Considering what Vietnam has to offer, Ninh Binh isn’t exactly a stunner of a city, however it’s what’s around it that is stunning. My last post recounted the adventures in the Cuc Phuong National Park, or butterfly forest as I call it, but while using Ninh Binh as a base, we also did a Tam Coc boat trip and explored the incredible Bai Dinh Temples.
Just a short (30 min) scooter ride away from Ninh Binh, you can reach the Bai Dinh complex of Buddhist temples, situated on Bai Dinh Mountain. I had no idea what to expect as neither of us had done much research on this part of the country, but that was the beauty of taking it step by step and having time to explore things we’d have never seen otherwise. You are soon stunned by the enormity of it all, which obviously caters to massive crowds with its queuing gates and ticket booths, although quite empty during our off-peak visit. You have to walk through several streets of little ‘tourist shops’ all seemingly selling the same variety of cheap souvenirs. We noticed immediately that this was a hot spot for local tourism rather than foreigners and later read that it is a very holy place for the Vietnamese, who travel from all over the country to see these works of art and prey to their gods.
If you make your way up the Temple Tower – the tallest structure of them all, you’ll get a better understanding of how massive the complex really is: 700 hectares of land spread among mountains and lakes, with a variety of pagodas, a giant 70 tonne bronze Buddha statue at the top of a steep staircase, grottos and several smaller temples. The old Bai Dinh pagoda is located on the western slope of Dinh mountain and nestles in a lush, quiet forest. The pagoda houses an ancestor-worshipping house at its centre, as well as a cave on its right hand side which worships Buddha and a small temple worshipping Genie Cao Son. Instead on the left hand side of the pagoda is another temple worshipping Saint Nguyen and next to it is the Dark cave which worships the Fairy. With dream-like scenery and quiet atmosphere, the whole place makes visitors feel like they have entered a fairy land where they can find peace of mind.
The pagodas are connected by some of the longest corridors in Asia, where the walls are decorated with 100 two metre tall stone Buddhas, as well as hundreds of miniature golden Buddhas – it’s quite an incredible effect that meets the eye, you can’t help but be in awe.
I’d highly recommend visiting and bringing your travel guide because all the signs are written in Vietnamese, meaning you won’t get much from a self-guided tour! We relied on our Lonely Planet and Google to give us some background and history.
Tam Coc Boat Trip
We decided to spend the latter part of the day doing a Tam Coc boat trip that would allow us to fully take in the scenery. After doing a lot of walking and stairs at Bai Dinh, it was the perfect way to end the day, as we managed to get a full tour in just before the sun went down. There are a couple of different starting points, but we headed to the main area in Ta Coc where the boat trips start and got a boat to ourselves with a friendly yet non very talkative ‘driver’/rower.
I was amazed how long the tour was, considering you only pay £10-15 if I remember correctly and you are taken along the river for a good couple of hours, through some caves and fishing villages. What I truly loved was the silence that surrounded us – we had obviously picked a great time of the year (end of April) and the day to do this because we only crossed one other boat during our tour, and considering the dozens and dozens of empty boats we saw moored at the start, I imagine such peace and quiet is not always the case. It was like having the river to ourselves! And we made the most of it, soaking in the lush scenery, singing “row row row your boat..” and having a go at rowing the boat ourselves, which I can safely say is much harder than it looks!
What to wear for a day in Bai Dinh & Tam Coc?
- comfy shoes
- leggings/shorts (you can’t go in the temples with skimpy clothes, so leggings or flowing long trousers are a good call)
- t-shirt that covers your shoulders
- light jacket in case it rains