Outside the city of Ninh Binh, we found an oasis deep into the countryside, set among a lake, rice fields, and steep hillsides. We fell asleep to the sound of frogs and crickets, and awoke to roosters crowing and goats bleating on the mountain. There were so many wonders here.
Atop a steep mountain, Hang Mua looks suspended in air. We biked from the place we were staying (a beautiful adventure in and of itself). Then, as the sun was setting, we climbed the many stairs (among a throng of people, unfortunately). It was absolutely stunning, especially the view of Trang An, through which we would later take a boat ride on another day.
On our second day here, we had a tour guide walk us through Hoa Lu, the ancient seat of the kings and the capital of Vietnam a thousand years ago. The ancient temples were beautiful, for father and son, right next to each other. Legend says that the king, when he died, had 100 bodies buried in the area so no one would know which was truly his.
We biked through the rice fields and backroads of the area, finding family tombs set in rice fields. Our guide said that rice tastes better the closer it is to your family. We visited a Buddhist temple set in a cave, dripping with water.
Later that day, we biked to Trang An, the area we had seen from the day before from Hang Mua. We decided to take Route 3 with a German couple, which featured a 1km ride through a low ceilinged-cave. You don’t realize how long a kilometer is until you’re ducking and bracing for impact in a dark, damp cave, on a river, with strangers. It was crazy!
The Trang An area is often called Ha Long Bay on land, because the karsts rise out of the land as steep as they do the ocean. The ancient kings used these lands as well for defense. Some of the remote temples we visited were once fortresses, well-defended by the karst cliffs against invaders from China.
We were sad to leave this area – it was so beautiful. The next day we boarded an eight-hour train bound south.