Perfect travel days are a rare thing. In the past 26 months, I think we’ve only had a small handful. A ‘perfect’ day means something different to everyone. I’m not talking about the most epic or exciting travel days, but rather those peaceful, enriching days that just seem to flow without too much planning or expectation. For me, a perfect travel days always have a few common ingredients: minimal time spent behind the laptop, some kind of physical challenge (like riding a bike or climbing a hill), the chance to take some photos, and, of course, the thrill of exploring a new landscape or city.
Last weekend, we left Hanoi for the first time since arriving in late August. We weighed up our options and considered returning to Halong Bay. In the end, we decided against a cruise (this time) and thought we would give Vietnam’s ‘Halong Bay on Land’ a go instead.
Our Saturday in Ninh Binh started ominously, with rain ringing on the lotus ponds as we ate breakfast at our hotel. We weighed up our options. We might have played it safe and organised a car tour, but we decided to hire bicycles instead. Thankfully, the weather turned out to be perfect (overcast and cool, just the way we like it), and our day packed with awesomeness.
We set off from Mua Caves Ecolodge and headed towards Trang An, often dubbed the ‘Ha Long Bay on land’, catching our first glimpses of Ninh Binh’s famous limestone karsts on the way. The boat dock wasn’t at all what I was picturing—the ticket windows and turnstiles give it a very touristy feel. But that’s not always a bad thing. The whole operation was very organised and efficient. We were soon ticketed, watered, lifevest-ed, and paddling out through the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex.
The boat ride was probably the highlight of our day. The scale of the karsts, the colours, the atmospheric fog—the scenes were just incredible. We certainly didn’t have the water to ourselves; but we did have a wonderful boat driver and we were surprised by just how friendly all the other tourists were, throwing us waves and smiles, and chatting to us whenever our boats drew close together. Everyone was in high spirits.
The tour included a few stop offs, first at the King Kong: Skull Island movie set, and secondly at the Vu Lam Royal Step-Over Place, a 13th-century sanctum from the Trang Dynasty.
We continued on through shallow, crystal-clear water, ducking low on the floor of the sampan as we passed through caves and grottoes. After two hours on the water, we tipped our driver, filled out the feedback form, and spent a little while longer on the Trang An dock photographing the boats.
The rain had picked up while we were out on the water, so we headed for home. After a quick stop off for lunch, we got our second wind and decided to continue on to Tam Coc-Bich Dong instead. The dock at Tam Coc is a complete contrast to Trang An, all colour and chaos. We thought we would save the boat ride for next time and wandered around the lively dock instead.
The bike ride between Trang An and Tam Coc led us through towering rice paddies, beautiful and green at this time of year. (We were actually expecting the fields to be golden, but it turns out the rice harvest was on the following weekend.) We ventured off road at times, navigating the narrow, muddy pathways that separate the fields.
After the dock, we wandered back through Tam Coc town. Amidst the backpacker hostels, dive bars and local restaurants, we were surprised to stumble on La Carte Lounge Bar, a gorgeous cafe and boutique hotel. Despite being exhausted, sweaty and flecked with mud from our ankles to our knees, we had to stop off for a quick drink.
This time we were really heading for home. But we somehow wound up making one final stop—a casual climb to the top of Lying Dragon Mountain. Both our cameras were just about dead at this point, but we didn’t care—we wanted to make it to the top of the mountain before the light failed. It was a tough climb, but we were rewarded with some stunning views of Tam Coc.
Small flocks of white birds sidled into view and vanished again, and we spotted a few lone boats paddling back towards the dock. We were the last ones down the mountain, making it back to the hotel just as the sun completely faded.
I decided to try something new this weekend and shoot a bit of footage at Trang An. I’ve been wanting to experiment with video for a while now, but I’ve always been too intimidated. Putting this short film together was a very humbling experience (to say the least!) I have so, so much to learn—but I really enjoyed the experience, so I’m feeling motivated to keep at it.
I know a lot of you are talented videographers, so if you have any tips or feedback for me, I would really appreciate it!