The next destination on our list was Ninh Binh, and getting there from Cat Ba was not much of a hassle either! We were picked up bright and early from our hotel and arrived in Ninh Binh five hours later – all for 200,000 dong each!
I know a lot of people stay in Ninh Binh, but we were done with large cities for a while and opted for a quieter stay in Trang An; about 25 minutes out of the city. Ninh Binh itself was what you expect from a large city, crazy and busy, so we were glad to have chosen to stay further out. You can definitely arrange for tours to take you into Trang An and the national park from the city, but we wanted to be amongst the jungle and stay somewhere a bit different.
We chose to stay at ‘Ninh Binh Family Homestay’ for two nights, which is the most expensive place we have stayed so far, but the cheapest deal on booking.com. Also, we did not realise that we had come to Vietnam at possibly the most expensive time – Chinese New Year! So prices for EVERYTHING rocketed. ** DO NOT go to Vietnam at this time if you can help it – I really wish we knew ** . The homestay itself was lovely and the owner was really helpful and told us where to go and the best things to see.
Unfortunately we did not have long to spend there, and now we wish we had longer, but here is what we did…
The main reason we went to Trang An was to visit Tam Coc but the owner of our guesthouse told us that it was the wrong time to visit for that as the rice fields are muddy and dull (the best time being June/July), so we spent practically all of our time there riding around on our bicycles and enjoying the views.
See! Beautiful! Shame it was the wrong time to go but we made up for it elsewhere.
Only having one full day here we wanted to make the most of it. So for 50,000 dong each we rented a bicycle from the guesthouse and cycled around 45 minutes, with many stoppages to take pictures and enjoy our surroundings, to a place called ‘Mua Caves’. Here we jumped onto a bamboo boat and rowed down the beautiful river, through tiny caves and were shown some of the famous temples and stunning viewpoints, hidden amongst the mountains. For an adult the entry cost is 200,000 dong and for children, 100,000 dong and the trip lasted 3 hours (see xe.com for exchange rates).
When we approaches the first cave I thought to myself, ‘there is NO WAY we are going to get through there!’ – It was tiny! Then I saw the second cave and it was even smaller! We had to duck our heads most of the time, which was actually very amusing to see Danny do this as he is so big! There was a group of Indian men in the boats ahead and they were playing real Indian music, singing and dancing, taking pictures and loving every second of it. It was honestly so much fun, and something I had never experienced before.
Even on a dull, cloudy day, the place looks so peaceful and stunning.
That was all from our short stay in Trang An. Be sure to spend a day or two longer here than we did and research the better times to go. Non-the-less it was a lovely stay, with so much more to do.
Next stop Hoi An
We were super excited to visit here because we had heard so much about this quaint little city. Two days before we booked ourselves onto a night bus from Ninh Binh to Hoi An and it was a nightmare to say the least! As I mentioned before, it was Chinese New Year so the prices for everything has increased, therefore, we had to pay around 100AUD for this 13 hour journey. Once on the bus we found there was only one bed left, so Danny and I had to squeeze into a tiny space for hours on end. The 13 hour trip soon turned into 18 hours and we had to change buses twice to get there. Just be careful and perhaps organise and book it a little further in advance. We laugh about it now – joys of travelling ey!
*I would try to avoid going to Vietnam during this holiday, unless you plan to stay in one place for the duration of your time. Otherwise you will end up paying a hell of a lot more for travel and hotels and when you are on a budget it is not kind to your wallet. Flights, trains and buses are either fully booked or the prices are extremely expensive*.
Arriving in Hoi An right in Vietnamese holiday time meant we had to change our plans to save money in the long run. We booked 6 nights here, instead of the 4 nights we originally planned, so by the time we moved onto our next destination the holiday would be over and we would not have to pay an extortionate amount for a bus again.
We couldn’t complain though, because Hoi An is so magical! We loved it here!
We spent a lot of our time here wandering around the Ancient City, which was so vibrant and full of colour. Hundreds of lanterns decorate the city walls and shops making it feel so welcoming and attractive. The people here are so friendly, too. By day we walked through the city and admired all of the beautiful hand crafted jewellery, souvenirs and the Japanese covered bridge. We have even contemplated on having dresses and suits made for us as they are meant to be amazing here! By night we ate at one of the many restaurants with delicious food menu’s and enjoyed the cocktail happy hours. The lanterns all light up at night and it looks so pretty!
It was so nice to come to Hoi An and relax after three weeks of lugging our bags around every other day. For our first 3 days the sun was shining, the sky was bright blue and there were no clouds in sight! It was absolute bliss! So we cycled to two different beaches to relax for a couple of days. Cycling on the roads is interesting, you definitely freak out a little by how close the taxi’s and buses get to you but I am getting better each time – just keep your whits about you at all times!
Where to stay?
You won’t be short of options of places to stay – from cheap hostels where you can meet many other travellers, to homestay’s and fancy hotels. We have been booking each place before we arrive to save us the hassle of lumping our bags around trying to find somewhere on the day we arrive. But each to their own – I have heard it is cheaper to do it that way, but we have been booking rooms through Agoda.com and booking.com as its more convenient for us. Here, we stayed in a lovely homestay called ‘Coconut Hamlet’, which is approximately a 20-25 minute bike ride into the Ancient City and from one of two of the beaches. This cost us $44USD for four nights and included breakfast and free bikes. The family were so lovely and even went to the trouble of cooking us food one night when we were too tired to go out for food; how lovely!
What to do?
Other than the sandy beaches and beautiful city there is plenty to do in Hoi An and its surrounding area and if you are lucky enough to stay during a period of bright sunshine then you will really be able to make the most of it! For the remaining four days here it rained, and when I say rained I mean buckets and buckets of fat rain! But it was fine, we still managed to make the most of what we had.
Tailored Clothing: On those days where you do not have much planned, other than walking through the Ancient City, you can organise dresses, suits, shirts and anything else your heart desires to be made and fitted properly by one of the many many tailors in the City. It is so cheap too! So many people have raved about the quality of clothing made for them without burning a hole in their pockets.
Cooking Class: I heard that the best place to book a cooking class for Vietnamese food is here, and there are SO MANY places that offer it here at reasonable prices! I feel like we haven’t fully appreciated the Vietnamese foods yet so we were happy to give this a go!
Excursions: You can book many trips through your hotel, or through travel agencies in the city. About 30 minutes out of Hoi An is the ‘Marble Mountains’, where you can enjoy the area’s natural caves and mountain views, or ‘My Son’, which is an array of partially ruined Hindu temples which were built in the 4th and 14th century, both very popular and easy to get to.
The Food! Its so good! I think I preferred it over Danny, but through speaking with different travellers we have learnt about the better dishes to try and some great places to eat! ‘Morning Glory’ – our friend from Australia told us to visit. It has some deliciously weird but wonderful things on its menu, so you must try it 😀 !
Bánh Mì Phượng – This was just … wow… amazing! Randomly situated amongst one of the many little streets in Ancient City, it can be hard to find at first, but ask anyone and they will direct you. There is always a queue waiting outside and people are interested in finding out why! This place basically makes baguettes; pork, beef, chicken, tofu, vegetarian – you name it. But it is what they put in the baguette that makes it taste soooo good! I have no idea what it is they put in it, but it works, and for 20,000dong for one, you cannot go wrong with your budget!
There is also a special noodle dish made only here, in Hoi An – the Cau Lau noodle. Like spaghetti pasta but thicker? They mix this with whisky soy sauc, garlic and spices and add a choice of marinated fish, chicken, pork or vegetarian options with lettuce. So simple, yet beautiful!
There is such a diverse range of food choices here, you can work within your budget and try some of the amazing foods, as well as the markets. However, there are some reasonably priced restaurants too.
That is it for my stay here, I hope you get some valuable advice from this and enjoyed the read! 😀
Now time to move on to Phu Quoc!!!
***We have found Vietnam to be much more expensive than Thailand, perhaps because of the New Year***.