For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamt about travelling to Vietnam. From the time I was a young boy, I was obsessed with the food and culture of the region, and I knew it was the country I was most excited about travelling to.
In 2017, I finally got the opportunity to travel to Vietnam. When faced with what Visa options suited me, I knew the 1-month option just wasn’t quite going to cut it. Together with my girlfriend, we opted for the 3-month Visa option. Not only did we want to travel the country in depth, we were also extremely keen to explore some volunteering opportunities and spend time teaching English to underprivileged children.
We began our on-land journey to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), our first destination in Vietnam, via bus from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Within moments of exiting the bus and walking through District 1 to find our hostel, we immediately fell in love with the city. The smell of fresh food being cooked on the streets was mouth watering. There was an undeniable atmosphere and hectic vibe in the air. Not to mention the scooters! Oh my hat! There were more scooters than I’ve ever seen in my life, all wedged in one narrow street. When it’s time to cross the road, close your eyes. Don’t. Stop. Walking. That’s the best advice I can give, no joke.
We slowly started making our way up the country over the following few weeks. After spending close to a week in the busy, tourist filled area of Hoi An, we decided it was time to get off the beaten tourist track. We wanted to head somewhere quiet, remote, and where very few travellers go. After a fair bit of research and time spent talking with locals, we had found our destination. We booked a local bus that would take us to where we wanted to go and sure enough we were able to leave that night.
After a standard 8-hour bus ride, we arrived in the Ninh Bình Province of Vietnam at 4 in the morning. We got dropped off in the little village of Tam Côc where we had learned there were many options for homestays. It was pitch black and we didn’t have much of an idea as to where we were headed. We soon came across a homestay and much to our relief they had many beds available. We headed off to bed for a few hours of much needed sleep, unsuspecting of what views we would wake up to discover.
We woke up to the most spectacular scenery imaginable. We were lodged in the midst of enormous limestone rock formations. From the high balcony, we could see that they surrounded us from every direction. It almost didn’t feel real, to use the word breathtaking to describe what we saw would be an understatement and no picture could do it justice. We ate breakfast outside, enjoying the view. With some scrumptious food in our bellies, we were impatient to go explore the Vietnamese limestone scenery.
We spent our first day simply walking through the stunning landscape, not knowing where we were headed, just following our instincts, letting our curiosity guide us. It remains one of my favourite days of travel, escaping the chaos of the city, getting absolutely lost off the beaten track and feeling utterly carefree.
The next day we decided to climb to the top of Dragon Mountain, which we would discover, provides panoramic views of the Ninh Bình Province. Throughout my travels I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen some remarkable and spectacular locations, but the views atop of Dragon Mountain come close to being my all time favourite. Although it might have been 36 degrees, 80% humidity and many steep stairs, we finally made it to the top of the mountain, the sweat literally dripping off our bodies. The view it offered was indescribable, unforgettable, the type that one needs to see to believe.
On our third day, we took a little boat tour through the Red River Delta. The water flows through the village of Tam Côc and snakes through the unbelievable scenery we had witnessed the previous day. We were excited to be exploring Ninh Binh from a different perspective. The river offered an up close and personal experience, which would display the impressive grandeur of the limestone formations. Our guide was an older woman, very happy and pleased to guide us down the river.
Ninh Bình receives many Vietnamese tourists each year, however, this hidden gem has relatively remained a secret from Western travellers. Our guide was very proud to show us the land she was born and raised on. The boat ride easily lasted over two hours and we were surprised when she started rowing the boat using her legs, giving her arms a rest! During the tour, we had plenty of time to take in the out of this world landscape as we slowly cruised down the river. To say we felt like we had just landed in some prehistoric land would be the best way to describe what we saw. As we finished our tour, we gave the lady a generous tip and headed off to find a bowl of world famous Pho, also known as the traditional Vietnamese Rice Noodle Soup, or our lunch of choice.
On our last day, we hired shabby bicycles from a local man who owned a small shop on the main street. We set off to spend the day exploring, hoping to go deeper into Ninh Bình’s landscapes, as we had only explored by foot and boat thus far. We packed a picnic, and when we grew tiered of pedaling, we found a quiet spot in the grass and just lay for hours enjoying the views and the Vietnamese sun!
Overall we spent close to 3 months backpacking the countryside and teaching English in the capital of Hanoi, but the highlight of our time in Vietnam was hands down the Ninh Bình Province. Never have I encountered nicer, or more welcoming people than in the village of Tam Côc. A place that remains authentic and untouched by Western influence and mass tourism. It is truly a hidden gem of Vietnam.