When deciding between the crowds of Ha Long Bay and the peaceful rice fields of Ninh Binh there was no question which mountainous town would make us happier. Both destinations are an easy two-hour commute by train, car or bus from Hanoi. The cheapest and safest route to Ninh Binh was by train and we purchased tickets from Vietnam Railways the night before we left.
After the train, we caught a quick taxi ride to Lotus Field Homestay where we were greeted with news of a family-style dinner later that night. We dropped our backpacks off in our private bamboo villa and grabbed free bike rentals for our afternoon adventure. Cycling through the haze and winding rice fields surrounded by towering limestone mountains is a surreal experience. A fifteen-minute bike ride takes you to the ancient staircase of Hang Múa. The gravel road travels through a tranquil small town, but if you stop to truly listen you can hear the bustling rice field workers, the grunt of a water buffalo and chatter from locals enjoying an evening tea on their balcony.
We purchased tickets at the gate of Hang Múa and explored a touristy village in the valley of the mountains. A must-see spot in the village is the floating lotus garden which boasts pristine views of the floating cliffside mountains. The small cave at the bottom of the staircase was beloved by a Tran king and is adorned by a colorful dragon
The village and stairs were quiet towards the end of the day with fewer crowds. We climbed five-hundred uneven steps in solitude and were happily greeted by a Buddhist monument and several other temples along various peaks. The mountain ridge held a carved stone dragon who watched over the foggy valley below. The views were unbelievable, and we could have spent an extra hour at the top, but with an hour of sunlight to spare we made our way back to our homestay.
I swung in the hammock on our villa patio as the sunset and left behind a dark silhouette of the mountains. We soon joined fellow travelers from around the world for the most memorable meal of our trip. The family-style dinner started with a homemade Vietnamese liquor and a lively cheer led by our generous host. We shared food with retirees from Austria and a group of young doctors from Italy. There is a kinship built between travelers on similar paths. We all settled into a sense of gratitude for how far we had come to savor this meal and moment. Later that night, the soft hum of crickets and splash of our fish under our stilt villa lulled me to sleep.
The next morning, we took a break from exploring to soak in the quiet atmosphere of our homestay. I enjoyed a cup of coffee from the fairytale bedding with a breathtaking view of the mountainside and rice fields. Every private villa at The Lotus Homestay has a mountainside deck paired with a surprisingly comfortable hammock. We spent the morning relaxing, reading, and watching the rice field workers planting new crops for spring. Deep pink lotus blossoms and migrating birds floated nearby as we ate a family-style breakfast with our fellow travelers.
A five-dollar electric scooter rental from our homestay took us to the limestone caves and temples in Trang An. If you opt for the scooter it will save you thirty minutes, but you can also walk to soak in the mountain views and people watch through several small villages. The grotto tour provided three different tours. We talked to several locals for recommendations before locking tour number three at the ticket counter which included the three longest caves and three ancient temples.
A few moments later we were floating off in a small wooden boat alongside another couple from Prague. A strong Vietnamese woman unwaveringly paddled us for the next four hours. Shallow caves were hollowed out under the limestone and crystal blue water reflected on long stalactites throughout the caves. There were a few times I forgot to duck my head inside the caves and nearly hit the jagged stone. High-pitched clicks from bats echo in the darkest chambers of the caves as they enjoy a midday slumber. As we floated back to the docks I felt a strong sense of gratitude that we were able to explore these peaceful blue waters, vast cave systems, and historic temples.
The fog lifted as we road our scooter back the homestay. A vibrant sun peeked through the clouds glowing over the rice fields and casting shadows over the sweeping cliffs. The relaxed atmosphere of our homestay was exactly what we needed before beginning our next adventure. As the sunset over Ninh Binh we grabbed our bags and caught an overnight sleeper train to Phong Nha where we camped in the third largest cave in the world. The train rocked me to sleep as I settled into the grounding peace Ninh Binh gifts to all its travelers.