Little did I realise when I boarded a train with my two young children, exhausted and in need of a break from the wonderful chaos that is Hanoi, that within the next 24 hours we would all be floating serenely on a bamboo boat being rowed by a 70-year-old Vietnamese grandmother.
Words & Photography: Jessica Palmer, travel 3Sixty° travelsmith
The bamboo boats at Van Long Nature Reserve
Ninh Binh in Vietnam has a lot to offer those families seeking travel outside of the usual resorts and the usual kids clubs.
Most people only visit Ninh Binh on a day trip from Hanoi as part of a packaged tour. However, it is more than capable of being a destination in its own right. You really need to spend at least four days here to see all that it has to offer.
The city of Ninh Binh in appearance is nothing to write home about. It mostly serves as a convenient base to explore the beautiful rural surrounds. There are quite a few upmarket hotels that provide luxury accommodation that is otherwise unaffordable back home.
Picture this! You are sitting serenely in a small bamboo boat, rowed by an ever smiling Vietnamese woman. Your surrounds consist of beautiful limestone karsts that are being reflected on the perfectly still water. The reflections are briefly broken by the passage of a passing duck as it glides through the water. Even the kids are lulled into a quiet, relaxed state and you enjoy the peaceful moment as you lift your head to the sky, feel the warmth of the sun on your face and breathe in big deep breaths of fresh air.
Our rower leans forward and says something in Vietnamese, which is quickly interpreted by our driver, who is tagging along for the boat ride this morning.
“A lot of people refer to this place as the inland version of Halong Bay,” she says proudly.
I was lucky enough to experience this at Van Long Nature Reserve. There are plenty of bird spotting opportunities here, and you may even spot the critically endangered Delacour’s Langur monkey.
The next morning I am pleasantly surprised to learn that chivalry is still alive in this part of the world, as our driver not only insists on holding my umbrella in the drizzle, but also carries around my questionably fashionable plastic bag filled with water bottles and snacks.
We arrive at Bich Dong Pagoda and I am immediately awestruck by the beautiful arch entranceway, which at first glance seems like a portal into another world where nature and architecture co-exist as one. This cluster of Buddhist cave pagodas are built into the side of a mountain and you need to ascend a short flight of steep steps to reach the middle and upper pagodas.
“Do you know what the difference is between a temple and pagoda?” our driver asks as we walk across the bridge to reach the entranceway.
I don’t. I feel both curious and slightly less intelligent than five minutes ago.
“Temples are used to worship gods, animals or humans and pagodas are used to exclusively worship Buddha,” he says. “However sometimes you will find a temple inside a pagoda.”
Upon reaching the top pagoda, I am again reminded of the generosity and welcoming nature of the Vietnamese culture when my kids are fussed over and presented with ‘lucky money’ by complete strangers. Lucky money, or li xi, are small denominations usually given to children in decorative red envelopes on the Lunar New Year to give good fortune for the upcoming year. As it was not the Lunar New Year, and we are clearly foreigners, I felt even more grateful for the well wishes.
Before returning to our hotel, we found ourselves walking around the narrow lanes of a rural Vietnamese village, observing the local way of life and marvelling at the rustic shacks with their spectacular vegetable gardens that put my failed attempts at home-grown produce to shame. This village gives a real sense of stepping back in time to an age of innocence where pushbikes are the main form of transport and the fashion is conservative.
Despite their simple lifestyle, everyone I pass carries a genuine smile and I hear plenty of laughter, which forces me to uncomfortably question my own materialistic life. This is exactly what I want my children to see and experience when they travel.
Just because the city of Ninh Binh itself is not pretty does not mean that it is not interesting. Walking into town turns out to be a fantastic afternoon spending quality time with the kids. We pass a stunningly green neglected cemetery, and much to the kids’ delight, we also pass an ox that didn’t seem to notice that he is no longer in rural paradise.
Every stranger we pass is keen to practise English, and much like in the rest of Vietnam, the kids are treated like celebrities. There is so much more to do here, from push biking along the flat rice fields, stepping back in time at ancient temples, to visiting national parks. Unfortunately for us, time is limited for this travelling family and soon we have to board a train back to Hanoi for the next leg of our journey.
Why not ditch the usual tourist route and do your own thing at your own pace? You won’t regret it here, I promise.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Hanoi from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. From Hanoi, Ninh Binh is a short two-hour scenic train ride. For flight info and fares, visit airasia.com.
Read more about Southeast Asia here.