Monday, May 13, 2019

Vietnam Diary - Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay

Happy Monday, my friends! I hope you all had a good start of the week. What have you been up to this weekend? I've pretty much stayed at home because we're currently doing some renovation on our terrace that needed to be prepared. Furthermore, my dad is here in Mallorca so I'm spending some time with my family. Enough said, here's a new post about our trip to Vietnam.

What to do on Cat Ba Island

Today's post is about Cat Ba Island, our last stop before Hanoi where we would end our trip. We chose to stay on Cat Ba Island because we wanted to see the famous Ha Long Bay and the island seemed to be a good option to spend a few days in the area without having to book an expensive bay cruise. Although the weather wasn't too good we were very happy with our choice. Cat Ba Island is quite small but there are lots of things to do. You can choose between various boat cruises, go hiking, visit a natural reserve and try yummy food at loooads of different restaurants. As many other places in Vietnam we had visited before, Cat Ba Island was 'under construction'. Many hotels and restaurants are currently being built there so we were lucky to catch the island in a 'still bit more virgin' state. 

On our first day we just walked around a bit to check out the area, had some heavenly dinner and booked a boat cruise for the next day. One place you should definitely check out for breakfast is Casa Bonita which you can see in the first two pics. It's a lovely multilevel café that serves delicious bowls, all kinds of avocado toast and other healthy breakfast options. We also tried their tea because it sounded so good on the menu and we were surely not disappointed. It's made with fresh ingredients like lychee, jasmine flowers and nectarine, sooo delicious!

Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay Boat Cruise

Our second day was all about exploring Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay by boat. We booked a tour with Cat Ba Eco Tourist the night before. A day cruise from 8.30 am to 5.30 pm cost us only about 14€ per person and we were super happy with our organizer because they held all their promises. We got picked up at our hotel around 8 am and were then brought to a ship waiting for us in a small harbour. We were lucky with our group of about 30 people, it was a nice mix of fun and relaxed tourists of all ages and from different countries. The tour mainly consisted of cruising around different areas of the two famous bays, visiting floating villages, stopping here and there for swimming and snorkelling, a surprisingly very tasty and elaborated lunch, a kayak tour and a visit to Monkey Island. I mostly enjoyed the kayak tour because we had the chance to get around by ourselves and explore. Also, the water was super calm that day so it was easy for us to paddle around the huge rocks that disappeared in the mist, a truly magical setting. 

I've read thousands of things about Halong Bay before (about rip-offs, horrible cruise experiences, tourist masses etc.) and have to say, I was very happily surprised that our cruise didn't come close to what I had expected. There were only very few other tourist boats, so no annoying noises or crowds, the food on our boat was excellent, the staff was nice and the little excursions we did were fun and exciting! In addition, the whole tour was topped off with breathtaking natural surroundings, what more can you ask for? All in all the thirty of us spent a fantastic day on our cruise ship, and we even went for dinner with a French couple we met on the boat. Thank you, Vietnam, for another magical experience!

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Vietnam Diary - Bai Dinh Temple and Trang An Boat Tour

Hi there, everyone. I hope you all had a great start of the week with little stress and more fun and relaxation. I just got back from a short trip to Germany and finally have a new post for you about our second day in the beautiful Ninh Binh.

Bai Dinh Temple

We started our second day in Ninh Binh quite late since we were a bit exhausted from the night before that we spent on the train. We left our hotel around 11am or so to go explore the Bai Dinh Temple that our hotel had recommended. Since we hadn't seen any bigger temple in Vietnam until then we decided to give it a try. We passed loads of green fields, watched a few locals while they were working and some peaceful water buffalos grazing on that misty morning. After a 20-minute scooter ride we finally reached the entrance of the temple complex where we had to park our vehicle to walk the rest. The moment we reached the site I was totally amazed by its size and peacefulness. 

The Bai Dinh site is a multilevel complex of Buddhist temples on Bai Dinh Mountain and offers a wonderful cultural but also spiritual experience. You can admire large well-maintained gardens, a tall pagoda, a bell tower and various temples there. The latter are home to numerous impressive, beautifully carved Buddha statues that are visited and worshipped by spiritual tourists who bring offerings of all kinds. I was also astonished at the number of golden Buddha figures adorning the endless staircases that led up to the temples. My boyfriend and I spent several hours at the temple complex because it was so huge and I wanted to see every little corner of it. Visiting Bai Dinh was by far our most beautiful spiritual experience in Vietnam. I felt so connected to the people visiting the temples as well as to their religion and felt so peaceful and grounded simply looking at the Buddhas' happy faces. I recommend this site to any Vietnam visitor, just the sizes of the complex and the Buddha statues are already worth a visit!

Trang An Boat Tour

After exploring the Bai Dinh temple complex for a few hours we headed to the area of Trang An to take a boat tour there. We chose this tour because the boat excursions in Tam Coc seemed to be much more touristy and more crowded. We opted for a three-hour boat tour that would take us through various caves and stunning nature. And we were not disappointed. For less than 10 Euros per person we had a fantastic time with our Vietnamese captain and another Slowenian visitor who shared the boat with us. The landscapes of the Trang An area are simply breathtaking and have an even more magical feel when it's misty outside. Huge mountains arise from the river, covered with plants and trees. The sky seems to touch the water while the fog creates an absolute silence. The caves you pass are long and dark but totally safe and well equipped with several lights so you can admire the rock formations. All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our boat excursion in Trang An (despite some other noisy tourists occasionally passing by our boat) and it left us so tired that we only had a yummy Banh Mi sandwich that night and went off to bed...

Monday, April 29, 2019

Vietnam Diary - Mua Caves in Ninh Binh

Happy Monday, everyone! Did you all have a relaxing weekend? Mine was quite busy but today I finally have time to post again here on my blog. Even though it may not seem like too much work to my readers but preparing blog posts, especially travel posts, takes quite a long time. Between 200 to 400 photos I take every day I'm on vacation I have to choose 15 to 25 good ones and edit them. Sometimes I need up to a full day just for selecting photos. Once these are edited and uploaded I start writing a text with some travel tips which may take another hour or two. So I need more or less an entire day for one post, can you believe it? 

How to get from Da Nang to Ninh Binh

Today's post is about the beautiful province of Ninh Binh that amazed us with stunning nature, tranquility and endless space. We reached the town of Ninh Binh early in the morning after spending the night on a train that left Da Nang around 7 pm the evening before. Let me tell you one thing, you don't really appreciate a comfy bed in a quiet bedroom until you've spent a night on the train in Vietnam. Even though we had a private four-bed cabin for ourselves (lucky us!) I felt like sleeping in the middle of a steel factory thanks to all the noise and movement. The train's bathroom was also the worst I had seen in Vietnam but the cabin and beds were thankfully very clean. Furthermore, it was a quite inexpensive option to travel such a long distance. We paid about 30 Euros per person. Eventually I surprisingly slept a few hours despite the train's noise and movement. After a 14-hour ride we finally reached our destination Ninh Binh.

Visiting the Mua Caves in Ninh Binh

After the hotel check-in and some yummy pancakes for breakfast we rented a scooter from our hotel and headed to one of Ninh Binh's most popular (and most instagrammed) sights, the Mua Caves. At first we got a bit lost and ended up in the middle of some rice fields which was also a beautiful experience I have to say. The area of Ninh Binh is free from all the distractions of a big city. There are no neon lights, traffic noise and hectic crowds. Even though the town of Ninh Binh is quite gray the surroundings are truly stunning! Large rice fields, impressive mountains and free animals including goats and water buffalos wherever you look. 

Eventually, with the help of some locals, we found the way to the Mua Caves. Once there, we parked our scooter for less than one Euro, paid the 100.000 Dong entrance fee and started exploring. The Mua Caves are not actually caves but rather a complex of two pagodas, a dragon statue, a simple altar and an impressive staircase that reminds of the Great Wall of China. 

Be warned, it's not an easy hike up to the site with an outside temperature of 34 degrees. We got there around 11 am, so it was still pleasant despite the sunshine. After climbing about 500 partly knee-high and narrow steps we enjoyed a fantastic panoramic view over the so called 'dry or inland Halong Bay', its rice fields and surrounding mountains. The view is even so beautiful that it attracts many bridal couples who come to take spectacular wedding pictures. In general, we had to wait at several viewpoints to take photos. Especially Chinese visitors like to take thousands of pics which can cause a waiting line. We made our way from one pagoda to the dragon statue and altar that sit on top of a huge mountain. It was quite tricky to walk around the dragon since there were no steps, only spiky rocks and no safety precautions. However, if you have a bit of hiking experience as we do, it's totally doable. Just watch your step and always hold on to a rock, a friend or even the dragon.

Visiting the Mua Caves was an indescribably beautiful experience I would recommend to any traveler! Get here early in the morning or right before sunset and allow yourself a few hours to enjoy this stunning complex. Just one side note, I wouldn't recommend this challenging hike to people with a fear of heights or health problems.

Afternoon in Ninh Binh

After an adventurous morning at the Mua Caves we headed to the area of Tam Coc to have a late lunch and relax a bit. We enjoyed some tasty spring rolls and fried veggies at a local restaurant before driving around and exploring the area. Ninh Binh is such a perfect place to just hop on a scooter or bike and enjoy a ride through the scenic and quiet rice fields and hills. We ended our day watching the sunset over the lush fields while soaking in the beauty, peace and tranquility of Mother Nature.

Back home in Spain, my boyfriend and I have recently watched the biographical war drama Heaven & Earth by Oliver Stone. A shocking yet moving and beautiful movie about a Vietnamese woman who grew up in her home country during the Vietnam War and later moved to the USA with her American husband. The movie reminded me so much of our days in Ninh Binh since the landscapes depicted in the movie were so similar to the ones we had visited. Watching the movie instantly took me back to our days of peace and tranquility in Ninh Binh, which is undoubtedly a hidden gem in Northern Vietnam and will always have a special place in my heart!

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