Ninh Binh

ninh binh

If you are looking for a place with green rice fields, majestic lime stone rocks, enchanted valleys and a sheer endless number of beautiful temples, Ninh Binh in the North of Vietnam is the perfect place for you. The area around the 130.000 strong city of Ninh Binh is often called the „Halong Bay inland“, and rightfully so as its beauty takes no backseat to the iconic bay near the capital.

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Đà Nẵng

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Đà Nẵng, a big city in Central Vietnam, has been overshadowed by its smaller neighbour, Hoi An, as far as tourism is concerned. However, the city has a lot to offer: clean, relaxing beaches, modern architecture, beautiful temples and remarkably untouched natural sights. All these diverse places and sights, as well as the proximity to Hoi An and the My Son Temple Ruins should make Đà Nẵng a top priority in every visit to the country.

Đà Nẵng offers very affordable accommodation. Budget travellers should look into the Hachi Hostel. The staff is very competent, the rooms clean and the location quite central. Beds are available for around 6 USD.

The city itself might remind you of Saigon, just smaller, but just as modern. Đà Nẵng „only“ has some 1 Million people and definitely comes across less chaotic than Ho-Chi-Minh or Saigon. The streets are compareably clean, the buildings look modern, and you can just sense that the important port city serves as a storefront for the New Vietnam. This can also be seen in a central landmark: the Dragon Bridge, which was finished in 2013. At night the dragon-shaped structure is colourfully illuminated and even breathes fire on special occasions.

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Like Saigon, Đà Nẵng also has a big market that is popular with tourists: At the Han Market you can find food, clothes and all kinds of souvenirs. The variety seems endless and thankfully the vendors come across less agressive than at the Ben Tan Market in Ho-Chi-Minh.

Strolling throuh the city centre, you can also visit the Cathedral of Đà Nẵng and Pho Da Pagoda. Entrance is free and you can marvel at the beautiful interior without having to share the view with masses of tourists as this spot is relatively hidden.

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Han Market
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Cathedral of Da Nang
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Pho Da Pagoda

Come nightfall, you should absolutely visit Trần-Thị-Lý Bridge, another architectural masterpiece close to the Dragon Bridge. At night the structure is illuminated by a mezmerizing night show with changing colour patterns. The quiet beachfront with the glittering skyline in the background is the perfect location for a romantic night-time walk.

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Marble Mountains

An absolute must on every trip to Đà Nẵng is the Marble Mountains. This is a series of small mountains in the South of the city. The five mountains represent the elements Metal, Fire, Earth and Wood, and are made mainly of limestone and marble. The latter gives the mountains their name. For hundreds of years masons have sculptured beautiful statues out of marble here – even though the material is mainly imported from China and Pakistan nowadays. The mountains also feature Buddhist shrines and temples that were carved into the rock.

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a sculpture garden at the foot of the Marble Mountains
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most of the sculptures represent Buddhist figures and deities.

Of the five mountains, only Thuy Son can be visited by tourists. The entrance fee is 40.000 VND (1,8 USD) and visitors can take the stairs of the elevator to the entrance of the temple.

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Up there you should first visit the main cave, which is also the most beautiful one. If you arrive here in the early morning, you can truly experience the piece and quiet at this place of worship. The large Buddha statue, beautifully decorated shrines, the serene ambience and the smell of incents makes a visit to this cave a most profound and humbling experience.

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However, do not expect the atmosphere to stay that serene. Like clockwork, at 9 AM busloads of tourists start to arrive at the mountain, filling it with chatter and buzzling activity. The other caves are still worth a visit, though not as scenic as the main one. There are also some view points where you can enjoy a nice panorama of the city and the back-country of Da Nang.

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My Khe Beach

If you are under the impression that Vietnam´s beaches are not as nice as in the neighbouring country, you might be in for a surprise at My Khe Beach, or, to be more precise, its southern strip, Sơn Thủy Beach. Here you will find a clean, almost deserted beach with cold, but clear water and a nice view of the city´s skyline. As of March 2018, a lot of construction was under way though, so this strip might not stay that deserted and quiet in the near future.

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Who would have thought? A beautiful empty beach

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Looking into the distance, you can already see another landmark of Đà Nẵng: the „Lady Buddha Statue“ at Linh Ung Pagode, 5 miles away from the beach. This is a 220 ft high representation of Guanyin, the Boddhisatva of Compassion. Being a motherly deity, often compared to the Virgin Mary in Christianity, Guanyin is a popular object of worsip in Vietnam. The statue was finished in 2010 and is now watching the bay, protecting the sailors and fishermen beneath her.

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On the way from the beach to the statue lies another sight of Đà Nẵng: the Green Lake. Although the water is not as green as its name suggests, the lake is nonetheless a beautiful natural sight, mostly frequented by locals who go fishing there.

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If you want to see a truly scenic lake, however, you should consider walking to the Lady Buddha statue from Green Lake, which takes about one hour. After 20 minutes, you will see a small hiking trail that you can take. Here you will have a beautiful view of the bay and marvel at the untouched lake amidst lush greenery.

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Linh Ung Pagoda

The temple comples of Linh Ung is relatively new. It was finished in 2010, although a Buddhist shrine has been there for much longer. Here you can see the Lady Buddha statue, and also a beautifully decorated temple and an impressively tall Pagoda.

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The Verdict

When planning my trip to Vietnam, I was advised to stay in Hoi An for 2-3 days and only plan one day in Vietnam. However, after my visit I would suggest everybody to stay in Đà Nẵng for at least 2 days. The city may not be known as a hotspot for tourists, but it features amazing sights that will keep you occupied for some time.

I found the city large, but not crowded, very modern and clean. One thing that is missing, though, is the night life. Do not expect a large backpacking scene or a buzzling walking street like in Saigon. The city is mainly an economic hub, and although there is a wide variety of bars and clubs, I found the streets at night rather deserted, at least on the weekdays. However, if you are looking for a place with all modern amenitys, interesting sights and beautiful nature just outside the city, Đà Nẵng might be just the place you are looking for.

The Costs

Like most of Vietnam, Đà Nẵng is fairly cheap to stay at, and you do not need a large budget to enjoy yourself here. An average day, including a bed at a hostel, three meals, entrance fees to the Marble Mountains and the occasional Uber-ride should cost you about 570.000 VND (25 USD).

  • Accomodation: 130.000 VND
  • Food: 120.000 VND
  • Transportation: 280.000 VND
  • Entrance Fee: 40.000 VND

20 Days in Vietnam – Itinerary

Travelling Vietnam is fairly easy. One reason for this is the good infrastructure in most of the country and the wide availability of public transportation like trains and busses. Another reason lies in the geography of the country. Since Vietnam is a very narrow stretch of land, travellors who do not cross the border from Cambodia or Laos only have one big choice to make: North to South or South to North? Both ways are possible, depending on where you start your jorney – Hanoi or Ho-Chi-Minh-City. I started in the latter, so my itinerary follows this route, but it is all the same possible vice versa. In this article I will present my travel itinerary and try to give advise on where to go, what to do there and how long to stay in one place.

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  1. Ho-Chi-Minh-City

Although there are many flights to Vietnam´s capital Hanoi, most of the cheaper airlines seem to favour Ho-Chi-Minh-City, also known as Saigon. Although many people I have met prefer Hanoi for various reasons, I can recommend starting your journey in Saigon. The city has an exotic flair while at the same time being more Westerner-friendly than Vietnams capital: I found the traffic less crazy, the streets wider and less crowded, the food better, the people friendlier and the language-barrier less imposing. Saigon is a buzzling, modern megacity where you can easily spend 2-3 days. Besides visiting tourist spots like the Ben Than Market, the War Remnants Museum and the Walking Street, you should also do a day tour to the Cu Chi-Tunnels, where you can see the tunnels that the Vietcong used as a hiding place during the Vietnam War.

 

 

2. Mekong Delta

Since you are already in the South of Vietnam, you should not miss the opportunity to visit the Mekong Delta, home to 17 Million people who live at and off the river. There are many organizers who offer 2-day-tours for as little as 35 USD, and while you will be taken to a lot of shops and workshops, where you are encouraged to buy souvenirs, you will also see interesting places like the temple complex of Vĩnh Tràng, small canals where a boatsman will row you to the main river, and a floating market, where you can buy fruits and coffee from floating vendors. You can also try local specialties like fried frog, snake and dried fish.

 

 

3. Đà Nẵng

After Saigon I faced a difficult decision: Visit places like Da Lat and Nha Thrang or skip the South of Vietnam completely to have more time for the North? Since this was a 20-day-trip, I decided for the latter and did not regret my decision. I booked a 17-hour train ride to Đà Nẵng, a city in Central Vietnam. Although most people go directly to neighbouring Hoi An, I would advise everybody to spend at least 2 days in Đà Nẵng: The city is clean and modern, and besides impressive architectural sights like the Dragon Bridge and the Linh Ung Pagoda, you can also visit beautiful natural sights like the Marble Mountains and the Green Lake, and even relax on clean and relatively quiet beaches. In 2-3 days you can discover the most important sights.

 

 

Only one hour South of Đà Nẵng lies the city of Hội An, whose old town is a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site. It is a well-preserved historical trading town and features many traditional halls, palaces and temples, as well as the beautiful Japanese Bridge. If you are in Hội An, you can also rent a motorbike and drive to Mỹ Sơn ruins which give witness to the same ancient civilization responsible for Angkor Wat in Cambodia. And while the temple ruins might not be as extensive as their neighbouring counterparts, Mỹ Sơn is still a fascinating archeological site. All in all, one day for Hội An and one day for Mỹ Sơn should be enough.

 

 

4. Huế 

Most visitors will be familiar with Huế, the old imperial city and home to the mighty Nguyễn dynasty. The citadel of Huế was almost completely destroyed during the Vietnam War and reconstruction is still in progress. While most of the palaces have been rebuilt, my visit left my a bit „underwhelmed“. The citadel and its forbidden city are quite extensive, but I did not find them exactly beautiful. A visit should not take you more than half a day. If you want to see the Tombs of the Emperors a bit outside the city center, you should account for 2 days in Huế.

 

 

5. Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng

This place is an absolute highlight in the north of Vietnam, although still a relatively little-known one. Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng is a National Park that features some of the most impressive caves in Vietnam, situated in the most beautiful landscape I have seen in the whole country. It is a very rewarding feeling to ride the mountan roads through green valleys that seem to stretch for an eternity. A definite must for every trip to Vietnam! If you want to go hiking and caving, or just enjoy the beautiful scenery, you can easily spend 3-4 days here.

 

 

6. Ninh Binh

Almost as beautiful as Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng is Ninh Binh in the north. The place is often called „the Halong Bay inland“ because of its majestic lime stone rocks that scatter the lush greenery. Nature lovers will not be disappointed as Ninh Binh features some of the most serene landscapes and most beautiful panoramas in all Vietnam. A river cruise in the shadow of the large rocks is an absolute must, and the sheer variety of beautiful temples means that you can spend 3-4 days here without ever feeling bored.

 

 

7. Hanoi

No trip to Vietnam would be complete without a visit to its capital, Hanoi. The city feautures some highly symbolic sights like the Hh-Chi-Minh Mausoleum and the Literature Temple. However, I have to admit that I did not like Hanoi very much. Expect heavy, relentless traffic, very crowded streets, poor English skills and considerably colder temperatures than in the South. I was glad to go back to Saigon after 3 days, but do not let my opinion discourage you and see for yourself.

 

 

 

 

Of course you do not have to stop in Hanoi if you still have time. A lot of travellers visit the Rice Fields of Sapa to the North (which I skipped because I was already about to visit Banaue in the Philippines), Halong Bay with its majestic lime stone formations, or rent a motorbike to discover Ha Giang, Vietnam´s most Northern province.

Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng

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Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park is a hidden gem next to the Laotian border. It features majestic mountains with lush greenery, idyllic backroads and arguably the most impressive caves in all Vietnam. A place where you can easily lose yourself in the serence beauty of the landscape.

The national park in this forested mountain range was already founded in the 90s. However, most travellers only learned about Phong Nha after geologists discovered 20 new caves in the year 2009. Among them is Sơn-Đoòng, which now holds the record as the biggest cave in the world. For most people, however, a visit to this giant will hardly be possible. A tour costs 3000 USD and only a handful of visitors get permitted each year. Thankfully, there are other, more easily accessible caves, which, together with the beautiful scenery, have transformed Phong Nha into a popular tourist spot. Go back only 20 years and the town had no electricity, nor a connection to the main highway. Now the same people who used to make a living hunting and poaching in the dense forest, can earn their money guiding tourists. This does not mean, however, that Phong Nha is overrun with tourists. The place is still not very well known, and an insider tip for travellers who want to experience the true beauty of Northern Vietnam.

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The best way to discover the National Park is by motorbike, and luckily most hostel have enough of time that you can rent. Just fill up on gas and off you go, along a serene river, over quiet but well-maintained country roads. Luckily you do not have to worry about honking cars and trucks here. However, you should be aware of cows and chickens crossing the roads.

To be honest, it is quite difficult to focus on the road when you are driving through a landscape like this. The scenery with its lush forests and mountains is absolutely stunning, and after an hour I had to force myself to not stop every five minutes and take pictures if I was to arrive at my destination before dark.

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Botanic Garden

For hikers there is good news and bad news: The good news is that Phong Nha provides endless opportunities for trekking in the beautiful landscape. The bad news is that you cannot do it alone. There are no public trails and the terrain, however beautiful it may look, is unforgiving. The tours that are offered start at 1.300.000 VND (57 USD) – a hefty price for backpackers and budget travellers.

Luckily, there is a place called the Botanic Garden – a wide area where you can go hiking without worrying about getting lost. The place also features a waterfall, a monkey enclosure, a tree farm and multiple viewpoints where you can enjoy an amazing panorama. The entrance fee of 40.000 VND (1,8 USD) is very moderatre, and there is a cheap restaurant as well. The park provides 3 different trails, of which the longest takes about 3 hours. The lush vegetation, colourful butterflies, and the spectacular view at the waterfall make the Botanical Gardens an absolute must when in Phong Nha.

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The main attraction at the „Peacock View Point“

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Caving in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng

The main attraction of Phon Nha are its caves. I personally only visited one of them, but you have a choice between the following:

  • Phong Nha Cave is situated close to the town and can only be accessed via boat. The boat costs 360.000 VND (16 USD), but you can split the costs between a maximum of 8 passengers.
  • Right next to it is Tien Son Cave. If you are visiting Phong Nha Cave you can also add a visit to this cave known for its beautiful lime stone formations.
  • A visit to Dark Cave costs 450.000 VND (20 USD), making it the most expensive cave in Phong Nha. However, a ticket not only buys you entrance, but also includes a zipline ride to the  entrance of the cave. There you have to swim for 200 metres to the main pool, where you take a mud bath. Next, you explore the cave, which is not as extensive as
  • Paradise Cave, the cave I chose. With an entrance fee of 250.000 VND (11 USD) it is the cheapest cave in the area, and easily accessible via motorbike. After a short walk from the parking lot and a quite exhausting climb, one enters the cave, which has an impressive size. Paradise Cave deserves its name: the big complex sports atmospheric lighting and some very interesting rock formations. It may not be the biggest cave I have visited, but it definitely feautures the widest variety of stalactites.

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Verdict (and the costs)

Hiking and Caving in the National Park is fun. However, my favourite activity was simply cruising through the National Park on my motorbike. Just being the only one on the road, the freedom of going anywhere you choose (as long as you have enough petrol), and stopping at beautiful landmarks to enjoy the peace and quiet of the majestic landscape is a truly profound experience. The pictures can only give a glimpse of how beautiful and untouched the National Park really is – an absolute highlight on my trip to Vietnam.

The place is also reasonably cheap. A hostel bed (e.g. at the Thien Phu HostelThien Phu Hostel) should cost you about 5 USD. The cost for an average day in Phong Nha, including 2 meals, motorbike rental and entrance to the Botanic Garden and Paradise Cave, would be something like 705.000 VND (31 USD):

  • Accommodation: 100.000 VND
  • Food: 115.000 VND
  • Motorbike Rental: 100.000 VND
  • Entrance Fees: 390.000

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Coming from Botanic Garden, you can take a left turn at the intersection and go to the War Memorial…
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…and the Temple for the Fallen Soldiers of the Vietnam War.