiked through flooded rice paddies to get to Bích Động Pagoda. This temple structures is built into the mountainside, and stone steps snake their way between levels. Climbing to the top took us in and out of dark caves, some with large structures and others with small altars.
While exploring the complex, we noticed a narrow set of steps leading up and over the crest between two hills. After leaving Bích Động Pagoda, we climbed these steps and were surprised by a goat perched on a narrow ledge above us, calmly munching the foliage. We made our way down the other side and into a small picturesque valley (complete with a fish pond and rice fields) nestled amongst rocky crags. We went to follow the path skirting the pond, but Jake was attacked by a territorial rooster. He was able to fend the entitled bird off (using kicks and making threatening lunges), and the rooster decided that he maybe wasn’t the scariest thing around. However, the message didn’t stick; the rooster, complete with loud crowing and aggressive pecking, was there again after we turned back.
On our way back to the hotel, we attempted to photograph egrets in the rice fields. However, we were ultimately unsuccessful; the squeaky rear brake frightened all the birds off. By the time we were able to dismount the bike and get our cameras pointed in the right direction, the egrets had all taken flight and headed to the next rice field over. We repeated this process multiple times, but ultimately gave up once the birds had moved too far from the road.
Near our hotel in Ninh Bình, we had difficulty finding any restaurants serving cơm chay, a Ninh Bình specialty. Instead, we feasted on bún cá (noodles with fish, similar to bún riêu) the first night, and on the second night, a selection of fish cake, fried spring rolls, dark-colored sausage, and noodles compressed into flat cakes. After dinner on both nights, we treated ourselves to chè; as a result, I was so full of tasty food that Jake needed to roll me back to the hotel.
We booked beds on a sleeper train from Ninh Bình to Đông Hà and were able to find some crispy cơm chay next to the train station. We dropped our bike off to be crated and put on a 4pm train, and then parked ourselves in a coffee shop for several hours. We had a lot of time to kill, since the hard sleeper beds we’d booked were on a train that left just after midnight. Our chosen coffee shop was decorated with several lovingly displayed motorcycles and a large selection of framed motorbike pictures. And we didn’t feel too bad about staying there all afternoon, because we also ate dinner there before heading to the train station. Back at the train station, we still had several more long hours to kill before our train arrived.