By Mary Carol Fitzgerald
We feverishly hopped off the boat in Halong Bay navigating through the sea of sightseers. Thankfully the nearest internet café was nearby. Being known for ‘going with the flow’, my only concern was that accommodation for our next destination, in rural Vietnam, was unknown.
With WiFi being prevalent in most places, surprisingly the access we were promised on our boat, did not exist. Daunting a task it may have seemed, we heeded to the beckoning call from the Universe, surrendered our attachments, and went off the grid for an entire 36 hours. Can you imagine?
My angst dissipated as I managed to read the smeared copied pages of a knock-off Lonely Planet guide. When I purchased it at a crowded rest stop along the way, little did I know it would seemingly disintegrate every time I turned a page. Nonetheless it saved us. Within five minutes of arriving at the café, we had a confirmed reservation and an address to give our driver.
Booked by our hotel concierge in Hanoi, a private taxi took us to Ninh Binh directly from Halong Bay. Choosing to travel by car was well worth it for me. I was able to stretch out comfortably and use the few hours to load photos and work on my laptop. Rumor had it that the bus option was cramped, bumpy and overly long.
Boasting impressive pastoral scenery, Ninh Binh Province is located in northwestern Vietnam, roughly 60 miles south of Hanoi. Compared as the inland Halong Bay, it is widely known for its limestone karsts emerging from the earth set amongst a river bed of rice paddies — and from my personal experience, contained far fewer tourists.
Coming highly recommended by friends, in addition to my ongoing yearning for authentic cultural experience, this gem was not to be overlooked on the adventure list.
I rolled down the window as we pulled onto the long gravel drive. The humid air and rustic scenery filled my senses. Chickens scurried off the path as we slowly drove down the road.
Late afternoon sun cast shadows on the rock formations — their mirrored reflections glistened in the surrounding fields, flooded in preparation for planting rice. The rich green and golden colors of tall grassy meadows that I had seen in pictures would not be present again until harvest time in May & September.
A lush oasis welcomed us as we checked into Tam Coc Garden, a boutique hideaway offering only eight bungalows. It was off season, secluded and quiet. I was in my element. Aside from the resort, Tam Coc is also a region of the Ninh Binh Province which we would later explore.
After settling in, we meandered throughout the grounds. Ambient light lit up the walkways while candles danced around the alluring poolside environment, encompassed by tropical greenery. It was a perfect spot to relax and sip a drink allowing the atmosphere to soak in before dinner.
We headed up the stairs to the onsite restaurant where we shared savory Vietnamese cuisine — crispy vegetable spring rolls, pan-seared tofu, caramelized fish in a clay pot with a side of steamed white rice. A satisfying meal in good company was an ideal way to end a long day of travel.
My bet was high I would wake to the sound of a rooster crowing in early hours of the morning. Indeed this was the case. I readily rose to greet the day yet it was still too dark to see what was in the view beyond our private terrace. Listening to the steady euphony of crickets and the occasional crow, I made coffee and tended to my morning ritual.
The fog lay heavy on rice fields from where we sat enjoying our breakfast, again, at the convenience of our lodging. An array of muffins & jams, fresh fruit, cereal, milk, juices and coffee was spread before us. As the sun attempted to peek through, we looked over our notes and maps making a plan for the day’s adventure.
Biking, hiking, a paddle boat tour and cave exploring were on the itinerary. After our delightful meal, we headed to the front desk where we were led to complimentary bicycles for use. We headed down the path and were on our way.
To our excited surprise, we encountered our French friends we had met during our Halong Bay cruise. We rode through back country roads and rustic neighborhood streets together for a while, chatting and learning of each, sharing stories of travels and experienced morning interactions and commerce with the locals.
When Ryan and I came to a pagoda point on the map, we were drawn to discover the sacred building. It was time to part ways with our friends. We made sure to find each other on Facebook, took a group selfie, and wished each other farewell.
We weren’t exactly sure where we were going but, then again, that was the point. We kept cycling ahead following our intent to explore and go deeper down the road.
Chickens casually wandered and goats lolled along the roadside. Small farm houses dotted the landscape. Vibrant green pastures intensified against the grey sky and misty haze—dew wet against my face as I peddled taking it all in. The scent of a fire burning and damp grass enhanced nature’s presence. I pulled over to an old wooden fence and observed a lone man in the distance working in the field.
After parking our bikes, a garden path led us to the steps that led to the temple… my excitement heightened. Though wishing I had chosen to wear tennis shoes, I shrugged my shoulders and headed up the stone path.
Stopping at every platform, we took in the view which became more incredible and vast the higher we ascended. Once we reached the top, there was a fantastic vantage point of the Red River Delta, a popular attraction to take a paddle boat down the river through the rice paddies.
We ventured back to Tam Coc Garden to have lunch and regroup. We later headed out for an afternoon expedition to the bird sanctuary and boat tours through ancient caves and scenic waterways.
If desiring an off the beaten path experience during your travels, Ninh Binh will not disappoint. Natural creations of awe and wonder await your visit.
Stay tuned for the next adventure: Enchanting, Hoi An, Vietnam
For more travel photos and stories, visit www.marycarolfitzgerald.com.