We travelled from Cat Ba Island to Haiphong via bus/boat/bus, then a small bus/large van from Haiphong to Ninh Binh. The bus horn was set up to sound for about 4 seconds each time driver hit it, which was about every 4 seconds in Haiphong, somewhat less on the main road. This probably saved the driver from getting carpal tunnel, but maybe not from deafness. The bus was somewhat less comfortable than a full size bus, there was less space, the seats did not recline at all, but the air con worked and there were no pop music videos playing the entire trip. Total trip time was about 6 hours.
We were met in Ninh Binh by Tuan Duong (https://ninhbinhpuluongtours.wordpress.com/) a tour guide recommended to us by fellow travelers and who we had contacted before we left Cat Ba. He took us to our hotel (Ngoc Anh Hotel, $28/night including breakfast), which was nice and situated near the middle of the town.
Ninh Binh is in an area characterized by many limestone karsts, very similar looking to Halong Bay, but on land. The easy access to limestone has resulted in several cement plants in the surrounding area. Unfortunately air quality regulations appear to be lax, resulting in continuous haze and dust from the plants. My unofficial Method 9 observation put the opacity at one plant stack at 100%.
Here is a typical scene outside of our hotel in Ninh Binh, something you will not see at home!
We took a one day motorbike tour with Tuan and his cousin Tuan, who both work for Tuan’s tour company. The identical English spelling of their names results in some amusing reviews on Trip Advisor as there is great confusion as to why there is one tour guide in Ninh Binh named Tuan who is older and tall (Tuan the Elder), and one named Tuan who is younger and shorter (Tuan the Younger). Is one of them the real Tuan and the other an imposter cashing in on the real Tuan’s name? Are there really two different Tuans running tours in Ninh Binh? Conspiracy theories abound. The simple answer that apparently only we were able to figure out after meeting the two Tuans is that Tuan the Elder owns the tour company while Tuan the Younger works for his cousin Tuan the Elder. Which Tuan you actually get for your tour is luck of the draw, unless like us you get both Tuans on the same tour. Two Tuans for the price of one.
On the one-day tour we took boats through Trang An Grottos (Seven Caves), Fairy Valley temple (Secret Temple, but only a secret until the road tunnels currently under construction are completed), Dinh Tien Hoang temple and tomb (he was the first emperor of Vietnam whose dynasty was founded in 968 AD) and visited several Buddhist shrines.
The next two days we did a three day two night tour/homestay with Tuan the Younger. The tour consisted of a couple of short hikes in the area near Cuc Phuong National Park, and staying the night in local villages. The homestays were pretty basic but did have electricity, WCs, and hot showers. Views, particularly from the first nights homestay, were spectacular with rice paddies surrounded by mountains.
The first night home stay was at Hieu village near Pu Luong Preserve. The people belong to the Thai ethnic group, but not related to the Thais from Thailand, more related to the Chinese. Tuan cooked dinner, we had goat, beef, and “suicide” buffalo. It turns out that the local people do not kill water buffalo for meat. They are worth more as draft animals than as food, so they eat only those water buffalo that have died of injury or other causes. I thought it best to not to ask what our dinner died of, or how long ago.
The second night homestay in was in Don village, populated with Thai people. This area had large rice paddies of sticky rice, mostly still unharvested. The fields are huge, and all sowing and harvesting is done by hand. I cannot imagine the incredible manpower required to sow and harvest so much rice. It doesn’t seem like there are enough people in the area. The rice paddies are quite extensive and there is no mechanized farm machinery except for some gas-powered threshers.
After returning from the homestay tour we stayed for one night at Mua Cave ($25/night), a hotel situated near a small cave and a hilltop shrine (about 450 steps to the top) with great views of the surrounding countryside. An unusual feature of our hotel room was a window over the bathtub/shower looking out to the limestone cliff face immediately behind our bungalow.
We took a night train (sleeper) from Ninh Binh to Dong Hoi, about an 8-hour trip. The sleeper was OK, four beds per compartment, and likely much better than a long bus ride.